The culmination of the hard work of managing referrals and alerts in the BSA/AML world is the writing of the Suspicious Activity Report (SAR). But what makes a SAR that is actionable by law enforcement? In other words, what makes a SAR truly stellar? While you cannot necessarily control the scope of the alleged crime or identify the alleged criminal, writing the best possible SAR is one area you can control.
Law enforcement literally gets millions of SARs from all sorts of reporting agencies – casinos, insurance, real estate, and financial institutions. Some of us have personally filed thousands of SARs, but often, they seem to go into a black hole, and you and your staff never get that telephone call or subpoena to provide documentation. On the occasion when you do get a request from law enforcement for documentation, while providing that information can be a lot of work, it’s a relief to know that someone in authority is working on the suspicious activity you and your staff found so compelling (so much so that you filed a SAR on it).
So, what makes a stellar SAR? Several components are key.
First, the type of alleged crime or suspicious behavior can set your SAR apart. The federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have task forces and often accompanying grants of funds focused on certain crimes. These crimes include:
November ACAMS Chapter Event
If you are interested in learning how to write stellar SARs directly from members of law enforcement, please consider attending the next meeting of the Central Ohio ACAMS Chapter in November. Virtual attendance for members AND non-members is free for this event.
In addition, on September 16, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) released a Notice to call attention to an increase in online child sexual exploitation crimes. Anytime FinCEN issues a Notice or guidance, you should pay attention, read the material, and follow instructions that might include certain verbiage. Note that law enforcement uses word searches on SAR narratives to locate certain criminal activities of particular interest.
Second, there is no doubt that the dollar amount of your SAR matters. While it’s sad to say this because the dollars lost in any amount by one of your members can be very important to him or her, law enforcement departments are understaffed and often overworked, which means the manpower to pursue $10,000 versus $100,000 of criminal activity can be similar. Prosecutors are often more interested in the bigger drug bust; this kind of news gets headlines.
Third, and this is where you and your top-notch staff can make a difference, the quality of your SAR really matters. This is what you and your staff can control. Here are a few specific tips on writing a quality SAR:
Because it’s so important, let’s focus for a moment on four keys to a strong narrative:
When to contact law enforcement directly
If you believe your SAR is especially urgent or important, you should contact law enforcement directly. Here are a few examples:
If you have not already done so, I encourage you to immediately create a list with names, telephone numbers, and emails for contacts at your local, state, and federal law enforcement offices. Then you won’t have to scramble at the last minute to find the information you need.
In conclusion, writing a stellar SAR is one of the best ways to help get your SARs read and acted upon by law enforcement. This is the one area you and your staff can control when it comes to filing SARs. I hope you find these in-depth tips helpful not only right now but also for the future.
VP, Senior Risk Manager