Tag Archives: CFF

Hear Ye, Hear Ye! It’s The Future!

 

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

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

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

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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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Easy Going Down

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I am big on Ethics and I am glad when they are spelled out in a straightforward way. So, I am excited to see that the AICPA’s revised Code of Professional Conduct has made the subject of ethics easy to access and clearer. This is where the standards that CPAs are held up to are put into words and the easier those words are for everyone to understand, the better it is for all of us. It’s not just “trust me, I know what I’m doing”, it’s “look here and see what I am supposed to be doing. There is a code that I abide by and here it is in plain English.”

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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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It’s In The Mail

ImageIn one of my previous lives, I worked for a company that, among its various business ventures, owned a mailboxes service. I would pop in occasionally to see how this and other nearby businesses were doing and, on one such visit, I found myself in the middle of an adventure. In the morning, shortly after the store opened, a man walked in and flashed his very impressive-looking badge. He explained that a woman was going to come in later in the day to pick up a package and that he needed to be present when this happened. Unsure what was going on, yet thoroughly impressed by the badge, the store’s staff agreed to let the man set himself up behind the counter, in wait for the woman. In no time, the man had settled himself in a chair, opened up a newspaper and blended into the scenery. A short while later, the store’s phone rang and one of the store’s employees answered a call for the woman they were waiting for. She asked if her package had arrived. Upon hearing that it had, she requested that someone bring it out to her car, as she was waiting outside the store. The employee explained that it was the store’s policy that all customers come in to pick up and sign for their own packages. After a short back and forth, he hung up the phone and a few minutes later a small woman in massive sunglasses walked in. The agent paid her no notice and appeared, instead, to be engrossed in a phone conversation with a friend. The woman signed for her package and turned to leave with it. As she did so, the agent whispered urgently into his phone and, suddenly, the mailboxes store turned into a scene straight out of the movies. Men in dark glasses, holding guns, burst in through the door, our agent behind the counter surged forward and, in no time, the woman was under arrest and her box was in their custody. Before he left, the agent explained that this woman was one of a group of people shipping some drug along the lines of PCP. Suffice to say, we were all pretty speechless and the most amazing thing of all? These guys worked for the US Postal Service. Yes, those folks who will let “Neither snow nor rain nor heat…” keep them from delivering your mail will not let crime hang out in their system either.

The United States Postal Inspection Service, founded by Benjamin Franklin, is the primary law enforcement arm of the US Postal Service and one of the oldest federal law enforcement agencies in the United States. Their goal is to protect against those who  “attack our nation’s postal system and misuse it to defraud, endanger, or otherwise threaten the American public.” You would be amazed how many criminals use the postal service as a conduit for perpetuating their crimes (using services such as UPS and FedEx for crimes that cross state lines is also covered by these laws). When Charles Ponzi was arrested for taking people’s money in a giant fraud that came to be known by his last name, the Ponzi Scheme, he was arrested by the US Postal Inspection Service because he had used the mail system to write to his investors, encouraging them to reinvest their funds.  He was charged with and went to jail for mail fraud.

If a person sends you mail in order to ensnare you in some kind of scam, to make an illegal delivery or to otherwise commit a crime, that is mail fraud. Conversely, if someone has scammed you and you end up sending that person money or some other item of value, that too is also considered mail fraud and that person can be prosecuted for it. Since a lot of mail fraud involves financial schemes, the work of financial forensics experts is quite important in the crime fighting work of the US Postal Inspection Service. If, for example, a person were running a pyramid scheme that involves people mailing in funds to invest in the scheme, a forensic accountant would be needed to track and follow the money trail and build a case against the criminal carrying out the scheme. Also, say you received a solicitation to send money to a fake charity and you sent payment in the mail. A forensic CPA’s skills would go a long way in exposing and putting a stop to the bad deeds of the fake charity.

The US Postal Service provides a very important service. It is well known that stealing mail is a federal crime but few realize just how far the US Postal Service and its law enforcement agents go to maintain the integrity of the postal service. Much trust is placed in those blue boxes and this is because of the work of these agents.

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In My Time…

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I have known my mother all my life so, at this point, I should not be surprised by anything she does. Yet, just about every time we spend time together, which is nowhere near as much as I would like, she tends to both surprise and impress me. This time it was as we were driving her to our home from the airport. She had been visiting my brother and was now chatting on the phone with a college friend of hers who lives in Connecticut. We overheard her congratulate him on his new job. “I saw the news on LinkedIn,” she explained to him. LinkedIn! I knew my mother had a LinkedIn profile but I had no idea that my mother actually used LinkedIn. After she got off the phone we quizzed her about her LinkedIn use and discovered that she is quite active in social media. It got me thinking about a piece I wrote on social media: Use Social Media, Don’t Let It Use You.

My mother is an amazing example of this maxim and she did not even need an AICPA Forensic and Valuation Services conference to understand the power and usefulness of social media. My mother is active on LinkedIn and on Facebook, making checking on these sites part of her daily routine. She has perfected her routine so that social media does not become a time suck. She is in and out before we realize it and yet, she comes away with knowledge about what her connections are up to and she has also interacted with several people in her network. Often, she uses YouTube to learn more about taking care of her orchids, a big passion of hers. I have heard my mother recommend that others seek information from various social media sources, telling them how helpful those resources have been for her. Taking her own advice, while she was visiting with us, she created a profile on Pinterest to help easily expand her access to knitting and crochet projects, she explored Instagram and became curious about Twitter.

What makes her embrace of social media  all the more surprising, for me, is that, for the last ten years, my mother is a farmer who lives just outside Gweru, the fifth largest city in Zimbabwe. Because she is out of the city, her access to fast and reliable internet can be challenging. In addition to this. my mother tended to use her computer as a fancy calculator and word processor. Now she uses Dropbox to store her large files in an easily accessible space and shares files quickly and efficiently, like a pro. When she sees someone using social media in a way she has not yet discovered, she asks questions, takes instructions and uses what she has learned. She has told me that she used to be afraid that something would go wrong and that she might break something by pressing the incorrect button. However, she has now found that it is sometimes fun to mess up and it is simpler than she imagined to rectify an error. An added bonus is that, at times, messing up can help her find a new and improved way to use social media.

During her visit, my mother would start many stories with the words, “in my time”. She would exclaim about how things have changed and, though she had happy memories about those days, she was also always willing to have new experiences. “I used to think, what can the internet and all this technology really do for me at this point,” she told me, “but now I see that there are so many things I can do better and faster and more easily. I can find so many things and I can learn about anything!” My mother has inspired me to continue my explorations in social media, while keeping in mind the first rule of social media, “don’ t say anything you wouldn’t say to your mother” because, in my case, my mother may very well be taking note. We are both seeing that this too is our time and we are making the most of it.

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It’s Not Worth It

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A forensic scientist made it into the news for all the reasons a forensic expert never wants to make it into the news. Annie Dookhan, a former chemist for the state of Massachusetts, who provided evidence and expert testimony, was caught forging a colleague’s initials. Once confronted, she admitted that she had forged the signatures of other co-workers and had also been falsifying lab test results for years. As her case unfolded, it turned out that she had broken all kinds of rules and left red flags of her unprofessional behavior all over the place and yet she was able to continue, unchecked, for several years.

To make her resume look more impressive, Dookhan padded her resume with a Master’s degree, in science, that she did not possess. An attorney, speaking about forensic science, described it as a “wild, wild west” and, looking at the case of Annie Dookhan, you could easily believe that. However, this does not need to be the case. When working with a forensic CPA, Certified in Financial Forensics (CFF), you can easily verify any qualifications claimed. CPA licenses can be verified via the relevant state boards and the CFF credential can be verified through the AICPA, who issues the credential. These certifications convey a level of knowledge, experience and expertise so you should check to make sure you have engaged someone who really is whom they claim to be.

