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Connecting the Dots…The Importance of Timely and Effective Suspicious Activity Reports
Do you ever wonder what happens to all the Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) financial institutions file? Do you think that SARs just disappear into a black hole and are never reviewed? While these are common notions voiced throughout the banking industry, they cannot be further from the truth. The significance of the SAR process in the fight against terrorism, drug trafficking, money laundering, bank fraud, and other financial crimes cannot be overstated.
History clearly shows that there is often a financial connection to crime. Connecting the dots between criminal activity and the financial transactions that facilitate such activity is invaluable, not only in identifying, investigating, and ultimately prosecuting criminals, but also in preventing and deterring crime. SARs play a critical role in exposing the financial links to illicit activities, on both a case-by-case and industrywide basis. The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), bank supervisory agencies, and law enforcement depend on SARs to identify, investigate, and analyze criminal activity. Overall, the banking industry has been diligent in detecting and reporting suspicious activity; however, merely filing a SAR may not be enough. The agencies depend on complete, accurate, and timely reports to use SAR information effectively and efficiently.
Examiners play a significant role in ensuring SAR data integrity, and Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering (BSA/AML) examinations nationwide continue to reveal common issues with SAR filings. This article will highlight the importance of SARs, provide examples of how various agencies use them, discuss common SAR filing issues and their potential negative impact on SAR utility, and offer tips and guidance on what makes an effective SAR. By better understanding how SARs are used and focusing on SAR quality, examiners and bankers can help to improve the reliability and integrity of the information and thereby help ensure that SAR users have this critical information to fight financial crimes.
SAR Filings Exceed 1 Million in 2006
Since the late 1980s, depository institutions have been required to report known or suspected criminal violations to FinCEN. In April 1996, the SAR replaced the Criminal Referral Form as the standard form to report suspicious activity.1 At that point, depository institutions (i.e., insured banks, credit unions, and thrifts) were the primary filers of SARs. However, following the terrorist events of September 11, 2001, the USA PATRIOT Act2 expanded SAR requirements to other types of financial institutions, including certain money services businesses (MSBs), 3casinos and card clubs, and certain segments of the securities and futures industries. As a result, the number of SARs filed annually has increased dramatically. As shown in Chart 1, all financial institutions subject to SAR requirements filed more than 1 million SARs in 2006—five times more than were filed in 2001. While other financial institutions have contributed significantly to the escalation in SAR filings, depository institutions continue to file the majority of SARs—more than 565,000 reports, or approximately 53 percent of the reports filed in 2006. As the number of SARs filed annually continues to rise, ensuring that depository institutions file quality SARs in a timely manner becomes increasingly important. (See text box, “SAR Reporting Requirements.")
Chart 1: SAR Filings Skyrocket
SARs Serve Many Purposes
With limited exceptions, SARs are used to report all types of suspicious activity affecting depository institutions, including but not limited to cash transaction structuring4, money laundering, check fraud and kiting, computer intrusion, wire transfer fraud, mortgage and consumer loan fraud, embezzlement, misuse of position or self-dealing, identity theft, and terrorist financing. All SARs filed are centralized in a secure database that can be accessed by authorized users, including representatives from FinCEN, bank supervisory agencies, and law enforcement. These agencies rely on SARs for a number of different purposes; yet, whether FinCEN is analyzing the entire SAR database to identify trends or a law enforcement agent is following up on a single SAR, the integrity of the data is critical to the government’s efforts to fight criminal activity.
Use by FinCEN
FinCEN makes SAR and other BSA-related data available to authorized agencies and also plays a key role in analyzing the data to identify emerging trends and patterns associated with financial crimes.5 FinCEN analyzes SAR data to identify institutions with filing problems, such as missing information or incomplete SAR narratives,6 and uses sophisticated trend analysis and data-mining techniques to pinpoint emerging industry vulnerabilities, such as the recent rise in consumer and mortgage loan fraud.7 FinCEN also performs key word searches within SAR narratives to identify potential indicators or specific geographic areas linked to terrorist financing or drug trafficking.8 In testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in May 2007, FinCEN’s deputy director, William Baity, noted
Use by Bank Supervisory Agencies
Public confidence in the banking system can be undermined when an institution insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) is a victim of internal or external fraud.10 Depository institutions incur millions of dollars in fraud losses annually, and, in extreme cases, fraud can contribute to a bank’s failure and result in significant losses to the Deposit Insurance Fund.11 Prompt identification and follow-up regarding suspected fraud is vital to the strength of the banking system and the Deposit Insurance Fund. SARs alert bank supervisory agencies such as the FDIC to fraud so that they can initiate an appropriate and timely response.
