Category Archives: PSA

That’s Not How It Goes

canine_side-eyeI am a huge sports fan. Huge. It is just about the only time that I tend to watch live television. The drawback, in my opinion, is that I have to watch all the ads on television, even the ones that get on my nerves. It is a sacrifice I am willing to make in order to get my game in real-time but, sometimes, I wonder. We are in the midst of basketball and tax seasons and the two have, apparently, come together to try to give me an aneurism or, at the very least, high blood pressure. You see, there are a variety of tax preparation related ads, declaring that it is time to get the mountains of money due to you and how easy it is to just do it all yourself, while you’re at it. I just hold my head and mutter, “no, no, no, no!”

Ad after ad trumpets that the product advertised will get you the largest tax refund around. So, what happens when you file your taxes and you don’t get a big refund; maybe you don’t get a refund at all? Do you get upset? Do you feel that your tax preparation software or professional has done wrong by you? But a refund is the government paying you back money that you overpaid them in the first place. Getting a large refund doesn’t mean that you lucked out and won the government lottery; it means that, over the year, you sent the government too much money and now the money is sending that money back to you, interest free.

Refund tales aside, there is the matter of how complicated the tax code is, something that even the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) writes about. The 2014 Tax Guide, a publication that the IRS puts out to help guide individuals who are filing their taxes is a daunting 288 pages long and that’s before the references in the guide for further information on the subjects covered. So, I am sure you can begin to understand my frustration when I see ads that imply that preparing a tax return is as simple as baking a cake. It is unclear how long the tax code is currently, but what we do know is that it gets longer and more complicated by the year.

Computer software is incredibly helpful, when it comes to tax preparation. However, it is paramount to keep in mind that the software is a tool and it will not automatically make you an expert, knowledgeable of the ins and outs of the tax code. If your tax return is straightforward, the chances are that you will be okay filing your own return. Say, however, that you have a business; do you know which of your expenses are deductible and which are not? If you are married, and you decide to file separately, instead of jointly with your spouse, do you know what the differences are between the two? What about if you have spent the year speculating, buying and selling assets, or if you gambled a lot and have significant winnings or losses? The software can only work with what you give it and what if the software doesn’t ask you the right questions in order to get as much information needed in order to have as accurate a tax return as possible?

At the end of the day, the IRS holds you responsible for errors in your tax return and the amount of taxes you pay (and what you claim as a refund). The last thing you want is to be hit with a notice telling you that you owe the IRS a bunch of money because, when they do that, they tend to also charge you interest and penalties. Some tax preparers will tell you that they will cover only penalties and interest due to errors on a tax return, but what about the erroneous tax refund that you have already spent? Yup, only you have to deal with that. It seems like the punishment is a lot worse than just messing up a cake recipe, right? So, I’m thinking that getting a qualified professional, such as a CPA, to prepare your taxes might be worth your investment. Don’t go with someone who promises you the largest refund; go with someone who has studied the law and takes continuing education to stay up to date on the intricacies of the tax code and not only how you will be affected federally but also on a state and local level. Yeah, state and local – I didn’t even go into all that. Find someone who knows what they are doing and who can tell you what is going on and why. Or, you could try to tackle the bigger than the bible tax code and do it all yourself. You’ve got time, right?

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Gimme A Break!

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It almost seems a long time ago, but November and December had a great series of holidays that, for some, were leveraged into a week or two of time off. From the conversations that I have had with strangers in elevators, not a single person wished they could have just stayed in the office and worked. The only gripe was the weather (for those of us in the Northeast). Everyone needs time off to recharge and those who tell us otherwise are lying to themselves or to us.

However, for those bosses who don’t care about whether or not their workers are worn out, just as long as they show up, there is a reason to give time off that benefits them – security. You would not believe how many stories I have come across, of fraud perpetrated by employees who rarely took time off and , if they did, it was only ever for a couple of days at a time. The bosses loved them because they were so diligent and always there when anything was needed. It also turned out that these same employees were diligently stealing from their employers. because they were always in the office, they were able to make sure that people didn’t poke around in their work too much. Because they were always in, they were able to steer people away if anyone seemed to be getting close to discovering their scheme. Because they were always the face in the office, they were able to gain the trust of their employers. In this way, they were able to keep watch over their fraud schemes and keep them going on for a long time. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard about how shocked people were when a fraudster was exposed because of how diligent and ever-present that person was.

