Tag Archives: ACFE

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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Not Again…

I don’t know what life was like for you, growing up, but my youth was full of lectures. I never just got into trouble. I got into trouble AND I got a lecture to go along with it. We never just went on vacation; we went on vacation, had to write an essay about our experiences AND we got a lecture about how both things were important. We didn’t just discuss our report cards, good or bad; we discussed our report cards AND got a lecture about the long-term benefits of each class we were taking. The lectures often came with true-life stories about one or both of my parents, someone they knew or someone who lived in their “day”. I am not saying that I was lectured a lot, but I did hear some stories more than once. On the occasions that I tried to interrupt to say that I had heard the story, I was told either that there was a new lesson to be learned, or asked why, if I knew the story and the wisdom it imparted, I continued to make the same mistakes.

Well, at last, I get it. Because the other day, I came across a case that includes so many lessons on fraud that, if I were teaching a semester on fraud, I could use it as an example in just about every lesson. This is the case of Christopher Myles, a former bookkeeper in New York City. He worked at Central Park Realty Holding Corp., and some of its affiliates, and reported to the President of the company. Tragically, in May 2010, the President, suffered a stroke and ended up in “a comatose-like state until her death in February 2012”.

With the president incapacitated, no one stepped in to VERIFY Myles’ work. By the time September 2011 rolled around, Christopher was aware that he could pretty much do whatever he wanted without anyone really questioning what was going on. He knew that he now had the OPPORTUNITY to defraud his employer and he took advantage of this opportunity. True to the trend, Christopher Myles started his fraud on a small scale, using the President’s credit cards to pay for personal expenses. He escalated quickly and by early 2012, he was transferring funds out of her personal bank account in order to pay his and his mother’s bills. He did this until there was no longer any money in the President’s bank account. Myles did not let this empty bank account stop him though; he then started transferring money from the business accounts, first, into the President’s personal bank account and, subsequently, into his own personal accounts. On days when he felt particularly bold, or reckless, Myles would transfer money straight into his and his mother’s personal bank accounts. Christopher Myles had unfettered access to all of these accounts, both business and personal, and never needed anyone else to sign off on any of the funds he moved into and out of these accounts. The lack of segregation of duties made this fraud simple for Myles.

If anyone had been watching him and taking notice, they may have noticed that Christopher Myles was living beyond his official means. He used his ill-gotten funds to buy a new home, go on shopping sprees and fancy vacations. This is another red flag for possible fraud. Throughout this fraud, created falsified bank statements and recorded all of these illicit transfers as business transfers. Unfortunately, no one followed up closely on any of these untruths. Perhaps none of those looking at the fake bank statements understood how the company worked and what kind expenses would appear as out of character, or maybe no one was familiar with the ledger and how to analyze it. I am not sure, but, the result was that Myles was able to continue his fraud for over two years (just a little bit longer than the median duration of a fraud), until November 2013, when he resigned.

It was only when his replacement discovered the fraudulent invoices that Myles created, in attempt to disguise his embezzlement, that Christopher Myles’ theft was discovered. A forensic investigation revealed that, in two years, Myles had stolen about $1.3 million from his employer. Myles’ former employer reported all of this to the authorities and, in addition to an indictment for the theft, Christopher Myles is also facing tax evasion charges. This is because, in the manner of Al Capone, Christopher Myles did not report any of his fraudulently acquired income on his tax returns.

Almost like a bonus in the lesson that keeps on giving series, once his theft had been exposed, Christopher Myles sent an email to all parties involved. In this email, he RATIONALIZED his fraud, claiming that he was entitled to the funds because he was due a raise and compensation for having to deal with a difficult coworker.

As I read the press release about Christopher Myles’ indictment, my jaw hung open. I said out loud, “wow, this has all the classic markers; it’s unbelievable!” Yet, the markers are classic for a reason. There are probably a lot more lessons to learn from the story of Christopher Myles, but don’t get me started!

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Checking Up

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Several years ago, I was working on an assignment that had me flying out to Boca Raton, Florida, every Monday and returning to New York City on Friday night. It was great because it was a brutal winter in New York City and pleasantly warm in Boca Raton. It was terrible because it was close to impossible to get anything done over the weekend. One week, I had to admit that there I needed to get one of my teeth looked at. It had been causing me some pain and I knew I had to sort it out before it started hurting a lot. My challenge was to find a dentist who took patients on weekend days and who I could get to easily. I found one online and went in to see him on a Saturday morning. He determined that I needed a filling fixed and he got to work. What I remember about that day is how incredibly painful it was and how unsympathetically the dentist kept ordering me to “be strong”. I was traumatized – so much so that I did not go anywhere near a dentist’s office for years after that. I knew I should, but the memory of the pain and a dentist who was in need of a heart kept me away. Other aspects of my body were very well taken of; I went to my annual physical and that was always a pleasure, compared to my dental disaster. I brushed my teeth but, other than that, they were pretty much on their own.

One nights, I fell asleep while sucking on a throat sweet and, the next morning, I woke up feeling as though my teeth were about to fall out of my head. I was in a panic; I was too young to be toothless. I was desperate and looked up dentists located close to my office. Thankfully, I was able to find a dentist, a few blocks away, who was able to fit me in that very day. As he examined me, a poem from my childhood, “Oh, I Wish I’d Looked After Me Teeth” ran through my head. Fortunately, this time around, I get to keep my teeth. My dentist was a great guy who doesn’t believe in causing pain and suffering and NEVER says to me, “be strong”. I did, however, have to go through a series of appointments to repair the damage that had accumulated over the years that I had avoided the dentist, dentist I could have avoided. I have not missed an appointment since, although I get nervous when the machine turns on, even just to polish my teeth.

Like my teeth, a business needs regular checkups to maintain its financial health. Yes, a lot of companies review their financials on a monthly or quarterly basis, but how many are assessing their control systems and taking steps to update and analyze how they prevent and detect fraud? The fact that the median length of a fraud is 18 months before it is detected and that many frauds can last many years as in the cases of Bernie Madoff and Rita Crundwell, to name a few high profile cases, implies that these steps are not taken often and rigorously enough. No one really thinks that it will happen to them and some people think that their finance department, accountant or auditor will keep them safe from fraud. This is because they do not fully understand the roles and duties of their auditors and accountants. Other people don’t want to spend the money on fraud prevention and detection. However, when you start thinking that Rita Crundwell stole over $54 million and a quick search of the internet brings up many other recent cases of embezzlement of millions of dollars that have been discovered. There are many more that either have not been recorded or are of lesser amounts.

Think about this:

  • Fraud goes on for an average of 18 months but many go on for much longer.
  • Usually fraudsters start out stealing a little money but as times goes on and they are not caught, the amounts stolen grow and grow and grow
  • The knowledge that a company has allowed theft to go on under its nose for years can negatively affect its reputation, leading people to believe that it may not be a safe and ethical place to do business

These are just a few things to think about when it comes to detecting and preventing fraud in your company. It only makes sense to get a qualified Forensic Accountant, Certified in Financial Forensics to assess and evaluate your companies systems in order to beef up your fraud prevention programs and also, perhaps to detect possible fraud? Now, I learnt a very painful lesson before I started to take care of my teeth. Do you want to learn a hard, and possibly expensive, lesson before you take proper care of your 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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The Sheriff in Town!

When I first went to university, I was unsure what I wanted to major in. I had been considering chemistry, because I fancied that I might be the person to come up with a cure for AIDS. At the idealistic age of 18, I was so sure that I could use the colorful magic of gas chromatography to come up with a solution that many experienced scientists with doctoral degrees had been unable to discover. I signed up for a chemistry class and, I decided to take an elective in economics. I was hooked after my first class and ended up majoring in economics. I was fascinated by various theories and the push and pull between fiscal and monetary policies. I did come away from my class knowing one thing – I wanted to work for the Federal Reserve System, home of US monetary policy. To me, to be part of an organization that was focused on what to do in order to best positively influence the economy of the entire nation was awesome! Federal Reserve Banks issue the money that we use; how cool is that? I remember going to a campus career fair and spending most of my time there chatting with a representative from the Fed. Following that conversation, getting a job at the Fed was my dream. One big obstacle stood in my way; at the time, I was not a US citizen. I was devastated but I still dreamt that one day I would either be a citizen or the Fed would change its policies, whichever came first. At the time, as an economist in training, my dream was to be an analyst.

As time has gone by (I am a citizen now) and I have gone on to add becoming a CPA and then getting Certified in Financial Forensics to my skill set, my interest in the Fed and what it does has grown. After graduating, with my degree in economics and mathematics, I went on to work at a bank, where I was an analyst. I was very excited about the opportunity to apply the theory I had learnt in college. I had not bargained on how people are not very good at following the rules, be they the rules of logic or the rule of law. I mean, how many times have you said, “Who would do that,” or “Why did they act that way? It doesn’t make sense”? Yep, we humans use our free will in the nuttiest ways. Just last week, I read a crazy story about a Georgia woman filing a tax return for a $94 million dollar refund. Every aspect of the story is insane, from her 100 dependents to thinking that she could pick up her refund check at a local Kroger grocery store, and yet she is neither the first or last person to attempt this kind of thing. So, after the monetary policy folks have come up with their ideas about how best to influence the economy, there need to be the people who make sure that people are not breaking the rules and people who create control systems and audit them to minimize the risk of people breaking the rules. This is where forensic accountants come into play at the Fed.

Forensic Accountants, both those Certified in Financial Forensics and those who are Certified Fraud Examiners, can be found in the audit and enforcement areas of the Federal Reserve System. The saying is that love makes the world go around, but we are all aware that money is a big motivator for who many people behave. I have written about the fraud triangle and how people in positions of trust and authority will break the law in pursuit of illicit gain. With this in mind, it is vital to assess and improve control systems to make sure that, starting at the top financial institution, there is little opportunity for those who feel the pressure to commit financial crime. If the top bank cannot keep money safe, what hope is there for the rest of them? The Fed has bank examiners whose goal is to ensure that banks comply with laws such as those governing anti-money laundering and doing business with nations and people that the US government has imposed sanctions upon. The Fed plays an important role as an independent third party that will objectively assess operations at the banks that they supervise to make sure that they are not, for example, helping criminal rings hide their ill-gotten gains.

There are twelve banks in the Federal Reserve System and each bill of paper money that you have incorporates, in its serial number, the letter assigned to bank that issued that bill. Pull out a banknote, be it a dollar or a $100 bill, it will have the letter of the particular Federal Reserve Bank that issued it, be it Boston, San Francisco or any of the ones in between. In the case of the dollar bill, the name of the issuing bank is also noted on the bill. It goes almost without saying that the institution that issues the money that we use should have top notch controls. Each Federal Reserve Bank, therefore, has audit departments that are constantly reviewing it and making sure that the banks are complying with the rules. The auditors also work to improve systems. Every day, people are spending a lot of time and energy trying to figure out how to game the system and so those at the Fed should spend at least as much time and energy working to keep the banks safe and compliant.

Though my focus has changed, my excitement when it comes to the Fed is unabated. Not only are they working on monetary policy, they are also working to make sure that the rules are not being broken and that the opportunity to defraud, steal or abet crime is diminished. Take a look at the money in your wallet and think about what goes into making it worth what it is worth.

