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Suspicious Activity Reports: What the Numbers Show
Initially intended to help law enforcement identify individuals and organizations involved in money laundering and terrorist financing, Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) filings are also used to help detect activities related to consumer fraud and identity theft. Depository institutions (DIs) and money services businesses (MSBs) together file about 98 percent of all SARs submitted annually to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). Industry groups are constantly working to educate SAR filers about the various types of activities that they should document so these activities can be properly tracked. FinCEN recently updated its statistics to include SAR activity in 2012, and the summary volumes are shown in the chart below. The Retail Payments Risk Forum believes that an ongoing educational effort of customers, as well as DI employees, is a vital element in recognizing and mitigating fraud in our payments system. As part of that effort, I think there would be benefit in examining the shifts among the different SAR activities and gain an understanding as to possible reasons for these shifts.
As the above chart shows, the number of SARs filed by DIs has risen steadily over the last two years. SARs from MSBs, on the other hand, dropped 14 percent from 2011 after seeing an average annual increase of 15 percent over the previous two years. So why the ups and downs?
From a pure numbers standpoint, the answer to the question lies in the details of the activities that can trigger a SAR. In the case of SAR filings from DIs, for example, 2012 saw a dramatic increase in identity theft and check fraud filings, while mortgage loan fraud SARs dropped. This shift is explained by the increased diligence being placed on mortgage loans and the alarming growth of identity theft and check fraud incidents. By contrast, SAR filings from MSBs showed a substantial decrease in the category where the person reduced the amount of money order or traveler's check purchase to avoid having to complete a funds transfer record (but still generating a SAR). One wonders whether this reduction represents progress in the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing, or have the individuals engaged in these illegal activities changed their money handling tactics by performing lower dollar value transactions to avoid suspicion and identification?
Every federal judicial district has a SAR review team. This team of regulators and federal and local law enforcement reviews SARs to determine whether they need to initiate new investigations or supplement the filings to existing cases. The efforts of these teams illustrates how more comprehensive reporting, improved data analysis, and stronger monitoring capabilities can help detect and address fraud and abuse within our payments system. FinCEN publishes a semiannual report—Trends, Tips & Issues—that provides a summary of key findings from the teams' reviews of SARs. These reports let involved parties know how they can use the information to provide greater protection to potential victims of fraud. We encourage you to read copies of FinCEN's reports to better understand current fraud trends so you can educate your employees and customers.
By David Lott, a retail payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed