|The purpose of the Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) is to report known or suspected violations of law or suspicious activity observed by financial institutions. A complete, sufficient, and timely SAR can help law enforcement to initiate or supplement criminal investigations, and to identify emerging trends and patterns associated with financial crimes. And the most important part of the SAR is the narrative. A well-written narrative will tell a story that draws in the reader (in this case, a financial crimes analyst) and compels them to investigate further.
Unfortunately, many SAR forms contain incomplete, incorrect, and/or disorganized narratives, making further analysis difficult, if not impossible. Some SAR forms are submitted with blank narratives. The failure to adequately describe what makes any activity suspicious undermines the very purpose of the SAR and reduces its usefulness to law enforcement.
If you struggle with how to strike the right balance in writing a SAR narrative, you’re clearly not alone. So how do you go from Zero to Hero? Here are some tips that the Aux Compliance Team has gleaned from meetings with regulators and law enforcement officials over the years, in no particular order of importance:
- If urgent/time sensitive, CALL law enforcement, then file. (Okay, maybe that is the most important thing)
- Follow basic writing structure taught in school: Introduction, Body, Conclusion. Remember, you’re telling a story. Narrative is literally defined as “an account of connected events; a story.”
- Reiterate and elaborate on the 5 Ws – Who, What, Where, When, and Why. Include specific details.
- Stick to the facts. Don’t include a history of the credit union! (We hear that one a lot!)
- Write your narrative with law enforcement in mind. Don’t use acronyms or jargon.
- Ongoing activity – Identify the date and document number of any previously filed SAR(s).
- If you’re already working with law enforcement, list the agency and your contact person.
- Indicate if filing is tied to 314 request.
- Don’t be discouraged if you don’t hear anything after you’ve filed a SAR. It can take months or years for investigators to build a case.
- The narrative is not only essential to addressing the suspect activity for which the SAR is being filed, but is also useful in other ways. Key word analyses of filed SAR narratives have allowed FinCEN to map trends within the industry.
- Not everyone you file a SAR on has actually committed a crime. And a victim is not a suspect!
- Why is the activity suspicious? This is where persuasive language is useful. Write as if you are looking to convince a skeptical audience (because you are). Describe, as fully as possible, why the activity or transaction is unusual for that member or customer. It won’t always be obvious to an outsider.
- Don’t just report what happened. What DIDN’T happen that should have?
- Don’t automatically close an account because you are filing a SAR. Law enforcement may want you to keep an account open while they build a case based on ongoing activity. If you do close an account because of suspicious activity, include in the narrative when, how, and to whom the funds were paid.
- Don’t talk yourself out of filing a SAR or including small details. Err on the side of providing more information than needed and let investigators determine what is useful.
- Be specific when listing what supporting evidence is available. If there are electronic documents, include specific file names and directories where they can be found. For physical evidence, don’t just list the address where it’s located. Include which department, room number, or storage unit holds the information.
- If known, include personal identifiers – SSNs, account numbers, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, IP addresses, URLs.
- Explain what information is included in any attachment, and why it’s important. Don’t make them open the file to figure it out. For example, say “Suspect conducted XX transactions, totaling $XXX over a period of XX days/weeks/months” and add that a spreadsheet detailing the specific transactions is attached.
- Keywords are … Key. Think about what crime is suspected and name it. Fraud, terrorism, human trafficking, money laundering…. Agencies use programs to identify key words that help them to prioritize SARs.
- Always use spell check. A computer won’t pick up misspelled keywords
- Sometimes agents don’t know what you think they know. And they don’t know what they don’t know. According to one FinCEN analyst, “People who write SAR narratives are the gatekeepers of the information law enforcement relies on.”
Finally, it cannot be stressed enough that the opening paragraph should start off with a bang. Your main goal is to get the reader’s attention. Be sure to help investigators by giving them the whole story, not just the raw data. Start by stating who you are filing on, what the activity is by using keywords, and what amount is involved. Name a suspected offense when possible. Most importantly, end that opening paragraph with why you believe the activity is unusual or suspicious for this member. Remember, your SAR is one of thousands that are filed every year. A well-written narrative may make the difference in whether it gets read or shuffled to the bottom of the pile.