They know about that morning coffee and Danish you bought with a debit card. They also know about the money you transferred from an online...
They know about that morning coffee and Danish you bought with a debit card.
They also know about the money you transferred from an online savings account to your local checking account.
And if, by chance, you wired cash to a shell company fronting for a prostitution ring — they definitely know about that.
Every day, banks and other financial institutions monitor hundreds of millions of transactions, looking for unusual patterns that could be a sign of anything from money laundering to terrorism financing to identity theft.
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The scrutiny, which intensified after Sept. 11, 2001, extends to every customer, from the guy with $150 in his checking account to the governor of New York.
It was this monitoring that apparently prompted federal officials to discover Eliot Spitzer’s alleged participation as a client of a high-priced prostitution operation, which led him to resign as governor of New York.
Federal laws such as the Bank Secrecy Act and the Patriot Act require these banks to report suspicious activities, as well as all transactions involving $10,000 or more.
“We track almost any type of financial transaction,” said David Sosna, chief executive of New York-based Actimize, which provides monitoring software to banks, brokerage firms and other businesses.
“What we’re looking for is much more focusing on behavior and what is considered a high-risk behavior that should be pointed out for further review.”
Actimize’s software generates profiles of customers of banks, brokerage firms and other financial institutions and analyzes their transactions to see how they may differ from previous activities or from transactions of other customers with similar profiles, Sosna said.
“The key principle is never look at one transaction on its own,” he said. “Always look at it in relation to the customer profile or the big picture.”
While most people are familiar with the $10,000 threshold reporting law, fewer are aware banks also look at much-smaller transactions.
Newsday reported last week that Spitzer divided a transfer of more than $10,000 into three smaller ones to a shell company operated by the prostitution ring.
The practice, called “structuring,” is aimed at not tripping the mandatory reporting requirement when $10,000 or more is involved. Spitzer’s bank noted the activity and reported it, Newsday said.
Ron Hermance, chief executive of the 129-branch Hudson City Bank, based in Paramus, N.J., said if his employees suspect structuring or if someone asks for $11,000 in cash, they file what is known as a suspicious-activity report, or SAR.
“It’s very standard. It’s not optional,” Hermance said. “We file an awful lot of SARs.”
The reports can involve anybody with an account — from businesses that deal with lots of cash to millionaires to retirees on a fixed income.
Banks and other financial institutions have been required since 1996 to file such reports, and the number of filings made to the Treasury Department has been growing every year.
Reporting requirements increased when the Patriot Act was passed after Sept. 11, giving the government broad powers of investigation.
In 2006, the last full year for which statistics are available, more than 1 million suspicious-activity reports were filed, according to a division of the Treasury Department. In 2001, there were about 205,000.
There are 80 teams across the country whose job is to review the reports, said Steve Hudak, a spokesman for the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, a bureau at Treasury.
“When there is a pattern of suspicious activity, these systems will detect it,” said James McCallum, chief executive of Sum2, a company that offers products to help institutions comply with the Patriot Act.
Additionally, Spitzer may have been considered a “politically exposed person,” which some say can lead to closer scrutiny by financial institutions.
Worldwide, there are about 600,000 of these figures and their associates, said Murray Dickman, president of Finscan, a Pittsburgh company that screens bank-customer lists against those of politically exposed persons, or PEPs, and other sanctioned individuals.
“It doesn’t mean you can’t take the money of a PEP or do business with them,” Dickman said. “It means he gets a different level of due diligence.”
However, Hudak said, government rules do not require extra monitoring of U.S. politicians.