FinCEN’s big constituency not shy to ask questions; just ask the 26,534 persons who did in 2012

The diverse, far-flung private sector community served by the US Financial Crimes Enforcement Network is subject to a great variety of laws and regulations that impose complex duties on organizations ranging from global financial institutions to mom-and-pop travel agencies.

That’s just the private sector constituency of FinCEN.

On the public sector side, the agency that was born in April 1990 in the aptly-named Cash Room of the Treasury Department Building in Washington, DC, serves regulatory and enforcement agencies that enforce compliance with civil and criminal laws and regulations sprinkled throughout the United States Code, which contains all US laws, and the Code of Federal Regulations, the repository of all final regulations.

To make its job even more difficult, FinCEN is also a member of the Egmont Group, an umbrella organization that coordinates the activities and information exchanges of some 130 similar agencies worldwide that go by the generic name, “financial intelligence units” (FIU).

So, it is no surprise to learn that in Fiscal Year 2012, FinCEN’s Resource Center received 26,534 inquiries from its constituents – domestic and foreign, private and public. This number does not include inquiries received by e-mail, which the agency also fields and responds to.

To help its members better understand this resource, ACFCS dug into this little-known part of FinCEN’s work and asked Public Affairs Director, Steven Hudak who asks the questions, what questions they ask, how they are answered and other details of this two-way flow of information.

Under the reorganization recently announced by FinCEN Director Jennifer Shasky, the “Resource Center” is located in the new Liaison Division.

The Resource Center’s director, Alan Cox, an eight-year veteran of FinCEN and a former bank at the US Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, gave ACFCS an in-depth verbal tour of the Resource Center and explained how it serves the bureau’s constituency.

What is the structure of the FinCEN Resource Center?

The Resource Center was formerly called the “Regulatory Resource Center” or “BSA Helpline.” The recent name change, says Cox, reflects the refocused mission to better serve both financial institutions and businesses and regulatory and law enforcement agencies. The repositioning of the Resource Center in FinCEN’s Liaison Division is part of the reorganization conceived and announced by Director Shasky on June 25, 2013. (Read more about the reorganization here.)

In its new structure, the Resource Center has three “lanes” of focus: the Regulatory Section with 11 staff members, the Law Enforcement Section with 9 staff members, and the Intake Section with a smaller handful of staff members.

Who makes inquiries to FinCEN?

Cox says the “vast majority” of inquiries received by the Resource Center come from US financial institutions. Though it serves a wide range of businesses, from casinos to insurance companies, all of whom are defined as “financial institutions” under the Bank Secrecy Act (Title 31, US Code Section 5312(a)), more than half of incoming calls are from banks and money service businesses (MSBs). MSBs pose about 25% all the questions and inquiries that the Resource Center receives. This huge industry is composed of giant international money transmitting companies and small ethnic money transmitters in most large urban areas.

Law enforcement inquiries to the FinCEN Resource Center, Cox says, usually deal with how to obtain forms that have been filed by financial institutions pertaining to a case or subject they are pursuing.

In addition to answering these inquiries, FinCEN also analyzes for law enforcement agencies the financial intelligence it receives from institutions and businesses through millions of forms that it gets each year. This analytical work, performed by other elements of FinCEN, has been said to produce solid foundations of many successful criminal cases brought by the government.

FinCEN also responds to dozens of federal and state regulatory agencies, as well as criminal investigative arms of the military. It does all of this with a staff of about 300 persons.

What questions do callers ask?

Most calls by private sector organizations to the Resource Center focus on the mechanics of filing Bank Secrecy Act forms, including Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) and Currency Transaction Reports (CTRs).

“We recently mandated e-filing of reports,” says Cox. “Especially in the last year, as institutions were required to sign up for e-filing, we’ve had a lot of calls from banks and MSBs to help them through the e-filing system and get them used to the electronic submission of reports.”

Institutions are slowly growing accustomed to e-filing, he says.

“Actually, the resource center is where we receive any paper reports that still come in. We process them and reach out to the financial institutions,” he adds. “The number of paper reports we get is dwindling.”

How does one contact the Resource Center? How soon can a response be expected?

Callers may contact the Resource Center during its business hours Monday through Friday of 8 AM to 6 PM. The Center’s telephone number is 1-800-949-2732 and email, bsa_resource_center@fincen.gov. Callers must leave voicemails with their questions and await a return call. The turnaround time is usually brief, says Cox.

“Our goal is to answer a question within 24 hours,” he says. “We find it’s closer to one or two hours. That applies whether it’s a phone call or an inquiry by email.”

Persons who provide accurate, complete details in their questions are most likely to receive prompt answers.

“A lot of calls are fact and circumstance-related, so to provide an answer to a question we often need to speak to the financial institution to get more information than they initially provided,” says Cox.

If a person has a tip on a financial crime, should he or she call the Resource Center?

Not necessarily. If a person wants to report suspicious activity that may relate to terrorist activity, he or she should call FinCEN’s Financial Institutions Hotline at 866-556-3974, which operates seven days per week around the clock.

Although the FinCEN Resource Center is not the place to submit tips on financial crime, including money laundering, it doesn’t deter callers with such information.

“We get some calls from private citizens. Part of the Resource Center’s responsibility is to get those to the right area,” Cox says.

“If they call about a fraud that is occurring right then, we’ll get them to the FBI or another law enforcement agency. Even if we cannot answer a question, we’ll get them where they need to go,” the veteran FinCEN official says.

What other resources does FinCEN offer to answer questions?

Utilizing the tools and guides at FinCEN.gov can save time on a call to the Resource Center. The website offers webinars and “Frequently Asked Questions” covering the requirements of the Bank Secrecy Act, as well as most of the reporting forms that the Act and its regulations in the Code of Federal Regulations. Other aids, such as FinCEN’s online “Regulatory Helpline Hot Topics,” are also full of information that assists compliance. Cox says that as his team directs callers to answers to their questions, they are also “usually pointing them to something on our website.”

“We’re all in this together — in the government and private sector — to thwart financial criminals and get the best information to law enforcement,” Cox concludes.

Want to know more about FinCEN? Read a July 2013 ACFCS interview of FinCEN Director Jennifer Shasky Calvery here.