Three Words for 2018? We Got This!

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Over the last week, I have been thinking about 2018. I don’t know about you, but 2018 snuck up on me. One moment I was caught up in the day-to-day of 2017 and the next moment 2018 was just a couple of weeks away! After my initial panic, I thought – well, it’s great because I get to think of my three words. Three words? Well, if you haven’t been on this journey with me before, I shall explain. In 2012, I met and was inspired by Tom Hood and he introduced me to the Three Words approach, which came from Chris Brogan. At the start of every year, now, I sit and think about what three words I would like to guide me through that year. During the year, I come back to those words, to help center, direct and motivate me. Over the last few days, I have thought about how to make this work better for me, and I determined that I must display these words to remind me, even when I am not thinking about being reminded, to move me when I feel stuck and to hold me accountable. I say this in part because, 2017 was a challenging year for me and I found that I often lost track of my guiding lights. Involved in, and sometimes overwhelmed by, the moment, I often forgot to even look for my words. Putting the words everywhere, will go a long way to keeping me mindful of that.

Last year, I started looking back over my year and I have found this to be a great way to assess how things went and to help me set my intentions for 2018. My three words:

Imagine. This is the first word that came to me. During 2017, in part through work and volunteering with the New York State Society of CPAs and the AICPA, I have had some truly new experiences. I have learnt how to play poker and how poker skills can benefit me in the workplace; I have worked with a team to consciously inch towards better health – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – and that has included laughing more and skating in Byrant Park; I have collaborated with incredible people and presented in various spaces, from a national conferences to a college campus. During the year, I have been involved in conversations that have opened my eyes, that have ventured into spaces that are often afraid to even tiptoe into, that have renewed my hope when things have seemed bleak. I have often reminded myself to listen and to hear because that is when I find the moments that hit me hard and that get me to imagine and those moments are incredible. When we imagine, and step outside of what we know, we can find brilliance, we can find understanding and, just as important, we can also see and revise the not so great. In 2018, I want to imagine without fear of where my imagination will lead me. I want to imagine and be okay with when what I imagine doesn’t always work out. I also want to make sure that I make the time and space for my imagination. Back in 2015, I tried to create space for me to be bored, which is a big part of creating the space for imagination and, as the exercise stated, brilliance. It did free my mind in great ways and, looking back and looking at now, I know I need a lot more boredom in my life. And I still haven’t finished my Starry Night jigsaw puzzle!

Innovate. During 2017, I listened and took part in conversations about change. The conversations were about artificial intelligence (AI) about blockchain (and cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin) and about cybersecurity. Other conversations were about what diversity, inclusion, and belonging mean and if and why it is important. We had conversations about what to do about all the change happening in our professions, in our world and in our lives. We talked about how we react to it and how we can embrace, be ahead of and even create greatness out of all the change. Beyond the conversations, we brainstormed and tried new things. We looked at the new approaches other took and ran with them. I spend a lot of time looking at challenges and how, sometimes, people take the same approach to resolving them and see minuscule results. As much as we tout how “change is good”, it is a human thing to resist changing the status quo. During this year, I want to innovate. I want to collaborate and brainstorm and determine to try something new. I want to embrace the difficult conversations, appreciate and improve upon feedback and, on my part, provide truly constructive feedback. I want to remember the power of synergy and never forget that the best innovations come through a community of people sharing, listening and taking risks.

Act. My third word came to me after I wrote and thought about my 2017 look back. When it comes to training, I have established and go with what gets me to success. If I have a race, I print up a daily timetable that includes rest days, cross training days and exactly what I shall do on each day (distance, goals, tempos if needed). The night before every training, I put out exactly what I am going to wear on the day and I determine my route. I think about and take away all my excuses so that, when I wake up, I just do exactly as planned and that gets me a step closer to where I need to go. I keep my schedule on the wall and tick off each day as I go along. During 2017, I often did not apply this approach. As a result, especially where I felt the stakes were high, I became adept at getting cold feet, at second-guessing myself and at putting things off until I decided it was too late to do them. There are many reasons why this happened but knowing the reasons and doing nothing about them is not helpful. I am going to do more acting in 2018. To help me do this, I am going to find the ways to take away my excuses, and I am also going to be more realistic about what I can get done, so that I don’t end up doing many things in a mediocre manner that only serves to disappoint me and others. I also must remember to be kinder to myself when I act and to see the power in action. I must remember that it is through action that I can bring value and have impact.

Before diving into 2018, I want to take a moment and meditate upon my previous three words:

2013 – Change, Discover & Motivate
2014 – Transform, Pursue & Collaborate
2015 – Receptive, Synergy & Service
2016 – Learn Fear & Community
2017 – Embrace, Persevere & Monchu

Several years ago, I went to Hawaii with friends and decided to take surfing lessons. I was a couple of months out of surgery and hesitated before I went out – I wasn’t at full strength, everyone else was going on a fun outing and I would be doing this solo, as no one else was interested. But, I had been thinking about taking a surfing lesson and I had told my surfing neighbor (who ultimately became my husband) that I was going to take a lesson and that made me feel accountable. During the lesson, I fell countless times, I scraped my knee and sometimes even got to the point where I was able to ride a wave while kneeling on the board. Then, I stood, and rode, and didn’t fall off. It was glorious and totally worth every fall, and the skin missing from my leg. When I finally fell off the board, I rose out of the water with a victorious yell! It is this that I must remember – it is a journey but it can only happen if I Imagine, Innovate AND Act.

Happy and wordy 2018 to you! Please share with me – what are your words for 2018?

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Fare Thee Well!

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“2017 was an intense year”. That’s the news alert that I received on 26 December. You’re not kidding me! – that was my response. This year has been a more challenging year than I expected it to be. Last year, I decided to do a year in review. Looking back helped me think more about my plans for the future. I have decided to do the same thing again. It is important to take stock. Without that, how can one think about the future?

As the year began, I decided to deal with minor health issues that turned out to be way more tedious and drawn out than I ever expected. Something that I thought would not take much time at all ended up lasting through July. What a drag. A trip that my husband and I had been planning, to visit my grandmother, was postponed. Then, on 10 June, my grandmother passed away. It was devastating news and made more so because, being in the midst of my own treatments, I could not travel for her funeral. The silver lining in this was that I discovered something I had never known. My family in Zimbabwe shared the above photo and I was stunned to see just how much I look like my grandmother.

Despite the challenges that came with the new year, I was honored and excited to be an instrumental part of a new committee with the New York State Society of CPAs – the Diversity & Inclusion Committee. It has been an eye-opening and insightful year, working to provide programming to our members to improve diversity & inclusion in our profession and to have frank and enlightening discussions and events around the topic. I have had fun times with members and those who have attended events and I like to think that, one little step at a time, we are making progress.

I have continued with the cello lessons that I started a year ago. I have woken up on Saturday mornings, exhausted after a long week at work, drained and not looking forward to the long drive back to downtown Brooklyn and the horror that is looking for a parking spot. However, once I get into class, I find joy. Our cello instructor started an adult orchestra and I have already had two recitals. A year ago I was learning how to play “Twinkle, Twinkle” and that was an important milestone. A couple of weeks ago, our orchestra played the theme to Jurassic Park AND I played a solo!! I’m no Yo-yo Ma (and never plan to be) but I always welcome the opportunity to work my brain and heart in new ways. I believe it makes me a better person, a happier person and a much better CPA!

I have continued to be inspired by high school and college students. These interactions renew my energy to work to build the pipeline to our profession – there is so much incredible talent out there and some of that talent should be a part of our profession. I speak with young people who are full of passion and promise and it fills me with joy!

I spoke at the AICPA’s Forensic & Valuation Services Conference. I met an incredible range of fellow professionals and came away feeling as though my brain had expanded a little bit. Every year, I look forward to sharing thoughts and insights and learning from Forensic & Valuation professionals and this year did not disappoint.

During the year, something I struggled to do was run. A couple of years ago, while taking out the trash, I tripped over a concrete block in my parking lot and fell, hard. I fell hard enough to fracture my leg and spent several months in a brace. As I failed to make a comeback, I went to see a doctor and found out that I had a torn meniscus. I closed out the year a procedure to fix the meniscus. That is all sorted out, but it turns out that, through that fall, where I wasn’t even running away from a rabid raccoon, I managed to do more damage to my knee that may need to be sorted out. The sad part of this is that I have been told to give up running. Honestly, I was gutted. Running has become a large part of who I am. My runs are my quiet time, they are my meditation and my medication. I have run through a Times Square that is cleared of traffic and pretended that I am trying to escape zombies. I have run through all five boroughs of New York City, during the marathon, and found delight and strength from those lining the route. To be told, “no more” is a difficult thing to swallow. I keep faith that I shall find new adventures and hold the secret (not so much now) hope in my heart that I shall run again.

  • I skated in Bryant Park and even let go of the railing!
  • I spent time with friends and family at the beach (I live here now!)
  • I went to an interactive screening of The Big Lebowski. There were a lot of bathrobes and even more spandex.
  • I have met new people who have made my life better.
  • I continue to be extremely grateful for all those I have known, who have given me hope, joy and support, sometimes even when they don’t realize they are doing so.

Yes, 2017 was a year with pain and disappointment but 2017 was also a year of inspiration and joy and it is important to see the progress that we have made, the work that has been done and the relationships that have been formed and built upon. I am ready for next year because I know I have great things to carry forward with me.

It is two days before 2018 – a year that will bring the Winter Olympics and the FIFA World Cup! I already have three words for 2018 – Bring It On!!!

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Oh, Not So Much Fun…

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On Christmas day, I was chatting with my niece, during family celebrations. My phone buzzed and I saw a notification that she had just sent me a message. That was truly odd, because, as I mentioned, we were chatting and, unless she was using her telepathic skills, she was not texting at the same time. Nevertheless, I asked her if she had sent me a message. She looked at me as though I had lost my mind, but double checked her phone and shrugged. It wasn’t me, she said and carried on with her day. Since she was engaging with people and not her phone, and because we were having a fun time with family, I decided that the likely bad news could wait.

I attended a talk earlier in the year where the speaker told us – There are two types of people: those who have been hacked, and those that don’t know it yet. By the time we got home, my niece had gone from being in the latter group to being a panicked person in the former. Often, a person finds out that they have been hacked when, as happened to my niece, their contacts complain about spam messages that they have received from that person. However, more and more often, people don’t know that they have effectively been hacked because the party hacked is a company that is holding people’s information.

