Tag Archives: audit trail

Oh Yes, She Did!

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In previous posts, when talking about the importance of controls in a system to help prevent fraud, I discussed the case of Amy Wilson. These posts were specifically about how trust is not a control. Regardless of how nice a person seems to be (or is) or how long someone has worked for you, you should never decide that you can trust them enough to forgo system controls. It really cannot be said enough, trust is not a control. It does not matter how good a person is or how long they have worked without ever considering defrauding their employer, there may come a time when they face great pressure to commit fraud. It is important that, should this time arise, there are controls that deter them from giving in to temptation.

In my first post about Amy Wilson, I discussed how many controls I come across when I run a race compared to how few controls I have seen in many businesses. I continue to be amazed by this; people will put so much into making sure folk aren’t fabricating their running times, yet they are willing to trust those very same folk with their money and assets. The second time I wrote about Amy Wilson, I had watched her enlightening interview on the Attestation Update website. Here and in the articles she has authored, Amy Wilson speaks very clearly about what she did and how she could either have been caught or have never had the opportunity to perpetrate the fraud.

Well, fast forward to today. I received notification, this morning, that Amy Wilson had visited my website and left me a comment. She was very complimentary (whew!). I am glad because Ms. Wilson does have great lessons to impart and I appreciate that she does not take issue with how I have shared her story and lessons. To have real life examples of where the weaknesses in a system were, how they were exploited and the ultimate consequences of all of this is absolutely priceless. When it comes to designing and instituting controls in a financial system, it is imperative that this is performed effectively and consistently. In order to make sure that this process is correctly implemented, the stories must be told clearly, correctly and honestly. It is fantastic that Ms. Wilson is unflinching when she talks about what she did; that kind of thing does not happen often. This kind of honesty helps forensic accountants get better at what they do and, hopefully, businesses get better at deterring, preventing and detecting fraud. Finally, feedback like Amy Wilson’s helps me feel happier about what I do.

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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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A Better Mousetrap

IMG_2078Growing up, Saturday was the day that my mother ran errands and, because she tended to attack several items on her to-do list in one car trip, she tended to drag us along with her. At times errands involved going to the grocery shopping and this invariably meant my mother paid the bill by check. Now, writing out a check takes long enough but my mother never rushed the process, and I mean never. She would write out the check amount in numbers and words, pausing to direct the packer not to mix food types in the same bag. She would sign the check slowly, and beautifully and then, just when you thought she was done, she would balance her checkbook. It did not matter how long the line behind her was, she would take her time and complete her process. It did not matter how much grumbling was going on, she would ignore everyone, as she made sure that her numbers were correct.

Last week, I returned from an amazing trip to Zimbabwe, where I was the maid of honor at my sister’s wedding. I love traveling to Zimbabwe for countless reasons; one of these is seeing the changes to the financial systems that I see every time I go back. My last trip to Zimbabwe was a little over a year ago and I wrote about the process I went through in order to get a prepaid phone line. During this trip, I only had to deal with two people and I did not have to travel from one desk to another in order to get things done. I still had to hand over identification but this time, I could hand over the original and the phone company made a copy for me. The system was more computerized and I only needed to deal with one agent but I left with sufficient paperwork for my transaction. The SIM card for my phone line and airtime both had pre-printed serial numbers and I also received one receipt for my transaction, where I bought a line and airtime.

Just about everywhere I went, I was struck by the technological advancements since my last trip. More and more transactions are becoming completely computerized and the changes give me the opportunity to observe whether the advancements have weakened control systems and whether the designs of the new systems took control systems into account. One place where we saw significant changes was with the highway toll system. Last year, most of the toll stations were merely agents standing at a point in the road, with armed guards to make sure that no one tried to fly through the stations without paying. This year, there were built up with automatic booms that let drivers through, after they had paid. These stations had cameras installed in various places and these cameras transmitted images to a central office, as one of the controls to ensure that all vehicles passing through the stations were charged. Just as had happened the year before, every time we drove through a toll station, we received a receipt for our payment. The additional controls, such as the automatic boom and the cameras, added layers of controls without adding time to the process of going through the tollgates.

