Tag Archives: Certified in Financial Forensics

Something’s Not Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cheating Mysteries

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When I first started running long distance, my goal was to run the New York Marathon. After I completed the Chicago Marathon, things changed a little. Of course I still held my breath every year, hoping to make it into the New York Marathon. But I also had another distant dream – qualifying for the Boston Marathon. It was a distant dream because I would need to run a qualifying time in order to get into Boston and my pace at that time was nowhere near one that would get me into Boston. Over the last few years, my pace has improved and qualifying for Boston has become a more attainable dream. Over the years, I have also come to know more runners and have found that many of us aspire to qualify. I know I am always in awe of a person who has qualified for Boston – it is no mean feat.

With the line of work that I am in, I should not have been surprised, but I was, when I read a recent Runner’s World piece about people who cheat to get into the Boston Marathon. I wanted to run the New York Marathon because I was inspired by the runners who ran past my block, the runners who would touch all five boroughs that make up the city that I call home. I enjoy running races in cities and towns that I have never been to, as I find it a great way to visit and discover new places. When I think about Boston, I don’t necessarily think about running the race itself. The power of Boston, for me and for many that I speak with is in what it takes to qualify. That is the challenge. So, when I read about people who cheated by getting someone else to run a qualifying time in their place, or by cutting a course, I was baffled. Where is the joy in telling someone that you achieved something that you didn’t or that you had someone achieve on your behalf? When I speak with fellow runners, I tend to speak with like-minded people who are just as baffled as I am.

This article reminded me that just because one cannot understand the motivations of a cheater, it does not mean that the cheating will not happen. The fact that many of us cannot understand this motivation is exactly what those that cheat bank on. If no one can imagine how or why someone would fake qualifying for the Boston Marathon, the chances are high that a person will get away with faking in order to qualify for the Boston Marathon. This is something that we all should be mindful of, beyond the realms of the Boston Marathon. Way too often, a business owner or manager will forgo instituting checks and balances in their company, because that business owner can’t imagine that anyone that works for them could be the kind of person that would defraud them.

It is important to take steps to keep from being blindsided by your world view. Precisely because you can’t imagine how a person could behave in a fraudulent manner is why you should seek out the services of a forensic accountant, whose job it is to both imagine how a person could defraud you and how to prevent and detect such actions. We all hope that people will be honest, but it is a sad truth that for various reasons, people will cheat. In the context of the Boston Marathon, perhaps some people feel that they are so close to a qualifying time that a little cheat is not such a bad thing. Maybe some people hunger for praise, even if they have not earned it. Maybe some people just don’t think it is a big deal to cheat in order to get into Boston and see it as a victimless crime. In the context of a business, some people may face personal pressures that they feel push them to fraud. Some people may feel that they are not sufficiently appreciated by their employer and may, therefore, feel justified in taking from that employer. No one is immune from the pressures or motivations that lead to fraud, but what we can do is take steps to make it as difficult as possible to be defrauded.

 

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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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2015! Three Years, Three Words…

James Petrozzello

James Petrozzello

Three years ago, I was inspired by Tom Hood, by way of Chris Brogan. As someone who gave up on New Year’s resolutions years ago, partly because I was not very good at keeping them, partly because I would change my mind about them and partly because I would often lose track of where I had written them down, I found power in the concept of Three Words. I embraced the magic and power of three during my lessons in Latin and in rhetoric. I have found my three words a great theme song that plays in my head throughout the year. They pop up in conversations, in my planning and often at unexpected, random moments. And this year, the magical and powerful three are Receptive, Synergy, and Service.

Receptive: This year, for Christmas, I gave my husband a Bluetooth headset. Ever since I came across my first Bluetooth headset, I have hated those things. People walk around with those things constantly plugged in an ear and it always seems to me that they are only giving you a small piece of their attention and are, essentially, waiting for something more interesting and important to beep in their ear. I have often felt as though people wear the headsets to make themselves feel important and busy. Around Christmas, when my husband mentioned that he wanted one, I started thinking about the Bluetooth headset in a different way. He spends a lot of time travelling and alone in an office. It makes sense that, should he wish to answer the phone, it would make sense to be able to do this and still be able to use both his hands. He has promised to put it in his ear only when he needs it and to not wear it when we are together. Beyond me and my relationship with the Bluetooth headset, I am realizing more and more, how essential it is to success and happiness to be receptive to new (and old) concepts and ideas. At work and as a part of the various boards and committees that I serve on, I have discovered how essential it is to listen to the opinions of others and process them before concluding how I feel about a situation or idea. At times, the ideas of others are better than anything that I had considered; other times, after taking their opinions into consideration, we can come up with a great plan or compromise. In order to continue the spirit of my words from last year, Transform, Pursue and Collaborate, being receptive is key.