In 2017, the most notorious example was, on 17 September, when the credit reporting agency, Equifax was hacked. Initially, the information was that about 143 million people might have been impacted. However, that number has climbed and what kind of information was accessed was vague. When people tried to check with Equifax, they often got different responses each time that they tried. Also, as the months have gone by, the number of people impacted has climbed. If Yahoo! is anything to go by, who knows what the final count will be. The best advice to take right now, is to assume you have been impacted and to take preventative steps and, if you have not already done so, freeze your credit with all four of the major credit reporting agencies.

What is unsettling about how companies announce that they have been hacked is how long it takes for the news to come out. Equifax claimed that it discovered their breach at the end of July but they only made a public announcement in the middle of September. It was only in October 2017 that Yahoo announced that all of its accounts were hacked in 2013. That’s not a typo; they are telling us that if you had Yahoo, Flickr, Tumblr, or any other account owned by Yahoo, you were hacked in 2013. What is anyone supposed to do with that information, four years later? This is worse than a “Look out for falling ice” sign. In November, we found out that Uber had been hacked in 2016 and that the company had opted to pay off the hackers to destroy the information and keep the hack quiet.

The big takeaway is that it may be a while before anyone lets you know that you have been hacked and, unless you live completely off the grid, it is smart, and safe, to assume that you have been hacked. That said, there are steps that you can take to try to minimize the damage that can be caused by hacking:

  • Freeze your credit with the major credit bureaus. Learning about the Equifax breach was especially frustrating because people do not choose to share their information with the credit bureaus. I rolled my eyes at a headline that referred to “customers” being compromised. The best one can do right now (beyond not having a credit history of any kind) is to try to limit how much information gets out.
  • Check your credit regularly. Do this at least quarterly, to make sure that cards have not been opened in your name and without your permission. Annual Credit Report is the only website, authorized by federal law to provide you with a free credit report from a credit reporting agency every twelve months. A great way to spread out the checking over the year is to get a report from one of the agencies every 4 months (instead of getting all three in one fell swoop).
  • Use two factor authentication. This gives extra security over only using a password. The most common method of two factor authentication is having a company send you a text with a unique code, before you can complete logging into an account.
  • Don’t click on every link you come across. If you receive an email with a link and it is not something you have been expecting (and sometimes even if it is something you have been expecting) don’t click on a link because it is there. Check the email to make sure you recognize where the message is coming from.
  • If you trust the link and have clicked on it, still be careful about what information that you share. If you start to feel as though a company is asking for too much – either over the phone or through a website, stop sharing information. Find out, independently, if you really need to share that information and, again, make sure you know who you are sharing your information with and why.

Try to include these in your list of New Year’s resolutions. It won’t stop you from being hacked but at least, it may improve your chances of finding out about it early and taking appropriate steps.

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Something’s Not Right

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When I was just heading into my teenage years, something was not right. Not with me, but with my mother. It was unsettling for me and then miserable. It was difficult enough to be heading into my teenage years but my mother was not helping by being off.

First of all, she began to act out of character. She would come home from work and ask for a glass of water with lots of ice in it. You may not see anything wrong with that, on the face of it, but it was plenty odd because my mother never drank glasses of water with lots of ice in them. And now she wanted a glass every night. To make things even more stressful for us, each glass was closely examined and if it was not perfect – not enough ice, water somehow looked cloudy, the glass was not perfectly polished – one of us kids would have to get a new glass and make sure that it was perfect this time.

Then there was the language. My mom started using new slang. For all I know now, she may have started hanging out with a new lunch buddy and picked up some phrases from this new friend. But, along with the water, this new language mom was freaking me out. It was truly odd. But the breaking point came, for me, one Saturday morning. I was following my mother around the house and she watered and spoke to her many, many plants. This was totally in character so that gave me some comfort and was likely the reason why I was hanging about with her that morning. Then I noticed that her dress didn’t quite fit. It was tight on my mom and that was, once again, out of character for her. What was going on?

That thought was still with me as I spent time alone that afternoon. What was going on? Well, after an afternoon of pondering, I had narrowed it down to two options. Either my mother was having an affair or she had been abducted by aliens and they had left an imposter alien in her place. My two options seemed to be the only options that made sense to me at the time – I had friends at school whose parents were going through divorce. Something about our conversations made me think that divorcing parents did not act like themselves. But, if it wasn’t divorce, it could only be aliens. I blame Star Trek for getting me to believe that my mother could be abducted and a poor replica, that wasn’t quite the same size and betrayed itself with its weird speech patterns and love of ice, be left in her place. Both options were devastating for me; either way I was losing my mother and that filled me with despair. I even cried a little that afternoon.

Fortunately for my state of mind, just that week, as though she knew what was going on with me, my mother broke the news. She was pregnant (some may say I was sort of right about the alien in her body). What a relief!

It turns out that, despite all the clues that I noticed, I came to a completely wrong conclusion about what was causing the changes in my mother. Fortunately all my wrong conclusions led to was an afternoon of sadness and tears. In the work place, the consequences of taking data, red flags and other clues to incorrect conclusions can be far more costly. A classic example is that of Rita Crundwell, who defrauded the city of Dixon of over $53 million. The people who worked with her saw that she had a growing stable of quarter horses and was often traveling far and wide with these horses. They assumed that the horses paid for themselves and more and this was how she could afford to keep them. People in the horse world, who knew that horses cost more than they made, thought that she had some kind of trust fund that paid for her extravagant lifestyle. When Rita would not let anyone do her work, or even collect her mail, they thought she was being a great treasurer who diligently controlled her city’s budget. No one saw all the clues and thought she was embezzling money.

If someone was paying attention to the clues and knew how to analyze all the red flags that Rita Crundwell left in her wake, her fraud would never have lasted for the two decades that it did. If, for instance, the city had taken on the services of a forensic CPA to analyze, design and implement control systems and to help them with fraud prevention and deterrence, they may not have lost over $53 million to Crundwell.

This is an excellent reminder of how important it is to have a CPA, with experience and qualifications in financial forensics, to analyze and assess your business’s operations and finances to see what clues are there and what those clues really mean. You may notice that things are amiss, but how willing are you to accept how expensive coming to the wrong conclusion can be for you?

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If Lost… Then What?

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At the end of May, I was on my way to an event, when a flash of pink on the sidewalk caught my attention. I stopped and realized that I was looking at a small square of leather. I bent down, picked it up and turned it over in my hands. It was a wallet with a MetroCard, some credit and debit cards and a driver’s license in it. I pulled out the license, looked it over, and walked over to the restaurant that was a few feet away from where I had just found the wallet. I must have made a few people nervous, staring at them and then down at the license, to see if anyone there resembled the photo. No luck. I then pulled out my phone and tried a few quick searches, online, to see if I could figure out how to contact this woman. Her name was more common than I imagined; several options came up and none appeared to be her. Yes, her license had an address on it but, the license had been issued several years earlier and people in New York City can move around quite a bit, in search of amenities such as a view, an elevator or affordable rent. As I was running late, I decided to go to my event and put my search off until later. On my way, I spotted a parked police car. I got excited, thinking that I may be able to hand over the wallet, but the excitement faded when I got close to the car and found that there was no one sitting in it.

When I got home and had more time to do so, I hunted down the woman whose wallet I had found and delivered it to her. Even if she had cancelled her cards, I am sure she was happy to get her stuff back – who knows maybe her MetroCard still had 29 days of use left on it. That experience reminded me of a time, years ago, when someone stole my handbag at the airport. I was livid that someone had invaded my space and even stood yelling, in the terminal, for the thief to just take my cash and give me back my stuff. Suffice to say, that did not happen. I did, fortunately, have a kind gentleman give me money to get the train back home. However, a few weeks later, my phone rang and it was the airport, calling to tell me that my bag had been found. They had been able to contact me because I happened to have a dry-cleaning slip in my wallet, and my phone number was on it. I was lucky that I had that slip in my bag but these two events really got me thinking about recovery plans, not just in business, in other aspects of our lives.

With a wallet, for instance, you can keep a business card in the wallet, or put a small card in your wallet with an email address and/or phone number so that, should you be unlucky enough to lose the wallet and a kind stranger picks it up, they can contact you and figure out how to get it back to you. It is an easy thing to do and could be hugely useful. It doesn’t even have to be your usual email address, if you have fears about your inbox being inundated by unwanted email, you can create an email address that you keep for moments such as this.

We never think that we will either lose our stuff or have it stolen from us but it can happen to any of us. It can be personal or it can be a business loss, such as a system crash, or theft and, in all cases, having a recovery plan will go a long way to make recovery less stressful and less expensive. If, at this very moment, you lost everything on your computer, what would you do? Does the thought give you heart palpitations because you would lose very important data, with no way of getting it back? Would you have to shell out a lot of money and spend valuable time working to try to recover everything? Would you wonder whether or not your business could survive such a loss? If this thought is a scary one to you, you should be thinking about sitting down with trusted professionals, to create and put a comprehensive protection and recovery plan in place. You should review various scenarios, even if you think it wouldn’t happen to you. Things to consider when doing this:

  • Are you backing up your data on a regular basis? Automating this process is a great way to make sure that it happens – you don’t want it to all depend on your remembering to do it.
  • Where are you keeping your backups? Do you keep a backup offsite and unconnected to your current system? You don’t want your backup corrupted, should your system go down.
  • Are you checking the integrity of your backups? It isn’t helpful to think you have been creating backups and find out, when you need the backup, that the process was not occurring.
  • Now that you have backups, do you have a recovery plan? Do you know what you are going to do should things go awry? Does your staff know? Do you have the plan in writing and in a space where it can be easily accessed? Have you trained your staff in this recovery process?

There are people who are well-trained in helping you create a backup and recovery plan and that can start with your CPA. You want someone who has experience and knowledge regarding best practices that are practical, useful and effective.

We are humans who work with technology that we have built and we must, therefore acknowledge that we are not infallible and we must therefore create, review and update our contingency plans. And that plan can never just be relying on the kindness of strangers.

