Customs' profiling software nips at terrorists' finances

Customs' profiling software nips at terrorists' finances

Decade-old application, designed to spot other crimes, finds a new use: sifting financial records for evidence of terrorists

The Customs Service has found a new use for the software it designed to combat money laundering, drug smuggling and tax evasion.

The service is applying the decade-old Numerically Integrated Profiling System to track terrorist finances.

NIPS, written in Visual Basic, can manipulate Customs and law enforcement data to detect anomalies and patterns of criminal activity, said Tim Long, supervisor of Customs' Trade Crimes Unit.

Monitors money

'It is quick and fast and has the ability to analyze a variety of documents, whether it's banking, tax or customs information,' Long said.

In response to the Sept. 11 attacks, Customs uses NIPS to check for fraud and possible terrorist activity by tracking financial activities of individuals and companies and the movement of goods into the country, he said.

The software helps agents access import and export data, trade data provided by foreign governments, and money laundering and intelligence databases.

NIPS lets agents simultaneously analyze banks' suspicious-activity reports and international flight records.

Investigators also search for discrepancies in export and import reports and track goods being shipped in unusual quantities or that are overvalued or undervalued, Long said.

Similarly, agents can access airline passenger information to track the movement of people in and out of the United States.

NIPS is housed in the Trade Crimes Intelligence Unit within the Intelligence Division at Customs headquarters.

The service spends about $150,000 per year on NIPS, which is maintained by a contractor and three Customs technicians with intelligence backgrounds.

About 50 agents at Customs headquarters and 200 agents in the field use the system. The software helped the agency provide evidence to indict a dozen people in 2000.

No paper chase

NIPS runs under Microsoft Windows NT and can search as much as 100G of data, the equivalent of about 30 million pages.

The system lets agents forgo the drudgery of wading through reams of paper to carry out analyses, Long said. NIPS scored a big success in 1999 when it showed shipments of scrap metal being sold for three times the average price of gold bullion.

'NIPS analyzed the data, and before you knew it, the agent was on a $130 million money-laundering case,' Long said. 'Anything that could have taken six months to three years was done so fast.'

As useful as NIPS has proven to be, Long said he sees room for improvement.

For example, agents in the field using NIPS cannot access data in real time and must depend on Customs headquarters to mail it to them.

'We download the data and have to mail it,' Long said. 'By the time the agent gets it, it may be five or six days old.'

All agents are trained to use NIPS, but not all of them do.

'Younger agents are more IT-savvy and tend to use it more, whereas there is hesitation from the older lot to use it,' Long said.

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