Dookhan’s work seemed too good to be true and it turned out that it was. The average monthly testing output of her peers was 50 to 150 samples. Annie Dookhan tested 500 samples a month and she did this without claiming any overtime. A supervisor complained that he never saw her in front of a microscope and another coworker claimed that she would weigh samples without resetting the scales to zero. Despite these and other complaints, nothing was done for years. She continued to deliver several times more test results than any of her colleagues, without any reasonable explanation for her high numbers. In 2010, a coworker found seven separate instances in which Dookhan identified a drug sample as a certain narcotic when it was something else. The coworker explained this away as honest mistakes. When she was finally caught, Dookhan admitted that she routinely tested only five out of every 25 samples. She had been identifying drug samples merely by sight and not carrying out any tests, a practice known as “dry labbing”.

Granted, several coworkers found ways to rationalize the many red flags raised by Dookhan’s behavior. However, there were several fellow workers and supervisors who raised the alarm about Dookhan, voicing their concerns and observations to their superiors. Nothing was done about this for years and then when, in 2010, Dookhan’s work was audited, the audit was hardly anything that would be considered an audit. None of Dookhan’s samples were retested; the auditors merely reviewed her paperwork. This is a classic example of a poor tone at the top. The management at Hinton State Laboratory Institute, where Dookhan worked, received reports of an employee who appeared to be skirting proper procedures and who was definitely, mysteriously outperforming her colleagues by unbelievable margins, yet they seemed reluctant to do anything about this. From Dookhan’s own admissions, she, at times, intentionally changed negative sample results into positive ones. She was also accused of recording inflated weights of samples so that the accused was facing stiffer penalties. She often manipulated test results in favor of the prosecution. This may have made the lab, and Dookhan in particular, a preferred expert for the prosecution. Perhaps the lab liked the business they were getting because of their reputation and management was unwilling to jeopardize things. If management was not interested in enforcing rules and standards, it should not be a surprise that they were so shamelessly flouted for so long. The fallout has been far-reaching. Dookhan tested over 60,000 samples and every one of the results from these tests is now open to being disputed. Some people have already been released from prison, as cases may now have to be retried. The work of everyone in the lab is also under investigation as it is now clear that there was poor oversight and supervision at the lab and it is also possible that Dookhan may have contaminated the work of others. Dookhan was sentenced to three to five years in prison.

Anyone seeking the services of a forensic accountant must never seek an Annie Dookhan. On the face of things, it may appear fantastic to have someone who produces unreal results, is always on your side and invariably tells you what you want to hear. However, you should be encouraged if you work with a forensic accountant who is not afraid to give you the facts, even when the facts are not in your favor. In the long run, what will stand up in court and keep everyone out of trouble is work done without cutting any corners, manipulating the truth or violating the law in any way.

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Sweat the Small Stuff

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I was reading The Inner Auditor and came across a couple of articles that got me thinking about fraud and how people get away with it. Successful fraudsters are successful because they are good at hiding. They go to great lengths to keep their fraudulent behaviors under the radar of those who check on the books. As mentioned in the Inner Auditor post, often evidence of fraud is ignored because what is found is a small amount. Ignore at your peril. Ignoring something like this could mean ignoring a large fraud made of many small amounts. Armed with the knowledge that small amounts will fall under the radar of anyone policing the books, a person perpetrating fraud could go undetected by only stealing small amounts at a time. Recently, I was reviewing financial statements and I came across a line item for repairs that was several times higher than it had been in previous years. Curious, I looked into the details of the transactions that made up the account balance. Each invoice in that account, and all invoices were from the same vendor, was for less than $300, below the threshold for more rigorous checking. However, in aggregate, these small invoices came up to almost $10,000 in one month. Yes, that’s more than 33 of these small invoices coming in and, pretty much automatically being paid without anyone batting an eyelid. That’s because no one was checking on the small stuff and because no one was checking, a smart vendor, working under the radar, was benefiting quite richly.