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Here’s My Number And A Dime…

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“If you see something, say something”. Living in New York City, this is a message I come across often. I see it advertised all over the subway, I see it on buses and I have even seen it on television. Although the messages tell us to inform a police officer, MTA employee or call a toll-free number in the cases that we do see something and want to say something, I have often thought about the logistics of this. On my way home from work, I tend to end up in the last subway car. Now, say I get onto the train and I see something and I want to say something. I am in the last car and can barely see the subway conductor who is in the middle of the train. Do I try to run up the platform to get to the MTA employee before the train doors close and the train sets off? Do I perhaps hope that there is a police officer that I can alert, hanging out on the subway platform? My subway station is one of the few that now has cellphone reception, so I could call the toll-free number. However, I have never taken the time to actually take the number down so I have no idea what it is. All this said, I like to think that, on the day that I do see something and need to say something; it will be like the movies and things will fall in place and work out.

Previously, when talking about controls, I have discussed the importance of the segregation of duties and how having several people involved in a process means that there are other people who are watching what is going on and who, therefore, can report any untoward activities that they see. Annually, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) publishes a Report to the Nations on Occupational Fraud and Abuse. The 2014 report stated, “Over 40% of all cases were detected by a tip – more than twice the rate of any other detection method.” That is a staggering statistic and emphasizes just how important people who see and say something are when it comes to fraud detection. The knowledge that there is an easy way for fraud to be reported may also serve as a deterrent to those contemplating committing fraud. In response to a series of huge financial scandals that led to losses in the billions of dollars and the end of companies such as Enron and WorldCom, the Sarbanes- Oxley Act was passed in 2002. Among its various provisions, it required that publicly traded companies establish a whistleblower system that makes it easy for employees and third parties to anonymously report financial misdeeds.

There is a television show called “The First 48”. The premise of the show is that the chances of solving a murder are cut in half, if investigators do not get a lead within the first 48 hours. On a few occasions, I have watched as detectives go from door to door in a neighborhood, asking people if they know anything about the homicide that occurred. Generally, the police are met with silence, shaking heads and closing doors. However once they get back to the police station, their phones start ringing and people leave anonymous tips that often lead to an arrest. Anonymity is a very important aspect of creating a whistleblower system. The fear of punishment for reporting fraud, such as being fired, demoted or even physically attacked, can keep a witness silent. It is vital that a person knows that they can safely make a report and remain unidentified, should they wish to do so.

There should be several reporting options available to the whistleblower, such as the telephone, an electronic system and U.S. mail, giving the whistleblower the opportunity to use the method that they are most comfortable with. Also, the system should be available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. With the whistleblower hotline, a trained interviewer, who knows how and what to ask the caller should answer the phones. The last thing a nervous caller wants to deal with is voicemail.

In order to make the whistleblower system most effective, a corporate entity’s staff, vendors and other third parties need to know that there is a way that they can report wrongdoing and that action will be taken. This means that a company with a whistleblower system should distribute literature and hold training sessions on ethics, processes and how to report any financial wrongdoing. Several years ago, I caught a cab from Manhattan to Brooklyn. During my ride, the cab driver complained about having to drive to Brooklyn and tried, several times, to drop me off at a subway station. I insisted that he take me to Brooklyn, as I had requested. He then spent the rest of the ride swearing and protesting. Once we reached my destination and I stepped out of the taxi, he yelled out the window, “Bitch”, and drove off. Suffice to say, I was upset by this experience. Shaking, I walked into the building and called 311, New York City’s non-emergency information and complaint service. I told the operator about my experience and gave her the taxi driver’s medallion number. She took my report and asked whether or not I wished to remain anonymous. I chose not to, wound up facing the driver in a hearing, and winning my case. I did all this because I did not appreciate how the taxi driver had treated me and felt that I should not let him think that it was okay for him to behave in that manner. More importantly, I did this because I knew about and had access to an easy, and well-publicized service where I could lodge my complaint and have my issue investigated and resolved.

