DNA and the BSA

DNA and the BSA

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) made radical changes to law enforcement (LE) investigative strategies, originally facing the resistance to change ideas so commonly ingrained in our bureaucracies. However, that resistance was successfully countered by the similar susceptibility to popular culture, also steeped in our politics. Television shows like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and similar LE programs and movies made DNA nearly a mandatory consideration in many LE investigative strategies to solve crimes. The “CSI effect” is now a common component in LE training for investigators and prosecutors. These include methods and courses to help counter jury expectations of DNA and similarly complex forensic science in cases where that analysis was either not available or would have been nonsensical.

Why have the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) and related anti-money laundering (AML) efforts not achieved a similar fate or caused a similar revolution in LE investigations? After all, in both popular culture and politics, the virtues and wisdom to “follow the money” is commonly acknowledged as an indispensable investigative strategy. The political side seems to have certainly done its part. They crafted, passed and amended the BSA to provide investigators with a near dream “tool kit” for following the money. Popular culture is also well in agreement that crime is almost always about money. Television programs and movies about crime constantly involve plots about quests to obtain, retain or steal money. Both the real and Hollywood versions of Al Capone’s legend will commonly conclude around some version of how his money handling—and not his violence—resulted in his eventual downfall.

Financial Evidence

Despite the almost universal acceptance that money motivates or underpins criminal behaviors, most LE investigative strategies never seem to have been compelled to embrace financial evidence as an essential investigative strategy. Other than a small, isolated sector, most LE agencies are rarely evaluated or criticized for their failure to analyze or investigate the potential financial aspects of their investigations. There are no training courses for investigators and prosecutors to assist in explaining to jurors why the money nexus was never reviewed. If most LE agencies were aware of and knew how to use AML/BSA intelligence and information effectively in their investigations, they would have learned that many of the assaults, robberies, thefts, break-ins and related crimes under investigation actually have a back story related to unresolved financial disputes or issues. They would have also discovered that the BSA—which may have been originally intended to address money laundering and terrorist financing—has exposed financial evidence, irregularities and suspicions that apply even to petty crimes.

Just as DNA can attach one person to another person, to a place or to an object, so too can the BSA

However, training and applying AML/BSA information and intelligence to investigations seem to be trapped with those high-level intensions of money laundering and terrorist financing. The BSA has evolved more into the “neighborhood watch” for the entire financial community. The use of the BSA, its dissemination and training within LE are stuck in those isolated upper sectors. It is now common to see the neighborhood watch call the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the Internal Revenue Services (IRS) to complain about a suspicious person wandering the neighborhood and wonder why no patrol car was ever dispatched to investigate. Only a few state and local investigative agents are aware of and know how to use BSA financial intelligence and information, which is now available to them.

Routine and more localized LE were easily trained and became aware of the potential of DNA evidence, without becoming forensic scientists, but ultimately became intimately familiar with the chemical nuances in DNA. They are just as capable to train and apply the BSA as evidence for more routine cases. Similarly, applying the BSA information and intelligence does not require a commitment to or an intimate understanding of forensic accounting.

Just as DNA can attach one person to another person, to a place or to an object, so too can the BSA. Unlike DNA, the BSA can also attach one person to another, to a place or an object, even without physical contact. Oftentimes, BSA analysis can even suggest motivations. DNA requires complicated laboratory work and analysis to do what it does. BSA information and intelligence only require a competent investigator to recognize evidence in transactional activities and behaviors that can connect those to the investigation. DNA may even be needed less, if more investigation was conducted on the BSA’s evidence, information and intelligence.

Spending Patterns

It takes complex chemistry to isolate DNA, and it takes in-depth psychological training to profile a serial killer. However, an averagely trained and experienced investigator can create a highly accurate subject profile by simply evaluating bank statements and analyzing transactional activities. Our income and spending patterns provide an indispensable profile of who we are, what we like and what we care about. These reveal where we live, where we work (or that we do not), where we spend holidays or vacations, if we are in too much debt, even if we drink a bit—vices have prices. Debit and credit card purchases now itemize individual and petty expenditures. Why would any investigator not want to know these personalized details about subjects in their investigations? The best part of this is that it can be done without any physical contact with the subject or trying to locate something that may have that person’s DNA.

One sector of LE that has proven the value of evaluating these financial profiles on a more routine basis is arson investigators. Their cases routinely expose how the lines between victims and culprits can become blurred. Arson investigators do not consider it a coincidence when “accidental” fires happen to those in desperate financial straits that an insurance settlement can alleviate. Those assessments and evaluations rarely require forensic accounting to expose them. The inability to pay creditors and bills provides easy-to-follow clues on the money trails. Similar applications exist in a plethora of other investigations, which could help LE if more investigators were aware of the ease of access to this information.

The BSA suffers from a bad first impression and continued perception of being exclusive to those higher-profile cases. Money is traditionally viewed from an accounting perspective when it needs to be evaluated as evidence. Money is evidence, with amounts being a secondary consideration at best. Like DNA, small things can break the biggest cases. Just like we have scales to weigh illicit narcotics, we have calculators and computers to calculate the money when and if required. The fact that a transaction can link a subject to a location, to an event or to specific dates and times is the evidence that it is too often overlooked.

The BSA suffers from another problem that DNA does not often face. Money is backed by acceptable and unacceptable lies that are found even in more legitimate interactions. DNA results are scientifically backed, while BSA results are conversation-backed. Investigators aware of the AML/BSA intelligence and information commonly fail to recognize the essential element of conversation in that evaluation. Even with the lies about money being pervasive, the investigative interview process is often resisted, favoring more number crunching and non-productive continued speculation. Many times, those techniques become outright detrimental to the investigation.


While classic money laundering investigations will always remain an important element and focus of the AML/BSA efforts, there is a clear unmet need to “follow the money” through training in lower-level investigations. This should include the patrol officer considering what role money may play in the calls and situations in which they find themselves. Just as investigators in all LE sectors should consider the use and viability of DNA evidence, they similarly need to consider the use and viability of the financial evidence. In the end, investigators will find that they have failed to follow the money too often but following the money has rarely failed an investigation.

Steve Gurdak, CAMS, group manager, Washington Baltimore HIDTA, Northern Virginia Financial Initiative (NVFI), USA, sgurdak@wb.hidta.org

The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not represent the opinion of Washington Baltimore HIDTA.

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