Bank fraud allegations or suspicions of wrongdoing may come to the FDIC’s attention through the on-site examination process, an anonymous tip, or a referral from an outside law enforcement agency. More commonly, fraud against state nonmember banks is identified by bank management and brought to the FDIC’s attention by a SAR filing. Each FDIC region has a SAR review process to follow up on depository institution SARs filed within its supervisory territory. This process identifies and responds to priority SAR filings, which generally include SARs involving institution-affiliated parties (IAPs)12 and those having a material impact on the financial soundness of the institution.
The FDIC is particularly interested in SARs that name IAPs as suspects. Fraud perpetrated by employees, officers, or directors can be especially damaging and may require an immediate regulatory response. If warranted, the FDIC can pursue civil enforcement actions against IAPs, including Removal and Prohibition Orders under section 8(e) of the Federal Deposit Insurance Act (Act) and Civil Money Penalties under section 8(i) of the Act. Many FDIC enforcement action cases against IAPs originate from SARs.
The FDIC’s Office of Inspector General, Office of Investigations (OIG-OI) conducts criminal investigations based on allegations of fraud at FDIC-supervised institutions, working either independently or jointly with other law enforcement agencies. Many of the OIG-OI’s investigations originate from SARs filed by FDIC-supervised institutions and involve IAPs. Often these investigations result in parallel criminal and civil enforcement action proceedings. Cooperation between the OIG-OI and other law enforcement agencies can be instrumental in bank fraud investigations and prosecutions. In fact, a number of successful cases in recent years have highlighted the collective work of several agencies.13 As of September 30, 2007, the OIG-OI had 106 open bank investigations under way, involving an estimated $1.7 billion in potential fraud. Seventy-seven percent of these cases were being pursued jointly with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).14
Use by Law Enforcement
Law enforcement agencies use SARs to identify financial links to illicit activity. These agencies supplement ongoing investigations by querying FinCEN’s database for name matches to existing suspects and their known associates. For example, if the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is investigating a specific individual in a narcotics case, agents would likely query the FinCEN database by name to identify additional leads, such as bank accounts, individual and business associates, geographic locations, or aliases. The search would likely include both SAR data and other BSA-related data such as Currency Transaction Reports, which could identify additional information about the suspect.
In recent years, law enforcement agencies increasingly have used SARs to generate new leads and determine whether to open new cases. For example, an agency may identify and pursue a structuring case on its own merits based on a SAR filing, and in the course of such an investigation might further determine that structuring took place to cover up other illicit activities, such as drug trafficking or tax evasion. This proactive approach to using SARs is best exemplified by the development of joint agency SAR Review Teams.
Today, SAR Review Teams, coordinated by the U.S. Department of Justice through the U.S. Attorney’s Offices, exist in 80 of the 94 federal judicial districts nationwide. The primary purpose of a SAR Review Team is to systematically review all SARs that affect a specific geographic jurisdiction, identify individuals who may be engaged in criminal activities, and coordinate and disseminate leads to appropriate agencies for follow-up. The composition of these teams, while varying by location, generally includes representatives from law enforcement and various regulatory agencies, with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigations Division (IRS-CID) typically in a lead role. Other participants may include representatives from the FBI; the DEA; the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; the U.S. Secret Service; and state and local law enforcement. A number of SAR Review Teams also have representation from bank supervisory agencies, including the FDIC.16 Coordination among the respective agencies results in improved communication and more efficient resource allocation.
Common SAR Mistakes and Weaknesses
Banks must file complete, accurate, and timely SARs in order for FinCEN, bank supervisory agencies, and law enforcement to gain maximum benefit from the information.17 Preparation errors and filing weaknesses, including late submissions, can reduce SAR effectiveness.
Incomplete or Inaccurate Data Fields
Parts I through IV of the SAR are essentially objective data fields that call for specific information about the filing institution, the suspect(s), the nature of the suspicious activity, any regulatory or
Insufficient SAR Narratives
Part V–Suspicious Activity Information Explanation/Description, commonly referred to as the SAR narrative, provides the only free-flow text area to summarize the suspicious activity. The SAR narrative is often the basis for sophisticated data mining, as well as crucial decisions regarding whether to investigate a suspect further. Incomplete, incorrect, illogical, or disorganized narratives can make analysis difficult and adversely affect users’ decisions. For example:
Timely filings enable SAR users to identify and respond promptly to potential criminal activities. Nonetheless, examinations continue to find late SARs, as well as SARs that are not filed every 90 days for ongoing suspicious activity. Untimely SARs can be particularly detrimental when terrorist financing is suspected, in criminal cases where asset seizures are possible, or when significant fraud threatens the viability of a depository institution. In such situations, time is of the essence; therefore, not only is it important to file a SAR within the prescribed period, but bank management is encouraged to contact law enforcement directly to ensure immediate attention to the matter.