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Now That I Think About It…

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When we talk about fraud and how it tends to happen, the classic fraud triangle is most commonly used to help us understand how it all happens. The sides of this triangle represent opportunity, pressure and rationalization. In this triangle there is a person, just a regular old person, like you and me. Fraud can happen to anyone and fraudsters are often regular people who find themselves under pressure, faced with the opportunity to perpetrate a fraud and the ability to rationalize it all.

Sometimes this person may face pressures. Maybe she has a family member who gets sick and now they have to deal with massive bills. Maybe the person has a gambling problem. Maybe he wants to live the jet set life that he sees his friends living. Whatever the reason may be, these people feel under a lot of pressure to get their hands on more money than they are currently earning.

Pressure or not, maybe this person sees an opportunity to defraud. Perhaps he can sign checks, AND, he has custody of the checkbook AND he performs the company’s bank reconciliations. He has all this access and responsibility and no one checking his work. So, now he has access to the money and he can doctor the books to cover up his wrongdoing. However it works out, these people see a weakness that they can take advantage of.

The third leg of this triangle is rationalization. This is where a person tells himself that there is a justification for what he is doing. Maybe she tells herself that she really needs the money to deal with this one emergency and this will happen only once. Maybe she then tells herself that this will happen only once and, to boot, she has been a loyal employee for a while so the company really owes her a little leeway for all that she has done. Maybe she tells herself that once she is out of this spot of trouble, she will pay the company back and it will be like it never happened in the first place. Maybe he tells himself that he is underpaid and that what he is doing is merely taking the money that he is rightly owed for all the hard work and time that he puts into the business. The rationalizations that people use are practically endless.

Earlier this year, I listened to the podcast “Ponzi Supernova”, a podcast about Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and what has happened since. One thing that was fascinating about this series was the conversations that Steve Fishman, journalist and narrator of the series, had with Bernie Madoff, infamous perpetrator of a massive Ponzi scheme. Bernie talked about his childhood and how affected he was by his father’s financial failures. Bernie tells Steve that, after seeing his father lose a lot of money and what it did to the family, Bernie swore he would never let that happen to him (perhaps one could see this as a pressure looming over his life). In the early 1960’s, Bernie Madoff violated market regulations and his clients’ trust by losing their money on risky deals. Instead of letting them know that this had happened, he lied to his clients, borrowed money from his father-in-law and carried on as though he was a brilliant investor. Speaking with Fishman, Madoff made it sound as though, because he did not want to fail as his father had, he took these steps so that he could continue to, at least, appear to be successful and very talented.

Bernie Madoff spoke with Steve Fishman a couple of years after he was caught (though, in some versions of his story, he claims he quit). Bernie Madoff also spoke with Diana Henriques, who wrote the book The Wizard of Lies, which is now an HBO Film by the same title. Their interactions also occurred a couple of years after Madoff’s fraud was discovered. After he had plead guilty to his crime. Yet, over and over again, Madoff seemed to continue to make excuses for his behavior and try to minimize what he did. Even though, when pleading guilty, he claimed that he acted alone, he has since changed his tune and as co-conspirators have testified against him, he then seems to say, “well, except for that person, I acted alone”. So, it seems that even after being caught, he is only sharing as much of the truth as he needs to and, what I have found to be most interesting, is that he appears to continue to rationalize what he did.

In an ideal world, one would imagine that having a fraud exposed and pleading guilty would bring a fraudster to his senses. When we imagine a person committing fraud as a regular person who has fallen into irregular behavior, the hope is that putting an end to this irregular behavior will bring this person to her senses and get them to admit that what they did was without excuses; that, even though they rationalized their actions when they perpetuated the fraud, they now saw the error of their ways and realized that the rationalizations were all without merit. During the hearing when he plead guilty, Madoff read a prepared statement where he apologized to his victims. However, even that apology came with a “but” attached. “While I never promised a specific rate of return to any client, I felt compelled to satisfy my clients’ expectations, at any cost.” Yet, listening to Ponzi Supernova, you learn that some clients would demand an adjustment to their statements when they did not receive the return they had been promised. Madoff has also placed blame on his victims, claiming that they knew, or should have known, what they were getting into, that he had warned them and that they did not lose as much as they claimed. And, I have found that it is not just Madoff who does this. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners talks to people who were convicted of fraud and, in video after video, the perpetrators found ways to hold others responsible for what they did – and this is after they had been found guilty and served their sentences. For instance, one blamed her supervisor for being too trusting, “I don’t blame them but…” she started her sentence. Another stated, “I asked you for help and you said no”, while yet another said “I won’t get caught again”, not “I won’t do it again because I realize it was wrong.

It may be human to not want to admit full responsibility. Perhaps it is too hard for most of us to admit that we have done terrible things. Who really wants to be a monster, blamed for ruining lives, even when those lives are laid out in front for you? And if we are not harshly judging ourselves, even when caught, then can we really adjust our behaviors to do right and get back on the straight and narrow? I don’t know the answers to this but it is something I think about as I perform my work as a forensic accountant. If a person is not able to strip away rationalization and admit that they were just wrong when they perpetuated their fraud, then what are the chances that it won’t be so difficult to do it again?

