US Justice Department to Banks: SARs May Not Be Sufficient

US Justice Department to Banks: SARs May Not Be Sufficient

Most bankers I know always love to receive a helping hand from federal law enforcement officials in making their daily lives just a little bit better. That’s why I’m sure that most bankers smiled wide when an Assistant US Attorney General recently told a gathering of bankers that when it comes to reporting suspicious activity, a SAR is often not nearly enough.

“The vast majority of financial institutions file suspicious activity reports when they suspect that an account is connected to nefarious activity,” said assistant attorney general Leslie Caldwell in a Monday speech, according to prepared remarks. “But, in appropriate cases, we encourage those institutions to consider whether to take more action: specifically, to alert law enforcement authorities about the problem.”


A tip-off from a bank about a suspicious customer could lead law enforcement to seize funds or start an investigation, Ms. Caldwell said.

Sure, that makes sense. Bankers have nothing better to do than to do your job for you, right Leslie? The difference between filing a SAR and picking up the phone and reporting your suspicions to a cop is that the SAR is confidential (the subject of the report should never know one was filed) and applicable law provides for banks that file them a “safe harbor” from a lawsuit by the subject of the SAR (in all but in cases of the most egregiously bad faith filings). Those specific protections do not apply to a phone call or an email to a cop.

As a commenter to the linked article observed, “[i]f the Feds would actually do something about the millions of SARs we (financial institutions) have filed, some of these criminals would be in jail.” To “do something,” the Feds would have to rip those SARs from the gravitational pull of the black hole into which they’re apparently dumped and read them, something that bankers have believed for years rarely happens. On the other hand, as FinCEN’s head boasted last year regarding all the Cheech & Chong SARs that banks in Colorado have been filing on “legal” marijuana-related businesses, FinCEN actually read 62% of them. That left 38% to be eventually transformed into goat pellets after being consumed by FinCEN’s pet goat.

My guess is that many banks will continue to believe that filing a SAR is a more than sufficient “tip-off” for any law enforcement agency that actually is interested in uncovering crime.

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