FinCEN Files Underline BSA/AML System Mess

On its face, BuzzFeed’s reporting package on the details of 2,100 leaked suspicious activity reports (SARs) it obtained seems bad for many of the big banks mentioned. The articles take institutions to task for processing “trillions of dollars of suspicious transactions despite their own staff’s warnings that they might be related to crime.”

But the biggest scandal from the leaks may not be what it says about big banks — the biggest scandal is what it reveals about the anti-money laundering system at large. The leaks aptly demonstrate the system’s immense flaws.

These would hardly be news to bankers, who have known and complained about the system for years. They are on the cusp of winning reforms that, while not fixing the system as a whole, could lessen the burden on banks to report customers’ beneficial owners.

But the deeper issue is that the system encourages the proliferation of anti-money laundering filings, often without regard to whether they are truly related to any criminal activity.

The “FinCEN Files” are in part built on the premise that when a bank files a suspicious activity report, it truly believes that the transaction is related to financial crime or terrorism. BuzzFeed says the system “contains a crucial loophole” — although banks are required to alert the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network via a SAR, they are not obligated “to halt the suspicious activity or stop serving shadowy clients.”

But as the story later acknowledges and any banker can tell you, filing a SAR doesn’t necessarily mean the bank thinks there’s criminal activity going on. Banks are actively encouraged to file SARs for anything that seems even potentially fishy. The consequences of not filing a SAR can be severe, including extra scrutiny from regulators, an enforcement order or steep fines. Bank officers have been fired for failing to file SARs on activity that later turned out to be criminal.

The result? Banks have filed defensively for well over a decade. It’s so bad that at one point, a former FinCEN director used to tell a story about how a bank had filed a SAR because an employee’s bacon was stolen from the office fridge.

Predictably, this means banks and credit unions file a tremendous amount of SARs. There were some 839,000 filed by depository institutions in 2014. That rose to 1.1 million by 2019, a 32% jump. Does anyone think that all those SARs represent real criminal activity? Requiring banks to stop processing all those transactions wouldn’t close a loophole, it would violate due process. In many cases, banks are even told by law enforcement agencies to continue to process suspicious transactions. Such “keep open” letters are a way for law enforcement to continue to track potential criminals.

The “FinCEN Files” do make a great point when it says “the majority of these reports … are never even read, much less investigated.” We’ve built an entire money laundering system around the annual filing of millions of SARs and currency transaction reports (CTRs), the vast majority of which will never be seen by a human being.

If you listen to the way law enforcement agencies tell it, this is a feature, not a bug, of the system. Those agencies want banks to file SARs and CTRs because it creates a virtual warehouse of financial information they can use to track down leads. The more data they have, the better.

This approach assumes there is no cost for banks to do all of this, when the cost is in excess of $25 billion annually, according to some estimates. If banks weren’t spending a huge chunk of resources and time chasing down every potential dodgy transaction, they probably could be using it on other activities, like lending in their communities.

This approach would be acceptable if the current system actually worked, but it’s not clear it does. The amount of money laundered each year is roughly 2% to 5% of global GDP, or between $800 billion to $2 trillion, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Some estimates say law enforcement catches less than 1% of that.

Privately, many banking officials will tell you the vast majority of financial crimes are still going undetected. While the current system is great at catching unsophisticated criminals, the ones who know what they’re doing can find elaborate ways around the system.

Don’t get me wrong. If a bank is knowingly facilitating criminal activity — as has happened in the past and some of these 2,100 SARs show — they should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. But the biggest takeaway of this story is that our system is inefficient, costly and — worst of all — does not seem to work very well.