In theory, it is an admirable thing to have a worker who so loves coming into work that they won’t even take paid time off. However, when you think about it, why wouldn’t someone want to take time off that they are being paid to take? I don’t know about you but I do not have conversations where employees go on about how much they prefer being at work over spending time with loved ones, how much they love their daily commute and wouldn’t trade it for anything, or how they wish that weekends and days off would be abolished so they could spend more time at work. With this in mind, employees who do not want to take time off should be viewed with skepticism.

It is important that employers take advantage of the time off given, in order to perform fraud prevention and detection activities. This is mostly achieved by having another employee do the work of the vacationing employee. This is particularly important if the employee has a financial role or access to assets. A few examples of tasks that should be performed in an employee’s absence are:

  • reconciling the bank accounts;
  • receiving and opening mail, especially correspondence from banks and vendors
  • receiving and processing inventory;
  • disbursing checks.

Nobody likes to do someone else’s work, and that is a plus for a fraudster. But, doing someone else’s work has gotten many a fraudster caught (and often highlights errors and weaknesses). Bank reconciliations have been found to contain fictitious reconciling items. Checking the mail has revealed bank accounts that employees secretly opened and used to divert company funds for their own benefit. A check of vendor statements and payments has revealed payments being made to fake vendors. A lot of benefits are gained by employers when they give their workers time off and use that time to have their peers do the vacationers’ work. Several authorities, including the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the SEC recommend that banks and investment advisors, among others, adopt mandatory two-week vacation policies as a safeguard against fraud. This is an approach that other types of businesses should also consider adopting. Several companies have adopted this policy of a two consecutive weeks off. This gives sufficient time to have other employees perform the tasks of their vacationing colleagues.

There is another benefit to having others do the work of their coworkers, either when that employee is on vacation or by rotating tasks. This is increases the number of employees with knowledge of processes, with all the peculiarities a company will have that are not in the company manuals. I recently read a piece on TheInnerAuditor website about the dangers and risks involved when knowledge is held by one individual in a company. Invariably that person’s work is never checked (who would know how to) and no one ever knows when this special person makes an error or, even worse, is committing fraud. In addition to this, should this person quit, retire or fall ill, the company will find that has no idea how to do certain things or even where to find the information required for the task. This is because it has been easier to rely on this one brain trust than to learn what the trust knows. And the brain trust enjoys the power and authority given to them because they are always the smartest person in the room. I have written before about how notes on systems and processes may not include every single piece of information. Having others cycle through tasks is the best way to be sure that others know how to perform the tasks and that more than one person knows what is going on.

So, bosses, go ahead, give your employees a break, a real break. They will be happier and likely more productive for it and it will benefit your company. it will improve your chances of detecting and deterring fraud and it will help prevent errors. Finally, it will make sure that you don’t have to depend on one person to keep the business running.

And, workers, tell your bosses to give you lots of time off and remind them to, please, have someone do your work while you’re away. Assure them that you are not doing this for yourself. No, this is part of you looking out for their business.

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Ripped From My Headlines?

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“Aren’t you excited that they’re making a show about you?” This is how my friend, Tabeel, greeted me this morning.

A show about me and I haven’t been telling you all about it? Well, let me tell you, I’m as surprised as you are, but very delighted about the news. It’s about time. I watch way more than my share of crime shows. I have watched so much vintage Law & Order that I can pretty much tell when we are going to move from the Order to the Law and I can see a twist coming a mile away. When I see a new crime show being advertised on TV, I am pretty much always willing to give it a chance. I am held back from watching more crime-related shows because there are only 24 hours in day and I waste a lot of that time sleeping, working and interacting with the real world. For all the great and wonderful things that the shows do for me, I have a recurring gripe.

Every once in a while, on these shows, the investigators will have to solve a money-related issue and they’ll call in the forensic accountant. The guy, and it’s always a guy, who shows up always looks like he has not seen the light of day in years and appears to have forgotten how to interact with other human beings. His clothes and hair are out of style and the other investigators only put up with him because he talks, geekily, about where the money that they are trying to find went. The forensic accountant is that one guy on the show that no one wants to be. I mean, the coroners are more exciting than the forensic accountant and they deal with corpses!

