FinCEN Guidance - Suggestions for Addressing Common Errors Noted in Suspicious Activity Reporting

Compliance > BSA > FinCEN’s Rulings and Guidance

                                                                                                            
                                               October 10, 2007 
 
                                      Suggestions for Addressing
              Common Errors Noted in Suspicious Activity Reporting
 
The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) has noticed common errors in 
the filing of Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”).  Although these errors were noted 
primarily through studying Suspicious Activity Reports by Money Services Business 
(Form 109) filings, we believe that publishing an explanation of ten of the most common 
errors and ways much of them readily can be mitigated could be informative to financial 
institutions in other industries in their efforts to implement simple strategies to provide 
accurate and complete information in their SAR filings. We also expect that SAR filers 
who are trained on the requirements would already have available the information 
necessary to complete the SAR properly, meaning that significant improvements to the 
SAR filing could be made without significant additional efforts beyond those already 
undertaken for the investigation and decision to file a SAR which may contain errors. 
 
It is critical that the information provided in a SAR filing be as accurate and complete as  
possible.    SAR information provides a valuable tool to FinCEN, law enforcement, 
regulatory authorities, and intelligence agencies (collectively referred to as “users”)2 ,  allowing the observation of larger patterns of suspicious activity, which might not have 
otherwise been detected. When combined with other sources, the information generated 
from SAR filings also plays an important role for law enforcement agencies in 
identifying potentially illegal activities, such as money laundering and terrorist financing, 
and assists in detecting and preventing the flow of illicit funds through our financial 
system.   
 
We have identified three areas where financial institutions should concentrate efforts to 
ensure information contained in the SAR is complete:  (1) SAR narratives, (2) certain 
critical fields that allow users to analyze quickly where activity has occurred, and (3) 
fields that identify the type, category and character of the suspicious activity. 
 
     (1) The Importance of Complete SAR Narratives

                                                 
1 See, Guidance on Preparing A Complete & Sufficient Suspicious Activity Report Narrative, November 

2003, pg. 3, at http://www.fincen.gov/sarnarrcompletguidfinal_112003.pdf. Also see The SAR Activity
Review Trends, Tips and Issues, Issue 2, June 2001, pg. 35. at: 
http://www.fincen.gov/sarreview2issue4web.pdf#page=35.  
2 See, 31 U.S.C. 5311 and 5319. It is the purpose of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) to require certain reports 

where they have a high degree of usefulness in criminal, tax, or regulatory investigations or proceedings, or 
in the conduct of intelligence or counterintelligence activities, including analysis, to protect against 
international terrorism and to make such reports available for use in a manner consistent with that 
objective.  

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In general, an accurate and complete SAR narrative should identify the five essential 
elements - who? what? when? where? and why? - of the suspicious activity being 
reported.3  SAR narratives should describe, as fully as possible, why the activity or 

transaction is unusual for the customer, taking into consideration the types of products 
and services offered by your industry and the nature and typical activities of similar  
customers.    Explaining why the transaction is suspicious is critical.  The following are 
common responses received in the SAR narrative field which do not allow users to fully 
utilize the information submitted. 
 
Empty Narrative Field:  The narrative field in the form must explain why the 
transaction was suspicious.  If the narrative field is left blank, the information in the SAR 
only addresses the “who/what/when/where” of the transaction.  Each SAR filing must 
have a narrative that accurately explains the nature and circumstances of the suspicious 
activity. Otherwise, the information contained in the SAR is of limited utility. 
 
Failure to Explain Information in Supporting Documents: All SAR Form Instructions 
specifically state that the attachment of supporting documentation is prohibited.  
Supporting documents cannot be uploaded into the database and should not be used as a 
substitute for the narrative, since law enforcement, FinCEN and other intelligence 
agencies cannot readily view the documents or the information contained therein.  The 
information appearing in any such supporting documentation should be reasonably 
described in the narrative and must be maintained for five years to be made available 
upon specific request.   
 
Inadequate Narratives:  Any narrative that does not accurately and completely explain 
the nature and circumstances of the suspicious activity is an inadequate narrative.  In 
general, most inadequate narratives merely repeat data in the form ’s fixed fields (for 
example, “John Doe sent two money transfers on 1/1/2007.”, or “Wired $2,000 to 
Mexico.”).  Restating the information found in critical fields does not sufficiently 
illustrate why the transaction was suspicious, considering the nature and expected 
activities of the institution’s customers. 
 
