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FinCEN Issues Advisory and FAQs Regarding Reporting Cyber-Events

October 27, 2016
Joseph D. Simon
Garden City

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) has issued an advisory (“Advisory”) and Frequently Asked Questions (“FAQs”) to assist financial institutions in reporting cyber-events, cyber-enabled crime, and cyber-related information through Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”).  The Advisory and FAQs, however, do not change existing Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) requirements or other regulatory obligations for financial institutions, which are expected to continue to follow federal and state requirements and guidance on cyber-related reporting and compliance obligations. 

The Advisory is intended to help financial institutions understand their BSA obligations regarding cyber-events and cyber-enabled crime,[1] and the FAQs supplement the Advisory by discussing certain anticipated issues.  In the Advisory, FinCEN instructs financial institutions on: (1) reporting cyber-enabled crime and cyber-events through SARs; (2) including relevant and available cyber-related information[2] in SARs; (3) collaborating between BSA/Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) units and in-house cybersecurity units to identify suspicious activity; and (4) sharing information, including cyber-related information, among financial institutions to guard against and report money laundering, terrorism financing, and cyber-enabled crime.

(1)   SAR Reporting of Cyber-Events

Generally, a financial institution is required to report a suspicious transaction conducted or attempted by, at, or through the institution that involves or aggregates to $5,000 or more in funds or other assets.[3]  If a financial institution knows, suspects, or has reason to suspect that a cyber-event was intended, in whole or in part, to conduct, facilitate, or affect a transaction or a series of transactions, it should be considered part of an attempt to conduct a suspicious transaction or series of transactions.  Thus, cyber-events targeting financial institutions that could affect a transaction or series of transactions over the reporting threshold amount would be reportable as suspicious transactions.  

The FAQs point out that an otherwise reportable cyber-event should be reported regardless of whether it is considered unsuccessful.  FinCEN also encourages, but does not require, financial institutions to report egregious, significant, or damaging cyber-events and cyber-enabled crime when such events and crime do not otherwise require the filing of a SAR. 

In determining whether a cyber-event should be reported, a financial institution should consider all available information surrounding the cyber-event, including its nature and the information and systems targeted.  Similarly, to determine monetary amounts involved in the transactions or attempted transactions, a financial institution should consider in aggregate the funds and assets involved in or put at risk by the cyber-event.  The Advisory provides some examples of situations in which SAR reporting of cyber-events is mandatory.  Financial institutions should also be familiar with any other cyber-related SAR filing obligations required by their functional regulator.[4] 

In light of the continuous scanning and probing of financial institutions’ systems and networks, the FAQs point out that filing a SAR to report each scanning or probing event is impractical and could detract from an institution’s efforts to guard against more significant threats.  The FAQs clarify that institutions are not required to file SARs to report such events.

The FAQs also make clear that a financial institution is allowed to file a single cumulative SAR to report multiple cyber-events when they are too numerous to be reported individually and are either: (i) similar in nature and share common identifiers[5] or (ii) believed to be related, connected, or part of a larger scheme.

(2)   Including Cyber-Related Information in SAR Reporting

Financial institutions are required to file complete and accurate reports that incorporate all relevant information available, and should follow FinCEN’s existing guidance when submitting SARs related to cyber-events and cyber-enabled crime.[6]  Institutions should include relevant information in pertinent SAR fields as well as a description of the facts surrounding the cyber-event or cyber-enabled crime in the narrative section.  

Financial institutions should be sure to include any and all available cyber-related information when reporting any suspicious activity, including those related to cyber-events as well as those related to other activity, such as fraudulent wire transfers.  For example, to the extent available, SARs involving cyber-events should include: (i) description and magnitude of the event; (ii) known or suspected time, location, and characteristics or signatures of the event; (iii) indicators of compromise; (iv) relevant IP addresses and their timestamps; (v) device identifiers; (vi) methodologies used; and (vii) other information the institution believes is relevant.

(3)   Collaboration Between BSA/AML and Cybersecurity Units

The Advisory emphasizes the importance of collaboration and ongoing communication among BSA/AML, cybersecurity, and other units in order to help financial institutions conduct a more comprehensive threat assessment and develop appropriate risk management strategies to identify, report, and mitigate cyber-events and cyber-enabled crime.  Accordingly, financial institutions are encouraged to internally share relevant information from across the organization including, as appropriate, with BSA/AML staff, cybersecurity personnel, fraud prevention teams, and other potentially affected units.  FinCEN, however, is not imposing any new requirements or obligations for financial institutions, such as requiring a financial institution’s BSA/AML unit to have personnel and/or systems devoted to cybersecurity or requiring BSA/AML personnel to be knowledgeable on cybersecurity (i.e., a BSA/AML unit may work and collaborate as necessary with its institution’s cybersecurity personnel).

