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Kid is detained cashing money order; tweetstorm follows

By Claes Bell ·
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Posted: 3 pm ET

If you've had a bank account your entire adult life, it may be hard to imagine a scenario where you'd be detained by police for trying to cash a valid money order there.

But that's exactly what happened to one young African-American student attending a 13-month coding, personal finance and job training program called CodeStart, which also covers housing and a monthly stipend for living expenses for scholarship recipients. The student went to go cash his stipend at an Atlanta check-cashing store, only to be accused by the manager there of trying to cash a fraudulent money order, which eventually escalated into an encounter with the police.

Rodney Sampson, a partner at TechSquare Labs who helped create the CodeStart program, documented the incident on Twitter, where the story has since gone viral.

Even though he was clearly innocent, had the student been arrested rather than detained, he stood a good chance of not being able to complete the coding program, which he had worked hard and passed through a rigorous vetting program to get into, Sampson says.

"Here's a young man -- he's not trying to do the right thing; he was doing the right thing," he says. "He succeeded to get into the program."

Symptom of broader problems

Around 9% of Americans are unbanked, which means they often have to turn to so-called alternative financial service providers such as check-cashing stores and payday lenders to conduct basic financial transactions, according to a 2016 report by the Federal Reserve.

Sampson doubts that this type of incident would have happened had the student taken the money order to a bank. While the student may have still had an issue cashing the money order because of technical issues, "I don't believe he would have been criminalized in the process," Sampson says.

In fact, says Sampson, "we took the young man to go get a bank account today."

Still, banks aren't immune from discrimination either, Sampson says.

"I think it does happen at banks. I think that African-Americans go into banking establishments and are unjustly profiled."

Neighborhood Choice Financial Services, which owns and operates the check cashing store, could not be reached for comment.

What do you think? Have you ever experienced discrimination at a financial services provider?

Follow me on Twitter @claesbell.

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