     (2) Responses in Fields of Critical Value

The responses provided in fields of critical value, marked by an asterisk (*) in most SAR 
forms, are examined by users to track activity and follow-up on leads provided in SARs.  
This information is also used by FinCEN to develop analytical products that are 
distributed to law enforcement, regulators and other intelligence agencies, as well as to 
provide general feedback to financial institutions5 .  The quality of this information is of 

                                                
                                         
3 See, Guidance on Preparing A Complete & Sufficient Suspicious Activity Report Narrative, November 

2003, pg. 3, at http://www.fincen.gov/sarnarrcompletguidfinal_112003.pdf. 
4 Id . at 4. 
5  See, e.g., The Role of Domestic Shell Companies in Financial Crime and Money Laundering: Limited

Liability Companies, November 2006, at http://www.fincen.gov/LLCAssessment_FINAL.pdf.  See also, 
Mortgage Loan Fraud: An Industry Assessment based upon Suspicious Activity Report Analysis, November 
2006. at http://www.fincen.gov/MortgageLoanFraud.pdf.  

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utmost importance; when inaccurate or incomplete information is provided, its utility is 
diminished significantly.  Several common issues arising from reports including 
inaccurate or incomplete information in critical fields are listed immediately below. 
 
Inaccurate Special Responses: As noted in the instructions to the SAR forms, specific 
responses are required when data is unavailable.  Institutions should not create their own 
responses. Special responses (for example, “N/A” or “Same as above”) pose as real data 
and distort statistics on how often certain items of data are unavailable.  It is extremely 
important that reporting institutions follow the instructions on the form and input the 
proper responses for unavailable information.  

Missing or Incomplete Filer Employer Identification Number (“EIN”):  The EIN of 
the reporting institution permits regulators and law enforcement to follow transactions 
properly through entities that report them. A reporting institution is expected to know its 
EIN and report it accurately.  Invalid or incomplete entries are unacceptable.  EIN entries 
of “000000000” and “999999999” are examples of invalid entries.  Incomplete EINs 
have fewer than nine digits and are usually the result of the preparer entering the EIN 
with a hyphen in a nine-digit fill-in field, causing the last digit of the number to 
disappear.  Incomplete entries are also created by typographical errors that were not 
caught in review.   
 
Missing Filer Telephone Number:  SAR information users must have the ability to 
contact the reporting financial institution to follow up on any leads relating to possible 
criminal activity.  The telephone numbers of the financial institution, including the 
specific transaction location, are critical for this reason, and must be included in any SAR 
filing.  To reiterate, hyphens should not be included in the critical fields. 
 
Invalid Subject Social Security Number (“SSN”)/EIN: The SAR forms and the E-
filing manual provide specific instructions regarding acceptable entries in the SSN/EIN 
fields when the respective number is unknown.  Consult the form instructions or the E-
filing instructions when completing these sections.  Entries of “000000000” and 
“999999999” are examples of invalid entries that cause an inaccurate record of the 
activity, which is of no value to those who utilize SAR information.   
 
Incomplete Subject Information; Government Issued Identification:  The method 
used to identify the subject should be as complete as possible.  A driver’s license or 
passport provides law enforcement with the information necessary to find out who a 
subject is and where a subject may be located.  The exclusion of an identification number 
when the issuer is known is an example of a commonly received incomplete response.  If 
a government issued identification card or document was used during the transaction, 
then both the number and issuer of the identification card or document should be 
provided.  
 
     (3) Identifying the Category and Character of Suspicious Activity

                                                        

By filling out SARs as accurately and completely as possible, financial institutions help 
mitigate their risk by maintaining a strong component of their anti-money laundering 
(“AML”) programs.  Employee training in the recognition of suspicious activity and the 
proper filing of SARs protects the financial institution and aids law enforcement in 
apprehending criminals.  Possible characterizations of suspicious activity and their 
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descriptions can be found in SAR Activity Review Issue 7.   The following are common 
responses received in the SAR fields which identify the type of suspicious activity.  The 
lack of accurate and complete information addressed below hinders the usage of SAR 
information.