But all of that is about to change. It is as though someone with access to a television network has been listening in on my conversations and hearing me yelling at the television. Tabeel shared with me that Shonda Rhimes is adding a new show to her resume, “The Catch”, and this show is a show about a forensic accountant. Not a show where a forensic accountant is released from the dungeon every once in a while, to look at numbers. The main character is a forensic accountant and the forensic accountant is a woman! Finally, someone found the right ear to whisper in – the stereotype is not reality. There is so much more to a forensic accountant than we have seen so far on television. At last, someone has decided to make a show about me!

I mean it totally has to be a show about me, right? A female, forensic accountant who is likely to be kick-ass and have many clever and insightful things to say. That’s totally how I roll. I look forward to this show, in between the dramatic twists and cliffhangers, highlighting some of the processes and nuances of what forensic accounting is about.It may begin a movement until finally Law & Order FAU (Forensic Accounting Unit) is launched. The forensic accountant is busting out of the basement and she’s taking no prisoners! Well, there probably be a lot of prisoners but you get what I’m saying. Look out for it, set your DVRs and dive into the world of the crime-fighting CPA!

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Watchoo Talkin’ ‘Bout

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Before I studied accounting, I went to college and got a degree in economics and mathematics. Armed with this degree in issues of money and numbers, I figured that accounting would be a relative walk in the park. I had learnt about debits and credits in economics, I had created intricate formulae in mathematics and I had tested theories on what had happened during the Salem witch trials in statistics, so I felt more than ready for accounting. Boy, was I wrong.
It had been a while since I had felt so overwhelmed. Nothing that I read made sense to me. When I asked my coworkers, who had been studying accounting for a while, they were confused. How could I not understand the accounting concepts. I was studying the most basic things – how could it not make sense. I spoke to my parents and warned them that I might not last in accounting. I prepared them for my failure. My mother, who had taken some coursework in accounting, stated that she had faith that I would work things out. It’s nice to have family who have faith in you, even when all around you look at you like you are the biggest dummy about. She encouraged me to look at some of the books that she had, “Maybe they will help.” I did and, fortunately for me, I found a book that explained accounting in a way that made it all clear to me. I almost couldn’t believe that it had been so difficult before. Now, I felt like I had a brain and it was more than luck that had gotten me through college the first time around.
As I have mentioned before, forensic accounting is a specialty practice of accounting where the work done is suitable for a court of law. The work done here is in anticipation of or as a result of litigation. Often a forensic CPA, usually Certified in Financial Forensics, will testify as a forensic expert before a judge and jury. Forensic CPAs are also often expected to present reports to their clients, to judges or to juries. Because most of the audiences that forensic accountants speak to are not financial experts in any way, it is imperative that they can communicate their work in a way that is understood by all the parties that they deal with. One of those parties could be you.
Many people that I talk to, who have accountants, have no idea exactly what their accountants do, or why. What they are is grateful that their taxes are filed on time and that they either had a small tax liability or a decent refund. This should never be your attitude with your forensic CPA and you should not give the time of day to a forensic accountant who does not explain everything to you. When it comes to forensic issues, you, as a client dealing either directly with a forensic CPA or through a lawyer, are the party to the potential litigation. Doesn’t it just make sense that you know exactly what is going on? Also, if they can’t explain things to you, how much faith could you have that they will be able to explain it to anyone else? My attitude is, if they are not doing a good job with me, and I’m the one hiring them, how can I expect them to do a good job anywhere else?
You should have a forensic accountant that you understand, are comfortable with and doesn’t treat you as though you are not smart enough to understand the complicated work that they do. Yes, the work they do can be very complex and involved but, part of being a good forensic accountant, is being able to take this complicated work and explain it in a way that can be understood by a jury of ones peers (generally a jury of people who did not major in accountancy). I often hear the phrase “explain it as though you are talking to a six year old”, but I would be happy if it was explained to me like someone was talking to an economics and mathematics major. Don’t let them make you feel dumb. Chances are, if they do, they may not be so clever themselves.

