ACAMS San Diego-Baja California Chapter: FBI Agent for a Day

ACAMS San Diego-Baja California Chapter: FBI Agent for a Day
Pictured are chapter members participating in an investigation exercise.

How many of us have ever wondered, “What would it be like to be a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agent?” Would we be an intense, work-obsessed hero like Fox Mulder who took risks while seeking the truth? Or would we be cool and collected like Jodie Foster’s rendition of Clarice Starling? Could we solve cases in 60 to 90 minutes, like the fictional agents in Criminal Minds or FBI: Most Wanted?

Well, for one day in March, a select group of people experienced this. The FBI San Diego Field Office invited members of the ACAMS San Diego-Baja California Chapter to participate in a joint daylong event during which chapter members were able to experience being “agents” for a day.

The goals for the event were to learn how a criminal case works and the most common way suspicious activity reports (SARs) and Financial Crimes Enforcement Network filings are used to support a criminal case. The day would start with the case initiation (the initial complaint) and finish with an arrest at the end of the day.

The chapter members in attendance were divided into groups, with one to two FBI personnel mentoring chapter members at each table. Each table was assigned an agent number and would work the “case.” Our table was “Agent One.”

The Initial Complaint

Throughout the day, there were skits with the FBI personnel playing various roles interspersed with activities. Up first were two agents, one playing an agent and one playing the role of an elderly person who had been financially exploited. The agent walked the older victim through the initial interview, where the victim explained how he was exposed to the perpetrator via text messages in what seemed at first to be a random wrong number. They became text friends, and eventually, the perpetrator talked the victim into making several significant fraudulent investments. The victim was instructed to mail each investment in cash. The perpetrator even instructed the victim to wrap some of the packages of cash in aluminum foil. The victim was also convinced to take out a loan to fund one of the investments.

San Diego Chapter
ACAMS San Diego-Baja California Chapter members attending the joint workshop with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s San Diego Field Office on March 19, 2024.

Case Records

Each agent table was provided with folders of “case records.” Throughout the day, to “work the case,” we watched surveillance videos and reviewed police reports, SARs and subpoena results. Through common addresses and telephone numbers, we determined that several complaints from other victims across the country were linked. This showed us the value of including phone numbers and IP addresses in the SARs we file at our institutions.

While watching the surveillance records and reviewing available public information, we were able to identify a woman who was picking up the cash packages. A skit followed, and an FBI agent was sent to her home to interview her. We determined that she might unknowingly be a money mule. She met the perpetrator (who she now claims is her fiancé) through a dating app, and she believes he lives in Asia and is involved in nonprofit work. She opened multiple accounts to assist him, and bank records for these accounts showed many large wire transfers. We also obtained pictures of the fiancé. It became apparent that the woman was being duped. Our perpetrator used an alias, and his true identity was still unknown. We were still searching for a way to tie the perpetrator to the transactions.

Trash Pulls

At one point during the investigation, after looking at our growing piles of collected evidence, we identified a possible address for the perpetrator. However, we needed more probable cause (proof) before obtaining a search warrant.

Under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, parties are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures if law enforcement (LE) does not have a warrant. Essentially, this meant that we did not have a right to do so unless we had probable cause to search the perpetrator’s property backed by a warrant. Garbage left at the curb is considered abandoned and “readily accessible” to the public. Courts have determined that a person cannot expect privacy if they leave trash outside their home on the curb for disposal. The FBI can, therefore, come along, pick up that trash and analyze it for clues.

For the next part of the investigation, each agent’s table was provided with a garbage bag, which was dumped on the table to enable us to search for clues. Luckily, they provided us with disposable gloves to conduct our search. We found a wealth of information just by sifting through the debris. We found grocery receipts that led us to believe multiple people lived in the house. We saw school records for an elementary school-aged child, diapers that indicated there was a baby in the residence, and other records that might have suggested racial intolerance. These were all indicators that care or special arrangements would have to be conducted or considered if a search warrant was served. But what made it worthwhile for all the agents was the discovery of several torn-up wire transfer receipts with the account numbers opened by our money mule. We finally had enough evidence to obtain a search warrant.

San Diego Chapter
Event attendees posing after the workshop.

Search Warrant

FBI agents cannot just show up to search a property. Investigators first need to obtain a search warrant, which requires convincing a judge that they have probable cause that a crime occurred. We could tie the receipts for the wire transfers found in the trash to the movement of the fraudulently obtained funds in the accounts opened by the money mule. The chapter members at each table were taken separately to a room that was staged as the perpetrator’s home to look for more evidence that would be used for a conviction. During the search, we found enough evidence to arrest our perpetrator (including evidence of multiple additional money mules). We also found empty gun cases, which led us to suspect that the perpetrator may be armed and dangerous during any arrest attempt.


The investigation ended with a final “stakeout” in the parking lot. All attendees went outside to a staged area for the final scene. Our perpetrator drove up and parked his car. Before he could get out, two San Diego SWAT vehicles came from opposite directions and blocked his car in. Then, a fully suited and armed SWAT team ordered our suspect to put his hands up. They got him out of the vehicle and cuffed him, which was met with applause from all of the attendees.

The event gave those of us in the financial community a better understanding of how the small details we provide in our SARs can have a big impact on an investigation

Our first case as FBI agents ended in success. In the enthusiastic words of one of our ACAMS chapter members, “This is the best day ever!” The event gave those of us in the financial community a better understanding of how the small details we provide in our SARs can have a big impact on an investigation. We also gained a better appreciation for the processes LE conducts. We thank our LE partners at the FBI San Diego Field Office for making the event possible.

Maleka Ali, ACAMS San Diego-Baja California Chapter

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