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Paying It Way Forward

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Bert N. Mitchell

Last night I attended the New York State Society of CPA’s (NYSSCPA) Moynihan Fund Gala. I was looking forward to a fun night with my colleagues, looking out on the water as the sun set and enjoying good food and drinks. What I did not expect was the incredible history lesson that I received from Lifetime Award Honoree, Bert N. Mitchell. In 1987, Mitchell became the first black president of the NYSSCPA and, during his tenure, the NYSSCPA launched the Career Opportunities in the Accounting Profession (COAP) program. I was already aware of these very impressive aspects of Bert Mitchell’s career, but, as he shared his life story, I found that these achievements were only scratching the surface.

Mitchell shared, last night, that he was the 100th black CPA in the United States. This statistic hit harder when he shared that he earned this qualification in 1965, a little more than ten years after Bernadine Coles Gines became the first black woman to become a CPA in New York and the 34th black person to become a CPA in America. Even though it was 11 years after Gines had encountered many obstacles on her journey to becoming a CPA, Mitchell did not find things to be much easier when he graduated, at the top of his accounting class, in 1963. Despite his top-notch qualifications, Mitchell spent two weeks seeking a position at one of the top accounting firms, preferably, one of the Big 8 (at the time). He travelled from lower Manhattan and worked his way to Midtown, stopping in at every major CPA firm and, over and over again, he was turned away, with the excuse that their clients’ attitudes regarding hiring a black person were why they wouldn’t give him a job. In 1968, the AICPA launched the Committee on Recruitment from Minority Groups and Mitchell was one of the five black members of the eleven member committee. A year later, in 1969, Mitchell published a study entitled “The Black Minority in the CPA Profession” and this study found that underrepresentation in the CPA profession was worse than in law, medicine and other professions. This study found that out of 100,000 CPAs in the United States, fewer than 150 were black and firms claimed, as they had to Mitchell when he was seeking employment, that the barrier to hiring African Americans was not their own bias but that of their clients.

In a follow-up to the 1969 study, Mitchell published a study in 1975 that showed that the number of black CPAs had tripled to 450. As encouraging as this information was, there was still much to and, as became apparent, Mitchell was nowhere near done. When Mitchell became president of the NYSSCPA in 1987, the stats were depressing. Black people made up almost 13% of the population, yet they made up less than one percent of CPAs. In comparison to other professions, only airline pilots had lower representation. Representation by other peoples of color was not much better – Latino representation also hovered around 1% and Asian representation was about 3%.

When I heard Bert Mitchell’s speech last night, I knew I needed to know more and when he mentioned that he was the 100th black CPA in America I, fortunately, knew exactly where to go. When I met and was moved and inspired by Bernadine Coles Gines, I went out and bought the book “A White-Collar Profession, African American Certified Public Accountants Since 1921” by Theresa A. Hammond. This book, published in 2002, tells the history of African Americans in the profession. I knew I would find him in there, not only because of the incredible work that he has done to expose people of color to the CPA profession, but also because I remembered that the book included a list of the first 100 black CPAs in the United States. I got home and there he was – “100. Bert N. Mitchell 1965 New York”.

At the Gala, as three alumni of the COAP program took to the stage and shared their stories of how the program and not only exposed them to the CPA profession but also made them believe that this was possible for them, I was deeply moved by the work and efforts of Bert N. Mitchell and others who, like him, have been dedicated to diversity and inclusion in our profession. Pick up the book, read it and learn more about Mitchell and the other first 100. This is not ancient history, it is actually amazing how recent this history is. It is hard to pass the CPA exam. It is a daily challenge to maintain the standards and knowledge that make us trusted professionals. It should never be a struggle to be hired because of your race, gender or sexual orientation. I am truly in awe, as Bert N. Mitchell, truly has dedicated his life to advocating for diversity and fairness in the profession.

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Makes You WannaCry

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A couple of years ago a lawyer friend told me about clients who were coming to her office, panicked because their computers had been locked by parties claiming to be the FBI. In order to get their machines unlocked, these fake FBI agents demanded to be paid a ransom. On Friday, over 200,000 machines were locked by people (I assume it was more than one person) who did not even pretend to be good. They encrypted the information on these machines and demanded $300 to $600 per machine or, they threatened, all the data on those machines would be destroyed. This type of attack is called a ransomware attack. A program is introduced into the machine, and it locks and encrypts all the data on the machine. A message pops up on the infected machine demanding that money be paid, almost always via bitcoin. Once the ransom has been paid, the message says, a method to unlock the machine will be sent. If the ransom is not paid within the time demanded, all the data on the machine will be erased. So much of our lives, both personal and business, is stored on computers; can you imagine what would happen if your computer was locked? The mere thought makes my heart speed up.

Earlier this year, a hacker crew called Shadow Brokers released several tools used by the National Security Agency (NSA). Among these tools was one called EternalBlue and this tool exploited a flaw in Microsoft Windows. Armed with the information that was leaked, Microsoft created a patch to fix this flaw and released this patch in March. Perhaps you have now read this far and you are wondering, if the patch was released in March, how did this massive attack happen in May? How many times has a message popped up on your machine while you are in the middle of something. The message tells you that an update is available for your machine. You see it, but you are in the middle of something important. You close the window and delay the update. This can happen over and over again. Some people, irritated by the notices, turn off the alerts altogether. Now, these automatic alerts are only available on versions of Windows that Microsoft is still actively supporting. So, if you have an older version of Windows, such as XP, Windows 8 or Windows Server 2003, you no longer receive alerts for updates. Either way, there are millions of machines that were vulnerable to attack on Friday. And on Friday, ransomware aptly called WannaCry, wreaked havoc all over the world.