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Stuff It

Back in the early days of my time as an auditor, I went on many inventory counts. Because companies would have to close their businesses while the inventory count was going on, they tended to happen over the weekend. I am yet to meet anyone who likes to spend their weekends at work and it is even worse when all of your friends are going to be sleeping in or doing something fun while you are at work. I could complain (and I am sure I did) but it was a necessary part of the work that I did and so I spent several weekends at a client, observing their inventory counts and carrying out audit tests. One particular assignment sticks in my head. I went to a company that had a very large inventory of bags of cement. I cannot, for the life of me, remember what the company did – whether it was construction or the manufacture and sale of cement. Either way, there was a huge warehouse, filled with stacks of these bags. I don’t know how much you know about cement but, what I found out that day is that cement is very powdery and the small particles are very good at escaping the bags that they are put into. You could see the air in the warehouse; it looked a little like the inside of a snow globe, except for the fact that no one would ever make a snow globe of mountains of brown bags. One of my tests involved test counting areas of inventory to see if my numbers tied up with the numbers counted by the client. I walked around sections of the warehouse and counted stacks of bags – the length, breadth and height – and multiplied numbers to come up with totals. I was not done though. I had to make sure that the mountains were made up of cement bags all the way through and not, say, hollow in the middle. So, I climbed up the dusty stacks of bags, fighting my fear of heights in the name of my mission, and checked to make sure that the stacks were not hollow. I then also had some of the staff at the company move some bags around to make sure that the stacks were made up of only cement bags and not bags of some other filler. I went home that day coated in a film of cement dust. I know my neighbors were wondering how an auditor could get so dirty at work – didn’t I just work with a calculator and pen? Ink stains were expected, but not cement. For all the complaining that I did about spending my Saturdays on inventory counts, I found a lot of the assignments, like this one, to be a lot of fun and rather exciting. I got to be queen of the cement mountains and bound about, on high, in the name of thoroughness.

If you have a company that sells or makes any kind of stuff, you will have inventory, which is also called stock. In accounting lingo, inventory is considered to be an asset because it is something that is expected to make you money in the future. For the very reason that inventory is expected to make you money in the future, it is important, for the health of your company, to safeguard your inventory, so that someone else doesn’t make off with it and, thus, your future money. I have spoken many times about many ways to prevent fraud and error with financial statements, but a lot of these steps can be translated into making sure that you hold on to your stuff.

In the world of inventory, your stuff disappearing is referred to as shrinkage. It makes it sound like you didn’t follow the instructions for laundering clothing, but it basically means that someone is stealing from you and, I don’t know about you, but I don’t like it when people steal my stuff. Any advice I can take to keep that from happening is good advice to me. The first step, in order to protect your inventory, is to keep it locked up. I have told you before about the steps my husband took to install physical barriers to access to his belongings in his studio. These are the types of steps that you should take in physically safeguarding your inventory, your stuff. Depending on what you have and what your needs are, the physical safeguarding may be locks, cameras, doors with security codes or even those fancy retina scanners that we see on crime shows. You should not only keep your inventory under lock and key but also limit access to the inventory to a few authorized parties. Only people with a reason to get to the inventory should have access. This makes it easier to trace the movements of inventory and it also serves as a deterrent to those who might think about pilfering inventory. If the list of suspects is a short one, those people might think twice about stealing.

The segregation of duties is also vital with inventory. The cycle of inventory begins with its purchase. Inventory is then stored until it is needed for manufacture or sale. Sometimes inventory is damaged, expires or is otherwise no longer of value to you and your company. When this happens, the inventory is either destroyed or sold, at a loss, to someone else who still finds it useful. Now, if one person has control over this process, from purchase to sale or destruction, there are many opportunities for fraud. For example, a person may take inventory, sell it for a profit and then write off that inventory as obsolete, pocketing the money made from the sale. Another example of fraud is ordering and receiving, say, ten items, but claiming that only nine were received. This person can then take the tenth item for personal use or profit.

Another very useful and important control is the use of preprinted, prenumbered documentation. These documents range from order forms, to receiving reports and shipping reports. All movement of inventory coming in and going out must be documented and those documents must be prenumbered. Gaps in the document numbering, or repeated numbers, will raise red flags that should be investigated. Missing documents should also raise red flags that should be investigated.

Inventory is your company’s stuff and it is important to seek out the advice and guidance of qualified CPAs to best protect it. Doing so dissuades potential criminals from trying to take it and also will make it easier to track it down, should someone take it. Taking the time to adequately plan and incorporate these controls into your inventory system can protect you from loss. I know I get worked up about people messing with my stuff and I am pretty sure you feel the same about the stuff that helps your business run.

