The Perfect Storm: More Alerts, Fewer Investigators, & More False Positives

The Focus Has Always Been On the Increase in Fraud

Natural disasters bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. Almost fifteen years ago, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Department of Justice formed the National Center for Disaster Fraud[1] to coordinate the investigations and prosecutions of benefits, charities, and cyber-related frauds that sprang up when billions of dollars in federal disaster relief poured into the Gulf Coast region. In October 2017, after a series of hurricanes in the southeast US and Caribbean (Harvey, Irma, and Maria), and California wildfires, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued an “Advisory to Financial Institutions Regarding Disaster-Related Fraud” that described some of the same fraud scams and instructed firms how to identify and report that activity.

FinCEN Recognizes The Strain on Resources

On March 16, 2020, three days after the President declared a National Emergency in response to COVID-19, FinCEN issued a press release (not an Advisory) encouraging financial institutions to (1) communicate concerns related to the “coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)”, and (2) to remain alert to related illicit financial activity.[2]

Specifically, FinCEN requested that financial institutions contact FinCEN and their functional regulator as soon as practicable if it “has concern about any potential delays in its ability to file required Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) reports.”

This is an important acknowledgment by FinCEN. The previous Advisory focused on the increase in fraud as a result of natural disasters. This press release adds another element: at the same time fraud is increasing, the ability of financial institutions to manage that increase is impacted because of the “shelter in place” or work from home requirements. To put it in simple terms, where a bank may have had 1,000 fraud alerts handled by 50 investigators prior to the pandemic, it may now have 2,000 alerts being handled by only 20 investigators.

The Third Issue – Your Existing Fraud Alerting Logic May Produce More False Positives

Not only will the alerting “numerator” be going up (that is the transactions that a financial institution’s rules find are anomalous) but the denominator, or the volume of and types of transactions, is also changing. Very simply, people transact differently because of the pandemic. There will be more cash withdrawals (both numbers and amounts), and more activity (transactions and interactions) will shift from in-person to mobile, online, and telephone.

Elder fraud is a good example of the impact of the pandemic. The older population is most at risk from COVID-19, and most at risk of various fraud schemes. The alerting logic a bank had programmed was based on historical data relating to, say, changes in elderly customers’ use of online and mobile channels. With the pandemic, elderly customers are using those channels more often, and those alerts will now be hitting on anomalous but now-expected activity. This new current activity will be different than the historical activity on which the bank based its alerting logic.

And all of this at a time when banks have fewer investigators able to handle the output: they’re at home and either unable to access bank systems or less efficient in doing so.

Communication is the Key

As FinCEN points out, financial institutions need to communicate with their regulators if they’re finding that their investigations teams cannot keep up with the increase in fraud cases. One aspect a bank needs to consider is whether it should – and can – move analysts and investigators from AML over to fraud and sanctions screening. Sanctions screening and fraud monitoring requires real- and near-time screening and monitoring to prevent transactions from occurring – whether those are transactions with sanctioned entities, possible Business E-mail Compromise (BEC) frauds, or other frauds. Sanctions and fraud analysts and investigators need to be able to prevent certain transactions and investigate others in real- or near-time. AML analysts and investigators do not operate in the same time-sensitive environment: as a general rule, an AML alert generated in March will involve activity that occurred in February, it will be investigated in April in order to determine whether it was “suspicious”, then a SAR will be filed in May. So part of the external and internal communications a bank will need to have will involve shifting its AML resources over to sanctions and fraud monitoring and investigations.

But more important are the communications banks need to have with their clients and customers to warn them about common disaster-related frauds, and the communications within the bank to adapt to the changes in overall customer activity. How will the changes in customer activity impact the sanctions and fraud monitoring, detection, and alerting systems?

It’s the perfect storm: more alerts, more false positives, fewer investigators.