(4)   Sharing Cyber-Related Information Between Financial Institutions

The Advisory stresses the importance of financial institutions working together to identify threats, vulnerabilities, and criminals, and highlights Section 314(b) of the USA PATRIOT Act.  Section 314(b) provides a safe harbor from liability for financial institutions that share cyber-related information with other institutions for the purposes of identifying and, where appropriate, reporting potential money laundering or terrorist activities.  To attain this protection, institutions must notify FinCEN and satisfy certain other requirements.

Further Information

The Advisory may be found here and the FAQs may be found here.  In addition to submitting SAR reports, financial institutions must continue to adhere to federal and state laws, regulations, and guidance with respect to reporting cybersecurity incidents.  For instance, New York State General Business Law section 899-aa requires a business to report a security breach to affected individuals and, in the event that any New York residents are to be notified, obligates the business to notify certain state agencies as to the timing, content and distribution of the customer notices, and approximate number of affected persons.  Additionally, according to the 2005 GLBA Interagency Guidance on Response Programs for Unauthorized Access to Customer Information and Customer Notice, a financial institution should also notify its federal regulator as soon as possible when the institution becomes aware of an incident involving unauthorized access to or use of sensitive consumer information.  Our advisory regarding the new cybersecurity regulation proposed by the New York State Department of Financial Services may be found here.

If you have any questions regarding the Advisory, the FAQs, or cybersecurity procedures in general, please feel free to contact Joseph D. Simon at (516) 357-3710 or via email at jsimon@cullenanddykman.com, Kevin Patterson at (516) 296-9196 or via email at kpatterson@cullenanddykman.com, or Adam Barazani at (516) 357-3767 or via email at abarazani@cullenanddykman.com


[1] The Advisory defines “cyber-event” as “[a]n attempt to compromise or gain unauthorized electronic access to electronic systems, services, resources, or information.” “Cyber-enabled crime” means “[i]llegal activities (e.g., fraud, money laundering, identity theft) carried out or facilitated by electronic systems and devices, such as networks and computers.”

[2] The Advisory defines “cyber-related information” as “[i]nformation that describes technical details of electronic activity and behavior, such as IP addresses, timestamps, and Indicators of Compromise (IOCs). Cyber-related information also includes, but is not limited to, data regarding the digital footprint of individuals and their behavior.”

[3] A bank is required to report a transaction if it is conducted or attempted by, at, or through the institution, it involves or aggregates at least $5,000 in funds or other assets, and the institution knows, suspects, or has reason to suspect that: (i) the transaction involves funds derived from illegal activities or is intended or conducted in order to hide or disguise funds or assets derived from illegal activities as part of a plan to violate or evade any Federal law or regulation or to avoid any transaction reporting requirement under Federal law or regulation; (ii) the transaction is designed to evade any SAR requirements or any other regulations promulgated under the BSA; or (iii) the transaction has no business or apparent lawful purpose or is not the sort in which the particular customer would normally be expected to engage, and the institution knows of no reasonable explanation for the transaction after examining the available facts, including the background and possible purpose of the transaction. 31 C.F.R. § 1020.320.

[4] For instance, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency requires national banks to file SARs to report unauthorized electronic intrusions. See OCC Bulletin OCC 2000-14 “Infrastructure Threats—Intrusion Risks” (May 2000). The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the National Credit Union Administration issued guidance concerning the filing of SARs to report certain computer-related crimes. See FRB Supervisory Letter SR 97-28 “Guidance Concerning Reporting of Computer Related Crimes by Financial Institutions” (November 1997); FDIC Financial Institution Letter FIL-124-97 “Guidance for Financial Institutions on Reporting Computer-Related Crimes” (December 1997); and NCUA Regulatory Alert 97-RA-12 “Guidance for Reporting Computer-Related Crimes” (December 1997).

[5] A non-exhaustive list of relevant cyber-related information and identifiers associated with suspicious transactions and cyber-events that should be reported is available in the FAQs.

[6] For further instructions on how to complete SARs, including information formatting, please refer to the Frequently Asked Questions Regarding the FinCEN SAR (May 2013) and the latest FinCEN SAR Electronic Filing Instructions, both available at www.fincen.gov.