Submitting an Effective SAR
SAR filing deficiencies often result from internal control weaknesses. On a macro level, it is important for financial institutions to establish strong overall risk management practices with respect to suspicious activity monitoring and reporting, including effective policies and procedures, strong management information systems, appropriate staffing and senior management oversight, comprehensive training, and periodic independent testing.18 On a micro level, it is beneficial for financial institutions to establish comprehensive procedures for SAR preparation, review, and approval. The following steps can help to ensure that complete and appropriate SAR information is collected, organized, and maintained.
Conduct thorough research and analysis to gather as much information as possible about the potentially suspicious activity. FinCEN’s Guidance on Preparing a Complete and Sufficient Suspicious Activity Report Narrative provides extensive tips on what information to collect and how to organize it effectively.19 Generally, the guidance indicates that the filing institution should consider all pertinent information it has available through the account opening process and due diligence efforts.
Accurately complete all objective data fields and write a clear and comprehensive SAR narrative. The SAR should be completed as fully as possible. Although information called for in Parts I through IV occasionally may be unknown or unavailable and should be left blank, Part V—the SAR narrative—should always include a detailed description of the suspicious activity.
All SARs are potentially useful, but a SAR containing complete factual data and an effective narrative can determine whether FinCEN gleans useful statistical data, the FDIC takes appropriate and timely action with respect to bank fraud, or law enforcement opens a criminal investigation. For example, a SAR clearly evidencing a deposit structuring pattern extending over a lengthy period and involving a large dollar amount, or a SAR specifically detailing statements by a suspect to a bank employee regarding intent to evade financial reporting requirements, is more likely to get law enforcement’s attention than a SAR that understates the severity of the activity or omits potentially incriminating suspect statements. FinCEN’s Guidance on Preparing a Complete and Sufficient Suspicious Activity Report Narrative includes several examples of both useful and ineffective SAR narratives, with a discussion of the strengths or weaknesses of each.
Maintain comprehensive SAR supporting documentation, since it provides the critical evidence associated with the suspected activity. SAR supporting documentation should be described in the SAR narrative and refer to all documents or records that assisted a financial institution in making the determination that certain activity required a SAR filing. Documentation may include transaction records, new account information, tape recordings, e-mail messages, and correspondence.20 One IRS-CID special agent indicated that the following types of documentation can be particularly useful:
See the text box titled “Important SAR Preparation Guidance” for a list of resources on completing SARs.
Making the Connection
The quality of SAR data is crucial to the effective implementation of the suspicious activity reporting system, which not only forms the cornerstone of the overall BSA reporting system but is critical to the United States’ ability to use financial information to combat terrorism, terrorist financing, money laundering, and other financial crimes.21 SARs play a vital role in the investigation and prosecution of criminal cases by law enforcement, as well as in the issuance of civil enforcement actions by bank supervisory agencies and in the identification of financial crime patterns and trends by FinCEN. Examiners and bankers share an important responsibility in ensuring that SARs are complete, accurate, timely, and effective so that users can readily connect the dots to identify, analyze, and investigate financial crime.
1 SAR forms are available at www.fincen.gov/resources/filing-information.
2 The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (USA PATRIOT Act) is arguably the single most significant AML law Congress has enacted since the BSA itself. Among other things, Title III of the USA PATRIOT Act (International Money Laundering Abatement and Anti-Terrorist Financing Act of 2001) criminalized the financing of terrorism and augmented the existing BSA framework by strengthening customer identification procedures; prohibiting financial institutions from engaging in business with foreign shell banks; requiring financial institutions to have due diligence procedures and, in some cases, enhanced due diligence procedures for foreign correspondent and private banking accounts; and improving information sharing between financial institutions and the U.S. government. See https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/PLAW-107publ56/pdf/PLAW-107publ56.pdf.
3 Generally, MSBs include the U.S. Postal Service and five distinct types of financial services providers: (1) currency dealers or exchangers; (2) check cashers; (3) issuers of traveler’s checks, money orders, or stored value; (4) sellers or redeemers of traveler’s checks, money orders, or stored value; and (5) money transmitters. However, a business in one of the first four categories is considered an MSB only if it engages in such transactions in an amount greater than $1,000 for any person on any day in one or more transactions. Refer to https://www.fincen.gov and 31 CFR 1010.100 (ff).