Missing Category, Type, or Characterization of Suspicious Activity:  It is important 
for users to know why the activity is being reported and how the activity may relate to 
ongoing investigations.  The category, type, or characterization of suspicious activity is 
important in this regard.  This field should never be blank.  If none of the available 
options appear to apply to the particular activity that is being reported, then the “other” 
box should be checked, and a brief and informative description should be entered in the 
“other” text field, if provided, or in the narrative. 
                                                         
Incorrect Characterization of Suspicious Activity:  In order to provide accurate 
information to all users, FinCEN reviews narratives and other SAR data to verify that the 
category of suspicious activity appears correct.  Many times, the characterization of 
suspicious activity appears incorrect or has not been selected. In these cases, there is no 
information in the SAR to substantiate the checked selections.  For example, an 
institution may report that a customer comes in frequently to purchase monetary 
instruments below the $3,000 recordkeeping threshold, indicating the potential that the 
customer could be “structuring” transactions; however, the narrative does not provide any 
information about previous transactions, and there are no prior SARs filed on the subject 
of the SAR.   
 
Conclusion
 
When accurate and complete, SARs are an important tool in combating financial crimes.  
When completed correctly, the forms provide its users with important information that 
can be used to analyze broad sets of data and to apprehend suspected criminals and 
terrorists.  When the SAR forms are filled out incorrectly or are incomplete, they 
generally do not provide useful and adequate information, and in some cases, distort 
information reviewed by FinCEN and other users.  Further, by filling out SARs as 
accurately and completely as possible, financial institutions also maintain a picture of the 
identified, suspicious transactions flowing through them, which may be of use in their 
AML program for risk mitigation purposes.
 
In our continuing effort to make BSA compliance more efficient and effective, we are 
providing below some simple suggestions that may reduce incomplete and/or incorrect 
SARs.  As AML programs are designed on a risk-basis by financial institutions to meet 
                                                 
6 See The SAR Activity Review Trends, Tips and Issues, Issue 7, August 2004, pg. 45, at 

http://www.fincen.gov/sarreviewissue7.pdf#page=45  

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their own specific needs, some of the following suggestions may not be directly 
applicable. 
 
1.  Sign up for BSA E-filing.  This will eliminate errors of omission because preparers 
must enter the required data or a special response in critical fields.  Information on 
signing up for E-filing can be found on www.fincen.gov by clicking on “BSA E-filing” 
or by calling 1-888-827-2778 (option 6). 
 
2.  Provide staff and preparers with training on recognizing suspicious activity and
avoiding SAR filing errors.  This training will help the financial institution maintain an 
effective AML compliance program, as well as protect the institution from potential 
abuse by criminals. 
 
3.  Provide preparers with examples of accurate and complete SAR filings with “John
Doe” data in the fields.  This will allow preparers to see the correct format of a 
completed SAR form and can serve as a reference point for future filings. Please ensure 
that these sample or mock forms are not filed with FinCEN. 
 
4.  Ensure that preparers know the company EIN, address, telephone number, contact
office, etc., for the Reporting Business and Contact for Assistance fields.  This will allow 
the preparers to provide FinCEN with accurate reporting information, as well as provide 
law enforcement with accurate contact information should further investigation be 
required. 
 
5.  Provide preparers with the instructions for completing the form currently in use.
When a new form is released, do not rely on old instructions and training because there 
likely will be significant changes.  While form changes are infrequent, being up-to-date 
on the most current forms helps financial institutions with their regulatory compliance 
requirements and enables them to provide FinCEN and other users with the most accurate 
data possible. 
 
6.  Provide preparers with the FinCEN Regulatory Helpline number, (800) 949-2732, the
FinCEN homepage, www.fincen.gov, and the MSB homepage, www.MSB.gov. 
 
7.  Have a second reviewer to ensure accuracy and completeness.   An additional review 
of the SAR will help to eliminate errors and omissions. 
 
 [UPDATE: As of July 31, 2010, the toll free number for the BSA E-Filing Service Desk is
 1-866-346-9478 (Option 1). The email address is now BSAEFilingHelp@fincen.gov.]  
           

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This FinCEN document can be found at the following link:  http://www.fincen.gov/statutes_regs/guidance/pdf/SAR_Common_Errors_Web_Posting.pdf

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