It is believed that the attackers gained access to computers and systems using infected zip files attached to emails. People opened emails and clicked on attachments. These emails did not come from friends and the people clicked on attachments, not knowing what they were opening. Taking advantage of the fact that many organizations store their computer information on servers, making all users interconnected. The WannaCry ransomware, once released by one user, made its way through the interconnected systems and attacked other machines, even those belonging to people who did not click on the infected attachments.

This attack has made many things apparent:

  • Keeping secrets can sometimes go very wrong. The NSA knew that there was a vulnerability in Microsoft Windows. If it was not for the Shadow Brokers leak, Microsoft may not have discovered this vulnerability and they would not have developed a patch to fix it. One can also argue that, if Shadow Brokers had not leaked this information, the hackers may not have known to create WannaCry and none of this would have happened in the first place. I have found, though, that generally speaking, secrets are not kept that way forever.
  • When I wrote about the fake FBI attacks, I stated the importance of keeping your computers up to date. I cannot stress this enough. When the reminders pop up on your machine to update your software, update your software. Install the security fixes. If you don’t want to be disturbed, set up a timetable so that your machine will automatically check for and install updates on a regular basis. Remember, also, to restart your machine on a regular basis. Many installations are not complete without a restart and some updates are triggered by a restart.
  • We live in a time where everyone receives more email than they want to deal with. We run the risk of making careless mistakes, opening up emails and clicking on attachments when we have no idea who sent the email and what is in the attachment. Nowadays, you are almost lucky if the only thing that the attachment does is send out a lot of spam to your friends. More often, click on that attachment can lead to hackers stealing information from you or holding your machine hostage. Sometimes, even when I receive an email, with an attachment, that appears to be from a friend, I will double-check with the friend to make sure that they have sent the email and their account has not been hacked. The extra step may seem tedious but, enough times I have found out that my friend was hacked, so I keep asking when I am suspicious.
  • If your operating system is no longer supported, you should consider getting new software that is. I say this with mixed feelings. Like most people, I hate being forced to buy something when what I already have has been working well for me and when I don’t like the new version. I feel scammed being made to spend that extra money and if the world only contained righteous people I would tell you to keep your software and change it when you are ready. But, we live in a world where people are ready to take advantage of an opportunity to get money out of you. Microsoft stopped providing support for Windows XP in 2014. This ransomware is specifically taking advantage of this fact. It’s a shame, but it is the way it is.
  • Back up, Back up and back up some more. If you are regularly backing up your machine and keeping the backup either in the cloud or on an external drive, you know what you can do when your machine is held for ransom? You can ignore the ransom demand because you have your data saved some place safe. The clock can tick down, the files on your machine can all be delete and, even though it will suck to restore everything, you can do so.

On Monday morning, people are going to go to work and turn on their machines and many machines running Windows XP or that have not been updated in months will be open to attack. Many of those that are attacked will want to pay the ransom because their data has not been backed. Just weeks ago, articles were written about how British hospitals spent nothing on cyber-defense.  On Friday, they could barely function. Maybe they had started having meetings and started discussing taking steps to protect their systems. But, like we all do when that warning popped up, they put it off. I am sure right now they are wishing they had done something to protect themselves because they had to scramble to fix a disaster.

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2017! Three Words! Let’s Go!

img_1043-2Yesterday, I took a moment to look back at 2016 and I am glad that I did. After that exercise in honoring history, I actually changed one of my words for 2017. My words for 2017? That may be what you are wondering. Let me explain. In 2013, Tom Hood introduced me to the concept of Three Words (and that concept came from Chris Brogan). I use these three words to give the year ahead a theme, almost like a rhythm that I can dance to as I go through the year; and isn’t everything better with dance? The process of thinking about my three words and then coming back to them throughout the year, help consolidate, direct and give confidence to what I do and how I do it. As I read over yesterday’s post, I saw my 2016 Three Words dancing over my year, in ways that I had not thought about as I was writing the post – Learn. Fear. Community.

For several days, I thought about what my words for 2017 would be – and how those words would serve to seal my intentions for the days ahead. I think I have it now.

Embrace: In previous years I have written about changing things in my life. Transform was one of my words in 2014. Then, in 2015, Receptive was a word of mine. Last year we moved to a new neighborhood. When I was a kid, due to politics and other adventures in their lives, we moved around a lot. Between first and third grade, I went to four different schools in three different countries, in four different cities. During my first two years in New York City, I lost count of how many places I lived in. I even spent a couple of months camping out on a (very amazing) friend’s couch on weekends, while I worked in Florida during the week. Last year, I talked transformation and I was receptive to talk of moving but, now that I am here, I realize that it is not going to work until I embrace it. This is where I am now with my move, with my work, with my life. I can talk about how great innovations in my line of work are; I can marvel at how awesome some of the tools that are available to us are; I can wax lyrical about the incredible people who cross my path and make me better at what I do, but all of that is not worth much unless I dive in there, snuggle in and just embrace it all.