4 Structuring is defined in 31 CFR 1010.100 (ff) as the act of conducting or attempting to conduct one or more transactions in currency in any amount, at one or more financial institutions, on one or more days, in any manner, for the purpose of evading the currency transaction reporting requirements. See Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) BSA/AML Examination Manual, February 15, 2015, Appendix G, “Structuring,” at https://bsaaml.ffiec.gov/manual/Appendices/08.
5 In addition to SARs, BSA-related data include Currency Transaction Reports (CTRs), Reports of International Transportation of Currency or Monetary Instruments (CMIRs), Designations of Exempt Person (DOEPs), Reports of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBARs), and Reports of Cash Payments Over $10,000 Received in a Trade or Business (8300s). See www.fincen.gov/resources/filing-information.
6 The SAR narrative refers to Part V of the Suspicious Activity Report by Depository Institutions (FinCEN Form 111), titled Suspicious Activity Information Explanation/Description. This mandatory section is to be used to provide a complete chronological account of the suspected violation of law or suspicious activity.
7 “Staying Alert to Mortgage Fraud,” Supervisory Insights, Vol. 4, Issue 1, Summer 2007, discusses the housing boom of the early 2000s and how the resultant demand led to increased mortgage fraud activity. See www.fdic.gov/regulations/examinations/supervisory/insights/sisum07/article02_staying-alert.html.
8 BSA Advisory Group, “Section 5—Issues and Guidance,” The SAR Activity Review—Trends, Tips & Issues, Issue 11, May 2007, pages 39–42, at www.fincen.gov/sar-stats/sar-activity-review/sar-activity-review-issue-11.
9 See FinCEN Deputy Director Baity’s testimony at www.fincen.gov/news/testimony/statement-william-f-baity-deputy-director-financial-crimes-enforcement-network.
10 FDIC, Risk Management Manual of Examination Policies, Section 10.1, Suspicious Activity and Criminal Violations, https://www.fdic.gov/regulations/safety/manual/section10-1.pdf.
11 “Enforcement Actions Against Individuals 2005: A Year in Review,” Supervisory Insights, Vol. 3, Issue 1, Summer 2006, highlights a calendar year of FDIC-issued enforcement actions against individuals for insider fraud, with a focus on the resultant losses to institutions. See www.fdic.gov/regulations/examinations/supervisory/insights/sisum06/article03_enforcement.html.
12 Institution-affiliated party is defined in section 3(u) of the Federal Deposit Insurance Act (12 U.S.C. 1813(u)) as—(1) any director, officer, employee, or controlling stockholder (other than a bank holding company) of, or agent for, an insured depository institution; (2) any other person who has filed or is required to file a change-in-control notice with the appropriate Federal banking agency under section 7(j) of the FDI Act; (3) any shareholder (other than a bank holding company), consultant, joint venture partner, and any other person as determined by the appropriate Federal banking agency (by regulation or case-by-case) who participates in the conduct of the affairs of an insured depository institution; and (4) any independent contractor (including any attorney, appraiser, or accountant) who knowingly or recklessly participates in—(A) any violation of any law or regulation; (B) any breach of fiduciary duty; or (C) any unsafe or unsound practice, which caused or is likely to cause more than a minimal financial loss to, or a significant adverse affect on, the insured depository institution. See www.fdic.gov/regulations/laws/rules/1000-400.html#1000sec.3u.
13 The FDIC OIG’s Semiannual Report to Congress for October 1, 2006, to March 31, 2007, details a number of successful internal and external bank fraud investigations that highlight the cooperative efforts of OIG investigators, FDIC divisions and offices, U.S. Attorney’s Offices, and others in the law enforcement community.
15 See complete testimony at https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/news/testimony/the-successful-use-of-information-from-the-private-financial-sector.
16 As of September 30, 2007, the FDIC participated in SAR Review Teams in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Vermont.
17 SAR references in this section pertain to the SAR by Depository Institutions (FinCEN Form 111). See https://www.fincen.gov/resources/filing-information.
18 See FFIEC BSA/AML Examination Manual, February 15, 2015, “Suspicious Activity Reporting – Overview,” “Suspicious Activity Reporting – Examination Procedures,” and Appendix L, “SAR Quality Guidance” at https://bsaaml.ffiec.gov/manual.
19 See https://www.fincen.gov/sites/default/files/shared/sar_tti_07.pdf#page=43.
20 FinCEN Advisory, FIN-2007-G003, Suspicious Activity Report Supporting Documentation, June 13, 2007, www.fincen.gov/resources/statutes-regulations/guidance/suspicious-activity-report-supporting-documentation.
21 See FFIEC BSA/AML Examination Manual,February 15, 2015, “Suspicious Activity Reporting – Overview,” at https://bsaaml.ffiec.gov/manual.
|Last Updated 12/28/2021||SupervisoryJournal@fdic.gov|