I have mentioned that publicly traded companies in the United States are mandated to set up a whistleblower system. It is in the interest of other entities to consider a system by which anyone who comes across financial crime can report the crime, knowing that something will be done about it and that no one will come after them for making the report. Sometimes something as simple as an anonymous mailbox can make a big difference – just knowing that there is a way to report crime gets people reporting crime. Then again, as an employee or a third-party, such as a vendor or a customer, there may be times when you feel as though the corporate culture is so corrupt that no one within the company will respond to your complaint. At times like this, you should look to the law for assistance. In New York City, you can call 311 for guidance and assistance. You can also visit the District Attorney’s website for information on how to report a financial crime. The power of people speaking up when they see something amiss cannot be underestimated and voicing your concerns is easier than you imagine; remember whistleblowers are the number one (by far) way in which fraud is discovered. So, really, if you see something, say something. You don’t even have to worry about the train leaving you behind.

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I Trust You, But…

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Last Saturday, my husband showed off some of his work in an open studios event at Industry City. He did the lion’s share of the work but, on Friday evening, he asked me to come over and help him a little. He assigned me the job of placing 5×7 prints of some of his work in 5×7 frames. It sounds straightforward enough and I am sure that my husband trusts me and has great confidence in my abilities. Nevertheless, after I had framed a few photos, he came over and checked my work. It turned out that some of the photos were not quite centered in their frames. He handed them to me, offered me some tips on how best to center photos in frames, and asked me to redo them.

This reminded me of when I was a kid and my parents would check my homework. I know that they felt that I could do it. I know this because they would say things like, “You can do better than this; try again.”Most of the time the issue was that my handwriting was barely legible on a good day. Knowing that my work would be reviewed, on days when I was tempted to rush through my homework, maybe because I wanted to play or watch TV, I willed myself to slow down and get it done correctly the first time around. I did not want to get into trouble and I definitely did not want to have to do my homework over again.

Recently, I have been reading stories about people in charge of a business’s finances perpetuating fraud. These people carried on their shenanigans and were not caught until the businesses they were employees of were practically going under. You know why? Because no one ever checked their work. Ever. In the cases that I read, the business owners were all charmed by the charismatic and capable people that they hired to manage their finance departments. The business owners gave these managers unfettered access to the companies’ bank and credit accounts and, boy, did those managers take full advantage of this access. They opened new credit accounts, they maxed out existing accounts and they went shopping! These business owners only found out what was going on when purchases they were trying to make were declined because their accounts were wiped out. In every case, the owners had left the finances up to the managers that they had hired so that they could focus on operations. They seemed to forget that an essential part of a business is the money needed to run it. They did not keep tabs on where the money went after it came in.

Because none of us is infallible and because too many among us are not always honest, it is vital that work is checked by someone else. Depending on the size and complexity of an entity, there are various ways in which to incorporate checks into a system to prevent and detect error and fraud.

  • There must always be a review of another party’s work. In a very small business, this may mean that the business owner is periodically reviewing bank and credit card statements. It may mean that the business owner will check incoming mail on a random basis, to make sure that unauthorized statements have not been opened in the name of the business. In larger businesses, there should be processes where the work done by one employee is reviewed by another employee for error and misstatement.
  • Someone other than the person booking cash entries in the ledger should perform reconciliations of the bank and credit accounts. Reviews and reconciliations of payable and receivable accounts should also be performed.
  • Make sure that staff take vacations and that, while they are on vacation, someone else does their work. In this way if anything is amiss, a new pair of eyes may catch mistakes or other missteps that are being made. In addition to this, having someone else do the work also means that one person does not have exclusive knowledge of a process in a business. In this way, no employee is indispensable. Also, when more people understand a process, and employee is less likely to try hide fraud in the process.
  • If possible, move work around among employees, again, so that more people in a department have a greater understanding of what is going on. The saying is familiarity breeds contempt; it can also breed careless errors. People operating in autopilot can become too comfortable with the work that they are doing and make careless mistakes because they are not paying close enough attention to the work.