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True Tone at the Top

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I am reading “Tragedy of Fraud – Insider Trading Edition“, a book recently released by James Ulvog. This is the story of Scott London‘s journey from KPMG partner to prison inmate. James Ulvog covered this story in depth, from the moment it broke up to when Scott London went to prison. I would not be surprised if Jim picks up the story again when London is released from prison. In the book, Jim has spoken about the possible consequences of London’s crime and a lot of these stretch well into the future, potentially affecting him both professionally and personally. It is always a big disappointment when members of the CPA profession completely disregard the ethical and professional standards that have been set by the various governing boards. It is, therefore, important when people like Jim of Attestation Update and Francine McKenna of re: The Auditors
call out the CPAs who are setting a terrible tone at the top of their profession.

It is equally important, if not more so, to recognize those who have provided a positive contribution to the CPA profession. We are trusted professionals for a reason; it’s not just empty rhetoric. A little over a week ago, I had the indescribable privilege of meeting Bernadine Coles Gines, CPA. I am pretty sure this is not a name you have heard before, but she is a woman worth learning more about. I met her at a New York State Society of CPAs (NYSSCPA) ceremony honoring the 60th anniversary of Bernadine Coles Gines’ CPA license. This is a big deal because Gines was the first black woman to receive the CPA license in New York State. It becomes even more of a big deal when you learn more about the challenges she faced, both while working towards becoming a CPA and beyond.

Bernadine Coles Gines moved to New York City from Virginia, where she is originally from, to get her master’s degree at New York University. She moved because, at the time, Virginia’s segregation laws kept her out of graduate school in that state. Once Gines had graduated and passed her CPA exams, she looked for work. She found that she could not find work with a black CPA firm in New York City because they would not hire women. She also found that she could not find work with white CPA firms because they would not hire black people. While interviewing at a white firm, one partner told her that, even though he could not hire her, perhaps Gines could help his wife, who was looking for a maid. She was finally hired by a two-partner Jewish firm, but only after she had convinced them that she was not a communist. Of course, getting work was in no way the end of her challenges but at no time did Gines give up or compromise. She persevered and continued to work toward achieving her goals, despite (or perhaps more resolved, because of) the challenges in her way.

I read a little about Bernadine Coles Gines before I met her, but when I met her, I was even more impressed. She spoke of her principles and her determination and her story is living proof of both. To come to face to face with a person who epitomizes unwavering grit and the drive to stand by what she believes in is truly motivating. To learn about people like Bernadine Gines reminds us about the types of people who have made CPA the trusted professionals that they are and they also show why we harshly judge those who give us a bad name. They are a reminder to us and to those we serve of those of us who are professional, ethical and will stand strong, despite the pressures put upon us.

You should go out and learn more about Bernadine Gines and others like her. As though her achievements were not enough, she shared during her interview, that her sister, Ruth Coles Harris, was the first Black woman to be certified as a CPA in Virginia, in 1963. Ruth Coles Harris faced challenges of her own when she decided she wanted to be a CPA. I wonder what those family reunions are like – I would hate to be the black sheep in that family (if they even have one). I am truly fortunate that I had this incredible opportunity to meet Bernadine Coles Gines and that I was reminded how important it is to uphold ethics and principles and that I should not compromise, especially when things are very challenging.

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From The Horse’s Mouth

Mister-Ed-Talking-HorseEarly last year, I wrote about Amy Wilson and the lack of controls that existed in the company that she stole from. The complete lack of controls and reliance on trust gave her the opportunity to steal from the company, which she did… for four years. She was actually caught by the fraud department at the credit card company, not by her employers. Anyway, I am talking about her because Jim Ulvog has an excellent post on his website, Attestation Update. Here, Amy Wilson tells us about her fraud, how she was caught and how she got away with things for as long as she did. It is an excellent watch and a great reminder of the very wise words – “trust, but verify.”

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It’s A Good Hurt

This morning, after my run, I pulled out my yoga mat and foam roller and embarked on my post-run stretches. I am yet to come across a runner who looks forward to the stretching – most of us confess to not stretching enough. And as much as we deplore the stretching we tend to do that more often than the foam rolling. This is because, despite the benign name, the foam roller is an instrument of torture. When I have taken yoga classes, teachers have asked me if I am a runner. They ask this, not because my yoga skills are impressive, but because my leg muscles are so tight that touching my toes is a feat; it’s not a good look. These tight leg muscles are what I target with the foam roller. I am terrible at stretching because stretching after a run is mind-numbing tedium. I am atrocious at using my foam roller after a run because trying to loosen up my tight muscles after a run hurts like hell. However, if I don’t loosen up these muscles, I am setting myself up for injuries and pain that will keep me from running for a lot longer than it takes to suffer through the rolling.