Synergy: Last year, one of my words was collaborate. There is the saying, no man is an island, and I have found it to be true. I have lived and learnt in many places and my world and experiences have been touched by an incredible spectrum of people. All this has contributed to who and what I am today. Collaboration is so very much of getting things done but, this year, I want to hone in on synergy. I want to really think about the wonderful notion of how one plus one can equal more than two (sometimes significantly so). So collaboration will not be solely for the purpose of doing things together; to do this without thinking about how to best leverage the power of collaboration can be wasteful, frustrating and diminish the contributions of each party. I want to be mindful of the concept of synergy and ask myself, often, how can we do this so that what we achieve together is greater than what we could achieve acting alone.

Service: I have talked before about the CPA’s obligation to “serve the public trust, honor the public interest, and demonstrate a commitment to professionalism.” As a forensic CPA, this is a very important aspect of our profession. Often there are pressures upon us and, it is at times like this, that it is necessary to act with integrity, in order to honor our obligation to the public and to our profession. As a member of various committees of my State Society of CPAs and the American Institute of CPAs, and as I prepare to take over the presidency of our chapter, I, along with my fellow members must always keep in mind that our goal is to serve the public, our members and our profession with the work that we do.

A couple of years ago, my husband, James, and I traveled to Berlin for a wedding. I had often told him how much I love karaoke and so, when we heard about Bearpit Karaoke, we had to find it. The place was packed and the singers were excellent. My husband encouraged me to put my name down to sing. After hearing the caliber of singers, and after seeing how many people were in attendance (a dauntingly large crowd), I hesitated and tried to make excuses. He finally convinced me and I put my name on a long list. I was told that I probably would not get a chance to sing as many people were ahead of me and they were shutting down soon. I was pretty okay with that – it was enough for me to have been part of the crowd and to almost get a chance to sing. At six o’clock, the time the karaoke was to end, we were just walking away when I heard my name being called. I was nervous and James whipped out his camera. As I got onto the stage and introduced myself and the song I had chosen, Fame, an old man in the crowd caught my eye and gave me a thumbs up. As I sang, the crowd joined in for the chorus and a little kid ambled onto the stage. When I had moments of panic, I looked at him and took courage from his cute face, gazing up at me. Because I chose to be receptive to the idea of singing in front of this crowd, I found that I added a joy to our day that was magnified by our coming together in happiness. And, of course, what a gift and public service this Bearpit Karaoke is. If you are in Berlin, go and get yourself some joy.

The spirit of my words
From 2013: Change, Discover and Motivate
From 2014: Transform, Pursue and Collaborate
carry on and to that spirit I add my three for 2015
Receptive, Synergy and Service.

What are your three words will bring you magic and power this year?

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How Are You Confirming Your “Facts”?

Journalist falling for teen claiming M in stock market profits is object lesson for auditors

Journalist falling for teen claiming $72M in stock market profits is object lesson for auditors.

Attestation Update just wrote about a recent hoax, where a teenager claimed to have made $72 million, trading on the stock market. This article got me thinking about a piece I wrote last year on professional skepticism and the importance of knowing who is confirming your information. The least reliable confirmation comes from the party making the claim, in this case, the alleged millionaire teenager. The journalist that he dealt with thought that the bank statement that the teenager showed her was a valid third party confirmation. This is a very easy assumption to make. It appears that the party is coming from a third party, so it is easy to see that as a third, independent, party confirmation. This, however is not the case. In order for a confirmation to be truly independent, the person making the claim cannot have any control over the confirmation process. As we have seen here and in the cases noted by James Ulvog, it is very easy for someone to hand you a fake document that looks very real. There are actually places that will create very realistic fakes for you, for a price, of course.

Ulvog also pointed out several red flags in the boy’s story. An auditor or forensic CPA, coming across these red flags, should seek to further investigate and seek independent confirmation of the claims. For example, there are age restrictions that make it illegal for minors to buy and sell securities. You should look at the piece at Attestation Update and see if you can determine why the items highlighted by Ulvog are red flags. This piece also underlines the importance of using diligent and qualified professionals. It also emphasizes how we, as professionals must consistently practice professional skepticism and be aware of what are truly third party confirmations and how important it is to make them.

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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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