Check, check and check again. If people know that there are effective checks in a system, they are likely to be discouraged from trying to steal from an entity. If people know that their work will be checked, they are more likely to pay attention to details so that they don’t have to do the work over again. Even when I was frustrated because the photographs seemed to shift all by themselves when I tried to secure them in the frames, I growled, I complained, and I started over and over again until I got it right. You know why? Well, because I like to do a job well AND I didn’t want my husband handing the work back to me and calling me out on getting it wrong.

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Don’t Put Baby In the Dusty Corner!

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You know who could use a really good PR person? Arizona. Nowadays, every time I read about Arizona, it’s not complimentary. Whether it is a piece about the “right-to-refuse-service” bill, immigration issues or the sheriff of Maricopa County, the articles tend to speak of controversy and a lot of angry people. You would think it was a terrible place to live in or visit, unless you are going to watch the Arizona Wildcats play basketball.

Fortunately for me, my mother in law lives in Tucson, Arizona, and despite the less than flattering news about Arizona, I go out to visit her on occasion. I love it every time I go there. Granted, part of it is that I am solar powered and the sunny warmth of Arizona recharges me. However, there is so much more to that. I honestly could spend every day hanging out in my mother in law’s backyard, chatting – you can’t help but adore a woman who loves art, sport and having fun – but wait, there’s more! I get up in the morning and start my day with an incredibly scenic run and I often end it with a lovely walk in some new and beautiful place. It’s not just the scenery; I meet interesting and interested people, I meet kind and polite people, I just come across some great characters while I am in Arizona. I go there and I think, wow, someone needs to really work on the word on Arizona that gets out.

It got me thinking about my days in audit and when I go on due diligence assignments. When I worked in audit, before assignments, we would often talk about what kind of office our client would decide to put us in. Would the office have a window and would it even be clean? Would they drag their feet, complaining about how difficult we were, in response to our requests? Would they treat us as though we were wasting their time and doing unnecessary, and expensive, work? Often I wondered why clients treated us as though we were Typhoid Marys, bringing a horrible plague to the company.

When a CPA comes in to a firm, whether they are performing an audit or a forensic investigation, they are coming in as a trusted professional to give outsiders a level of assurance about the financial state of the company. If you have a business and tell your mother how well your business is doing, I am sure that she will believe you and perhaps even brag about you to her friends. A random stranger on the street may not be so willing to take you at your word. In the hierarchy of opinions, the least trusted opinion regarding the state of a business’s financials is the opinion of the business owners and the most trusted is that of an independent third party. This is because you, as the business owner, have a vested interest in showing yourself in the best possible light, they are more likely to trust a third party over you, and the word of an independent third party carries a lot of weight. Independence means that the third party has no financial interest in the company, either as an owner or as a customer. The interest of this third party is only in the facts.

CPAs conducting an audit or forensic investigation are held up to the very high standards of the profession. Knowledge of these standards factors greatly into the level of confidence that users have in the results produced by CPAs. The CPA Code of Conduct requires objectivity, independence and integrity from CPAs and it is for these reasons that CPAs are trusted professionals.

CPAs are obligated to serve the public interest, honor the public trust, and demonstrate commitment to professionalism. The goal of CPAs is not to destroy your business or to embarrass you by finding misstatement or fraud. They are objectively carrying out their assignment, which may be to give assurance that your financial statements are fairly stated or to investigate suspected fraud within a business. This means that even if CPAs find misconduct, errors or misrepresentation, they can point it out to the company’s management and even work with management to take adequate steps to resolve matters.

So, when independent CPAs come into your firm to conduct an audit or forensic investigation, don’t see them as the enemy. Even if you give them the airless, cramped office that qualifies as a closet in a Texas apartment, at least get the cleaning service to dust it a little.

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Who Runs Things?