The same is true of many aspects of an entity’s financial system. There are many controls that are recommended by accountants and auditors that may seem like overkill or painfully tedious. However, as I have explained in some of my posts regarding aspects of control systems, such as segregation of duties and double entry accounting, being proactive about creating and maintaining a robust financial control system goes a long way to keeping things from going horribly wrong in the future. I will be the first person to tell you that there are many parts of an accounting system that are not fun. For example, it would be so much easier to have checks come into a company and be dumped on an accountant’s desk and have that one accountant deal with recording the check in the books, depositing the check in the bank and then reconciling the bank statement at the end of the month. Way too many companies opt for the easier path and find many ways to justify their decisions – the accountant has been with them for years, the accountant is such a nice person and totally trustworthy and wouldn’t act in an unethical manner. It’s an easy path until the money is stolen and, more often than not, not recovered. Too many stories of beloved staff members who have turned out to be fraudsters and thieves should show people that a great personality is not an acceptable control measure. Way too many times, we discover that the friendly coworkers are able to perpetuate their crime for a long time because they just seem too good to be crooks.

Record-keeping can seem like such a drag. I mean, what fun is there is debits and credits and keep track of income statements and balance sheets. Oh, and don’t get me started on the headaches that a balance sheet that doesn’t balance can bring. Why would anyone want to keep track of order forms, receipts and other elements of an audit trail? When making an adjustment to the ledger, you know that you will totally remember why you processed the change, even ten years from now. You don’t need to provide backup or keep a record of why you made the change. You wouldn’t believe how often I hear this kind of talk from accountants. Six months later, practically none of them can explain a journal entry that doesn’t have backup and this is for the accountants that have not decided to move on to another company, leaving the person who has taken over their position completely in the dark. Especially since we live in an age when people are not married to one job for life, it is essential that anyone looking at a transaction can find out just about everything there is to know about the transaction without having to employ the services of a forensic accountant.

There are times when I start nodding off just at the thought of the some of the processes I need to go through. Sometimes I think – I don’t really need to check this; the accountant has done this a hundred times, so it is probably okay. But then I think about what might happen if I am incorrect. The thought of how much more I will have to do if I don’t perform the check and then have to clean up the mess afterward pushes me to suck it up and do things correctly the first time. When, on occasion, I find an error, I know that it’s good that I decided to do the right thing. Also, the fact that those in the finance department know that work is being reviewed and being given a look-over by others is a great deterrent to those tempted to engage in nefarious behavior. I also remind myself of this when my own work is being reviewed and my ego has to be reminded that even I can make mistakes and that, in the name of outputting a superior product, the checks on work are not only good but necessary.

Running a business is not all fun, games and glamour. There are times when the physically and mentally painful work must be done in order for the business to succeed and minimize errors and fraud. I groan in pain and have to will myself to remain diligent and not cheat on the foam rolling. The neighbors may wonder what is going on but I know that this is how I can minimize injuries and keep on running happy and healthy. Likewise, though I make less noise (at least, I think I make less noise) about some of the work that I have to do, I know that this is what must be done to keep the company happy and healthy. So, do what hurts – it’s good for you.

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Hear Ye, Hear Ye! It’s The Future!

 

Toward the end of June, I went into the New York State Society of CPAs offices (very lovely offices, I must say) to be part of a roundtable discussion on the future of the accounting profession. The discussion was distilled into a piece in August’s CPA Journal. Personal interest aside, it is a great read with a diversity of opinions on various issues regarding the CPA profession and the value of the designation. Along with me were three other professionals, all with different career paths within the designation of CPA. Somya Munjal is the founder of CPA for the People, which is a CPA services, business consulting and social venture firm. She is also the founder of Youthful Savings, whose mission is “empowering the next generation with financial education and entrepreneurship training”. Michael Durant is working on his master’s degree in taxation, while pursuing his CPA designation. That’s right, a master’s in taxation; that should begin to convey just how complicated taxation can be. Michael is also the cochairman of the advisory board for the Bronx School of Law and Finance, a school that he is an alumnus of. Jordan Frey is a senior account in EisnerAmper’s private business services group. As you can see on the company’s website, the group provides a wide range of services to businesses of all types and sizes. And then there is me – figuring financial forensics. So, in a room of four CPAs, you have a tax man, a social venture, financial education and entrepreneurship training guru, a private business services expert and a forensic accountant. Walking into the room, I was encouraged to find that I was in a room with people who validate my claims about the variety of professional paths that a CPA can take. It’s always a good feeling when your claims are validated.

