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The Dynamics of a Well-Written Suspicious Activity Report Narrative

Jan 01, 2016


A system providing for proper Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) completion and timely filing is an indicator of a strong Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) program that incorporates policies, procedures, and processes to properly monitor for suspicious activity. Just as important as the data input in Parts I-IV of the SAR is, so too is the written completion of Part V: Suspicious Activity Information— Narrative. SAR narratives are useful in describing information about specific activity for possible law enforcement investigation. In addition, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) utilizes BSA data in its analytical tools to provide law enforcement, regulatory agencies, and the financial services industry important information and guidance on broader regional and systemic threats and trends. Clearly written narratives have helped identify mortgage fraud, identity theft, and terrorist financing schemes at the institution level, as well as reflect how pervasive illicit behavior has become industry-wide. A sufficiently written narrative should, therefore, be a focus of a BSA program’s suspicious activity monitoring.

Examiner expectations are for the narrative to facilitate an understanding of the known or suspected violation of law or suspicious activity. It is also an area often noted by many examiners and investigators as overlooked or rushed through by the filer. As you or your designated SAR filers write the narrative, the audience should be kept in mind. Consider whether a person reading the narrative would be able to clearly understand the activity involved. Clear writing is central to ensuring important facts are not lost in translation. To improve the SAR narrative writing process, your institution should place an emphasis on the “who, what, where, when, why, and how” to provide a thorough description of the activity and your financial institution’s basis for filing. The SAR narrative, if well written, may make the difference in whether or not the investigator comprehends the activity.


Overall, a SAR should completely convey what was unusual or irregular about the suspect and the noted activity. The SAR narrative section is fundamental for the reader to understand the nature and circumstance of the reported details. The narrative section allows for 17,000 characters, along with the ability to attach a Microsoft Excel file with up to one megabyte of data, should your financial institution believe the Excel data would be useful. In this section of the SAR, your institution must be able to replicate in written form all critical data fields completed in Parts I, II, III, and IV of the SAR. In addition, the regulatory expectation is that the description should include enough information to explain the suspicious activity.

The SAR narrative is not only essential to addressing the suspected activity for which the SAR is being filed, but is also useful in other ways. Key word analyses of filed SAR narratives have allowed FinCEN to map trends within the industry, notably showing a recent trend in rewards-based crowdfunding associated with possible illicit financial activity over the past 24 months. Law enforcement also looks for commonalities in SAR narratives, providing a cross-section for further focus. The narrative information then allows for efficient collation of more details of the activities in question than may otherwise be learned. To further maximize this value, it is important for filers to clearly articulate narratives.

Tips for Developing a SAR Narrative

Best practice recommendations for writing a SAR narrative include knowing your audience, structuring a narrative in an easy-to-follow arrangement, and ensuring the five Ws (and How) are answered. Keeping these in mind when establishing or revising your institution’s SAR processing procedures, providing a template to your designated SAR filer, or writing a SAR narrative yourself will go a long way toward ensuring your SAR narratives are easily understood.

Do not assume your reader will be familiar with your institution’s internal terminology, acronyms, or processes. It is often difficult to recognize institution or industry terms others may not be familiar with due to their everyday use in your work life. To get around this, step back and focus on writing a SAR an average consumer could understand. This provides assurance plain language is used to most effectively get across your intended meaning. The SAR narrative should be able to explain the chronology and noted suspicious behavior without use of your institution’s acronyms or terms.

The basic writing structure taught in school is most appropriate to a SAR narrative. This seems commonsense but may be overlooked since too often industry writing lacks this structure. Instead there tends to be a focus on shorter forms or bullet points meant to draw the reader’s attention to key terms or to facilitate discussion, rather than to present a chronological story. A beginning, middle, and end should be utilized. Begin with the introduction by stating the purpose in filing the SAR and providing a general description of the known or suspected violation. Transfer then to the body to answer the 5 Ws (and How). End with the conclusion, which should summarize the report, and include planned or completed follow-up actions and names and contact information as applicable.

The 5 Ws and (and How), a basic tenet of journalism, as well as a useful checklist, are helpful to consider while writing a SAR narrative. The narrative needs to address the 5 Ws (and How) to best allow the investigator to understand the situation.

  • Who conducted the activity? In addition to describing the suspects as outlined in Part I, describe any additional details not provided elsewhere in the SAR. Think about fleshing out the occupation information, the relation between the suspect and your institution, and how long that relationship has lasted.
  • What specifically led to the SAR? Describe the transactions, what instruments were involved, and the activities that raised suspicions.
  • When did the activity occur? If this was a one-time incident, identify the date of the occurrence. If there was continued activity or a pattern of behavior, state the span of time and when the activity first originated, when the activity was detected, and a description of the activity during the duration. This is important to assist your reader in connecting the dots.
  • Where did the activity take place? Here you should state the branch, department, and location(s) where the activity occurred and street address(es).
  • Why is the activity suspicious? This is where persuasive language is useful. Write as if you are looking to convince a skeptical audience (you are). Identify accounts and account types affected. Describe why the activity is suspicious and any relevant information kept in your file documentation.
  • How did the activity occur? Describe how the suspect’s transactions or pattern was completed.

Narratives for Continuing Activity SARs

When completing the narrative section of a SAR filed for continuing activity, be sure to identify the date of any SAR previously filed on the subject and the purpose of that SAR. Where continuing activity occurs, a SAR must be filed after a 90-day review. The filing deadline is 120 days after the filing date of the previously related SAR, although the continuing activity SAR may be filed earlier than the deadline should your financial institution believe the activity warrants earlier review by law enforcement.


SARs work to identify potential and actual illegal activity and provide law enforcement a means to detect and prevent criminal activity at the individual and systemic level. In addition, it’s required by law, making it vital that your financial institution make a good faith effort to comply. To ensure compliance, it is imperative that your institution submit to FinCEN SARs that are complete. Part of filing a completed SAR includes writing a sufficiently comprehensive narrative. It is important that your institution have the policies, procedures, and processes in place to ensure SAR narratives consistently provide the necessary information.

Additional Resources

  • FFIEC BSA/AML Examination Manual Appendix L: SAR Quality Guidance
  • March 2015 the FinCEN SAR Electronic Filing Requirements
  • FinCEN SAR Stats Technical Bulletin October 2015
  • FinCEN SAR Narrative Spotlight July 2015


Nick Bonnema, JD, CRCM
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