The FinCEN Files – What are they and why do they matter?


On 20th September 2020, approximately 2,600 documents were made globally public, having been leaked from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) to BuzzFeed News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The FinCEN Files are primarily made up of records of the suspicious activity reports (SARs) submitted by Banks and Financial Institutions (FI) to FinCEN authorities between 2000 and 2017.

It should be noted that the filing of SARs is encouraged by Financial Regulators worldwide and is in line with international anti-money laundering standards in order to raise concerns of money laundering, terrorist and / or proliferation financing. FIs use SARs to report suspicious behaviour, but they are not proof of any wrongdoing or crime by the underlying client, just a suspicion that is more than fanciful. They do however offer the individuals and institutions a degree of protection against money laundering offences in the case of knowing/assisting an offence.

One of the key concerns raised from the leak is the continuation of business with clients for which an FI has submitted a SAR, and the purported lack of action from that FI and the authorities. Headline cases coming from the leak include big name banks that purportedly allowed fraudsters to move millions of dollars of stolen money around the world, even after being informed by  US investigators a  scheme was a scam, and another involving the movement of cash for a bank more than a decade after the client’s accounts had been used in funding terrorism.

In addition to the severity of the issues raised, the amount of money involved with the SARs leaked is staggering, as the estimated total transaction value tops USD2 Trillion. The number of different FIs involved in the leak also demonstrates the global nature of international money laundering through some of the world’s biggest banks.

The FinCEN Files have clearly shown that the system of reporting suspicious activity is well established, and this is certainly a good thing in combating money laundering. However the lack of action and capacity to address the SARs and stem the flow of money laundering has now been exposed and it will be interesting to see whether the FinCEN exposure leads to change.

By Matthew Queree, Head of AML, INDOS Financial