We had a very interesting discussion about the different directions in which our CPA designation was taking us and, for all the differences in career we had, we had some real similarities. We were drawn by the high standards and ethics that are integral to being a CPA. I have written about how a CPA is considered to be a trusted professional, a characteristic that is an asset in someone you are dealing with when it comes to financial matters. I am happy to find that I am not alone. It is one thing for me to stand on my soap box and wax lyrical about the virtues of the CPA; it is completely something else, in a very good way, to be in a room with others who feel as passionately as I do about what we do.

I am sharing our conversations with you and, if you feel as though reading The CPA Journal diminishes your street cred, you can throw in a little Wu Tang Clan as your backing track, as you read a little bit about the future…

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Desperate Needs, Gouging Measures…

IMG_2231When I lived and worked in Zimbabwe, my parents and I lived in different cities, about an eight-hour drive apart. My father, however, was in town at least once a month for meetings and, when he came to town, we would meet for and evening of dinner and catching up. On one such evening, we were sitting in his hotel suite, eating dinner and watching the news. There was a piece on about an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. At the time, people were speculating that people living in the area where the outbreak had occurred had come across dead animals in the forests and had eaten them. Handling the dead animals (which had been killed by the Ebola virus) had infected them with the virus. I looked over at my father and said, “Why would they eat a random dead animal they came across in the woods? I mean, wouldn’t they ask themselves what had killed this animal and wouldn’t they be scared of being killed by the same thing?”

My father looked at me and said, “My dear, you can’t judge them. You don’t know what you would do if you were starving? Who knows what you would eat.”

Since, at that moment I was working my way through a three-course dinner, it didn’t seem like the appropriate moment to argue with my father, but I was pretty sure that no kind of hunger would lead me to eat dodgy food. I do know now that I was judging because I am fortunate enough to have many food options.

It turns out that investigators now think that fruit bats, not mysteriously dead animals are to blame for the spread of Ebola, but I thought about this conversation with my father when I read a piece in the New York Times about usury charges being brought against several payday loan companies, their owner and two of his associates. Usury is one of those not often heard words that is at home in the bible or a Shakespeare play, but it basically is illegally lending money at very high interest rates. I first heard analysis of payday loans on the NPR podcast, Planet Money, who, in 2010, discussed payday lenders. The concept of a payday loan is that people take out a small loan that is that is then paid back using the borrower’s next pay check. These loans, however, charge much higher interest rates than banks or credit cards do. The Planet Money episode referred to rates of over 500%. A more recent Planet Money piece spoke of a loan being offered at an annual interest rate of over1,300%. Many people debate payday loans and the people who take them out. Some argue that people who take out these loans are people who are irresponsible with their money and the payday loan rates are so high because the borrowers are risky. Others will talk about how payday lenders target people with low incomes and get them into a cycle where they end up spending years paying high fees and never being able to repay their initial balances.

In the state of New York, all this debate is moot because payday loans are illegal. When announcing the indictments, on 12 August, the Manhattan District Attorney, Cyril Vance, encouraged victims of payday lending schemes to call the Major Economic Crimes hotline. This is important to know, whether you received the loan at a storefront or online, the practice is illegal in New York, seventeen other states and District of Columbia. This is because, when people feel they have few options, people with few scruples like to take advantage of the situation. These are the types of people who offer to lend you $750 for a week, at a cost of $225. To make this point clearer, if you borrowed that $750 for a year and paid this interest on the loan every week, you would pay a total of $11,700 in interest. That is a lot of money to pay for $750 and I think that most people would agree that charging that kind of interest qualifies as usury.

Even if payday loans are legal where you live, the lenders still have to comply with rules that govern their industry. If you believe that you or someone you know is being taken advantage of, with regard to a payday loan, you can either call your local district attorney’s offices or get in touch with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which is the federal agency whose mission is to protect consumers of financial products. It is important to know that there are protections in the system and there may be more options than you think, when it comes to finding ways to pay debts or make ends meet and not every option involves interest rates that would make your calculator give you the side-eye. Knowledge is power and sometimes knowledge can also save you money and keep you from having your rights violated.

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