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James Petrozzello

The tone at the top of an organization is vitally important. If the people running things are behaving in an unethical manner, how can one expect the rest of the firm to operate any better? If you are working at a company and you get the message that leadership is for those who operate without regard to the rules, then wouldn’t the probability be high that you would either leave or start breaking the rules yourself? Often when a leader of a company is caught breaking the law, stories follow about a culture of bad behavior at that company.

Craig Haber became a partner, based in New York, at Grant Thornton in 1993. In 2004, he opened a business checking account in the name of a company with a name very similar to Grant Thornton. Then, between 2004 and July 2012, Haber deposited $3.97 million in checks made out to Grant Thornton into the fraudulent account that he had opened. That is eight years of funneling almost $4 million in company funds into his personal account. How Haber managed to do this shows how he got the opportunity to take advantage of weaknesses in the Grant Thornton control system in order to perpetrate his fraud.

When Grant Thornton sends out bills to its clients, it attaches a page to the bill with instructions on how to either wire money into their account or send a check to their Chicago office, which is where their head office and billing department are located. Beginning in 2004, Haber would send billing statements to some clients and, instead of the usual payment instruction sheet, Haber instructed the clients to send payments to “Craig B. Haber”, in care of Grant Thornton, at the Grant Thornton New York offices. He also sent these payment instructions to some clients via email. When he received these payments, he deposited the bulk of them into the fraudulent account that he had opened. He got around the discrepancies by telling Grant Thornton that he had collected lower fees than what he actually collected.

It appears that Craig Haber had too much access to the billing system. In a company, seniority is no reason for reduced controls. Seniority should be a greater incentive for implantation of controls. Because it tends to be more difficult for an employee to say no to a higher up in a company, it is important that a system is built that says no on the employee’s behalf. All bills should have come from the billing department and the billing department should have sent clients billing statements detailing a running balance detailing payments received over a period of time. If that had been the case, some clients would have contacted Grant Thornton to find out why some of their payments were not reflected on their statement.

Grant Thornton should also have worked to limit what payments went to the partners, instead of being sent directly to the billing department. It is a challenge, but an occasionally reminding a client to send payments to the Chicago office may have gone a long way in reducing how much was stolen by Haber.

The fraud of almost $4 million translates into many billing hours that Haber was short on. I am not sure how he explained this shortfall but there should be a way to verify this for partners, in the same way that, I am sure, there is a way to verify billable hours for other employees of Grant Thornton.

Craig Haber received the Grant Thornton payments, which he then redirected to his personal account, via the US Postal Service. Therefore, when Grant Thornton discovered the fraud and reported it, the investigation was carried out by the US Postal Inspection Service and headed by Postal Inspector Melissa Atkin. True to the elements of the fraud triangle, Haber claimed that he started defrauding Grant Thornton because of financial pressure and, as you can see, he took full advantage of the opportunity to take money from the company. Haber was charged with and convicted of mail fraud and faces both a fine and prison time.

Being at the top in his firm did not stop Haber from committing fraud and perhaps being at the top of his firm meant that he was able to perpetrate his fraud without detection for longer. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) has found that fraud by those higher up in an organization tends to be greater in value and to go on for a longer period of time. Being a CPA, who is supposed to practice according to a Code of Professional Conduct and uphold certain ethical standards, makes Haber’s crime even more disappointing. He stands to lose his CPA license, in addition to the jail time and fines. I would not be surprised if Craig Haber’s behavior had ripple effects among those that he supervised and dealt with, including a decrease in morale, cynicism about adherence to the code of conduct for CPAs and perhaps even bad behavior. If the people in charge are not minding the store, who will?

UPDATE

On March 12, 2014, Craig Haber was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for stealing almost $4 million from Grant Thornton. During the time he was stealing that money, he earned nearly $6.9 million. Just goes to show that some people never have enough money. Now he gets to think about whether those millions were worth it. I, personally, would say no.

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