Persevere: When I started training to run long distance, I learnt about the power of a mantra. The mantra was invaluable to me, when doing hill repeats. I would chug up a hill and repeat, over and over again, “I love hills.” I will say this, I reached the top of that hill and many others AND I hate hills less and appreciate their value. I actually surprised myself when I told a cousin that I wished there were a few more hills around my new home. In 2015, I embarked on a new journey of sorts. I started my own business and decided that I wanted to do work that made me look forward to getting out of bed every day. I loved that my husband’s work, as a photographer, was something he also did for fun. I admired how excited he got about his projects and I wanted some of that. At times I would talk to some people about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it and they would tell me, “that will never work.” Fortunately, my incredible community (2016 word, hello!) took over and repeated the mantra I had not yet learnt to say myself. However, as the year came to an end, I started to believe. So this year, I shall remember to say to myself, “You got this. You can do this,” not just when I am running, or doing pull-ups. I shall tell myself this as I am serving my clients, community and the public.

Monchu: My last word is a word that I have borrowed from Chris Brogan. Chris tells us Monchu is an Okinawan word that means “one family”. It essentially means that we treat people who are not our blood as though they are family. I have benefited from this concept forever. As someone who lives very far away from most of my blood, I just don’t know where I would be with my one family. For instance, I just wrote about how I was able to crash on a friend’s couch when I first moved to New York. I didn’t mention that I had only known her for months and she offered her home to me, and her husband and adorable daughter didn’t seem to mind either. That is just one of a million of my stories. I know that I could do a way better job of keeping in touch with people to let them know that they are part of my one family. I know that this philosophy will guide me to be better at what I do and how I do it. I hope to also inspire others around me to embrace this philosophy.

As I share my words for 2017, I want to acknowledge my words from previous years:

2013 – Change, Discover & Motivate
2014 – Transform, Pursue & Collaborate
2015 – Receptive, Synergy & Service
2016 – Learn, Fear & Community

And now for 2017 – Embrace, Persevere & Monchu. I am excited for the year ahead and I know that the view from my new home will help me do so. You see it up above, I can see forever now. I got this.

Tell me, what are your words?

I hope 2017 is your best year ever!

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Over My Shoulder

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I was in high school before I realized how much I love history. Even though I read many historical adventures and would get so caught up in stories that I would find myself being moved in ways movies and television could, I never attached that excitement to any history I ever learnt in school. There was a separation of story and history until I ended up with a history teacher who was so gifted at bringing history to life that I didn’t even really feel as though I was in class.

What has taken a while to sink in is that history is not just about other people’s stories and what they might mean, but it is also about my own stories (along with people around me) and how what I have done, thought and felt in the past is something that I should not only want to record, remember and recognize but also find importance in. In 2013, I started a new approach to beginning my year. Since then, I have given my year a theme, encapsulated in three words. In order to better think on what I would like to make as my theme for next year, looking back at where I have been is invaluable. So, I am taking a moment to take a look at how 2016 went – to learn, to appreciate and to give myself a pat on the back where needed.

Throughout my year, I continued to be amazed by and grateful for the people I crossed paths with – friends, strangers and those in between. It may have been someone telling me not to give up at moments when the thought was threatening to become action. It may have been someone sharing words of wisdom that kept me and my fear, anger or ego acting out irrationally.

In 2016:

  • I moved to a new neighborhood. This was a big deal as I had lived in the same neighborhood for 16 years (my husband had been there for 20), we had many friends that lived conveniently close and more amenities than we knew what to do with. I miss it all AND I am excited about our new path forward.
  • A college friend invited me to take cello lessons with her and another friends and I said yes. We love it – we dream big and take small steps every week toward living those dreams. I know those around us, who get to hear us practicing, hope that we live those dreams sooner rather than later.
  • I was accepted into New York Community Trust Leadership Fellows, a program in nonprofit leadership that has both expanded my mind and exposed me to some truly inspiring, passionate and motivating people and organizations.
  • I had great conversations with high school students, college students and fellow professionals about forensic accounting, careers in accounting and working to do what we love, even when we have doubts about it.
  • I was part of a very exciting launch of the New York State Society of  CPAs Women’s Initiative and, at the end of the year, I became the Chair of the NYSSCPA Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Through the efforts and enthusiasm of my colleagues and the NYSSCPA, I am fortunate to be involved with such important initiatives and committees.
  • I have seen friends stand up for what they believe is right; I have experienced my communities come together in ways that renew my belief in humanity; I have applauded the sheer awesomeness of my people!

The night of 31 December 2016 turned out to be an incredibly windy one. My husband and I had planned on walking around the neighborhood, discovering the various New Year’s Eve celebrations in our new space. However, gale force winds led to a change of plan (isn’t that how life works?) We made dinner and spent the evening talking, laughing and watching various celebrations on television. I made sure to dance before and after midnight

Growing up, my father gave me a diary for Christmas, every year. I was always excited to get mine and, even as I moved away for college and started living away from home, I still got my diary. In yet another chapter of – Parents are Sneaky and Wise – I have discovered the power and importance of being able to look back and how much that helps in looking forward. So, farewell 2016! I am now turning my head to look ahead to 2017. Hello!

 

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