The challenge, when it comes to the technological advancements, is to ensure that those using them do not pave their cowpaths. This is a concept very well explained by Tom Hood. There is a big risk of using new technologies to do the same things in the same way; instead of using these technologies reimagine processes. It is very easy to dress up the same old processes in a fancy new exterior and convince yourself that you have created a new process. I shall keep taking notes during my future trips, as technological advancements continue to see whether people are paving cowpaths or creating superhighways.

Thankfully for those standing in line behind her, my mother no longer writes checks when she goes shopping. She has found new ways to keep track of her finances that ensure that her numbers are correct but that take less time than writing a check and balancing her checkbook used to. I even had a paper trail for the exhilarating lion walk that I went on at Antelope Park, a lion conservancy just outside Gweru, in Zimbabwe. I had a receipt for my payment and I also signed an indemnity form to prove that I went willingly, just in case the lions got grumpy, smelt my fear or just wanted to play with me with their massive paws!

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Money Trails

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I mentioned, last week, that I traveled to Zimbabwe and Mozambique. After my experiences during this, and our previous trip, in 2010, I am now pretty convinced that the government system and most companies were created by old school accountants and that very little has changed since then. It is a great reminder of how important having a good financial control system is. In our mostly virtual and paperless modern transactions, people tend to think less about how a transaction can be traced. Not so long ago, when business was more manual, it was easier to see the path a transaction took from inception to completion. One could refer to a stack of papers to see who gave their okay to a process. The separation of duties was also much clearer as documents tended to be manually moved from one place to another, or employees had physical custody over paperwork. These days, as these systems and documents have disappeared into the computer and cloud, it has become more challenging for those running corporations and institutions to think through a process and determine adequate controls and paper trails, virtual though they may be.

However, in Zimbabwe, often transactions are quite manual and, even when they are not, they are quite involved and can involve a lot of paperwork. I mentioned getting my prepaid phone line – let me tell you the process:

  1. I first had to provide a copy of my identification and fill out an application form for a SIM card. This means that it would be pretty impossible to have one of those crime show episodes where the trail for a criminal goes cold because everything was done using prepaid phones and so no one knows who the line was purchased by.
  2. I took this form to the cashier who gave me a receipt for the one dollar I had to pay in order to buy the phone line.
  3. I then took my receipt to a customer service representative, who was sitting in the booth next to the cashier’s. The representative gave us a SIM card and activated the phone line for us. We then needed air time.
  4. With proof of our activated phone line, we then went back to the cashier and paid for air time.
  5. We left the phone store with a phone line, air time and a bunch of receipts.

Our experience was similar at the border, when traveling from Mozambique to Zimbabwe – we gave payment to one person, were issued a receipt and then and received our visa from another person. As frustrating as it was to walk back and forth in order to get through the process, it was fascinating for me to see the clear separation of duties and the generation of a paper trail.

Most fun was when we received our gifts after our wedding. The afternoon after the wedding, my aunt and cousin came by with an envelope of money and the personalized gift receipt book you see above. It turns out that, during the reception, a team of wonderful volunteers, sat at a desk and received gifts from wedding guests. They then placed a piece of carbon paper (who knew that still existed) between two pages of the receipt book. After filling out the details of the receipt, they tore out and gave the original to the guest (as proof that the volunteers had received the funds) and the carbon copy remained in the prenumbered guest receipt book. Yes, numbered receipts for wedding gifts – who knew?

It is fantastic that many processes have become automated and that transactions are now completely more quickly and, hopefully, more efficiently than years ago. It is important, however, to make sure that controls and safeguards are not sacrificed in the name of efficiency. The separation of duties may feel tedious but having more than one person involved in a process means that, if one person is flouting the system and perhaps even misappropriating assets, there is at least one other person to blow the whistle on what is going on. Having an audit trail (paper or virtual) can seem overly meticulous until one needs to determine whether a transaction is valid. Creating, monitoring and maintaining a strong financial system is a much better proposition than trying to recover assets and rebuild a business after a fraud has occurred.

Also, you could get a lovely, personalized gift receipt book as part of the deal.

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