Alternatively, a discovered fraud may be small because the fraudster has only just begun their fraud scheme and is testing the waters. Most frauds start out small and, if they are not discovered, they will grow as the thief grows bolder, greedier or more reckless. If a fraud is ignored because it is small, by the time someone decides to take action the fraudster will have stolen a lot of money. Isn’t it better to nip things in the bud and avoid large losses?

People who defraud an entity and go on doing this, undetected, for a while do so because they have understood the system and its weaknesses. They use this understanding to exploit the system and take what they can. If they know that only invoices of over $500 get looked at closely, they will be sure to keep their fraudulent invoices lower than $500. If they know that separation of duties is not implemented diligently, they will offer to take on the duties that could lead to their detection. So, for example, the person making payments should not be the person reconciling the bank account. If they are the same person, who is going to question suspicious payments that pop up on the bank statement? If they know of a balance sheet account that is not reviewed regularly, they will hide evidence of their fraud in that account. When Barings Bank was bankrupted, Nick Leeson hid over a billion dollars in trading losses in an error account that he knew was barely being monitored. One person, Nick Leeson, bankrupted Britain’s oldest merchant bank because he exploited its weakness. And Leeson started small; the first year that he hid trading losses, the amount stashed away in error account 88888 was $2 million dollars. Once he saw that no one cared to check this account, this amount grew and grew, in just a few years, to the over $1 billion it was when the bank collapsed.

When you spot the small fraud in your company is when it is time to call in a forensic accountant to look into things. If the forensic accountant finds that the fraud is small and has only just begun, then you can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that you have stopped things before they got worse. I have never heard of a fraudster who has stolen just once. On the other hand a deep dive by a credentialed expert may reveal that there is a lot more wrong than you imagined when you first spotted the small fraud.

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Things Fall Apart

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Divorce. Just about nobody wants to deal with that. However, just about everybody knows that, in order to best navigate what can be a rather complicated process, if they are getting divorced, they should get a lawyer. How many think – I should probably get an accountant too? That’s right – an accountant. During a marriage, couples will acquire property, share incomes and perhaps even have children. Should they split, it is almost never a simple matter of just walking away. There may be a home (or homes) to consider, issues of child and spousal support and other financial assets that will be taken by one or the other spouse. These many financial aspects to divorce  can be very challenging to resolve, and this is where the services of a forensic accountant can be well utilized.

The services can be as straightforward as preparing a spouse’s statement of net worth.  The forensic CPA’s understanding of and experience with financial statements and tax return documents will help make this process more efficient, and less likely to contain errors, than trying to prepare the statement yourself. Trying to correct net worth numbers after a divorce is finalized is a huge headache that most would probably want to do without. The need for the specialized skills and qualifications of a forensic CPA  come into play when a divorce involves more substantial and complicated assets. During a marriage couples may accumulate property, own and operate businesses, or incur debts. Forensic accountants will investigate the locations, value and character of the assets and income of the divorcing couple and present this financial information and testimony in court.

The location of assets and income is simple enough concept. Sometimes a divorcing spouse who wishes to minimize alimony or child support payments may try to hide their true income. Especially when the spouse is self-employed or has various sources of income, a forensic accountant may need to use various methods to trace and recalculate hidden income. In addition to tracing hidden income, a forensic account will assess the current value of property and other non-cash assets. What also comes into play in a divorce proceeding is the character of the property and debts. Where a divorcing couple resides decides to a large extent whether property will be viewed as community, equitable or separate. A state’s marital, financial and tax laws determine how the marital estate will be divided, how spousal and child support will be calculated and it is, therefore, very important that a divorcing party engages experienced divorce attorneys and forensic accountants who are experienced in family law.

For instance, when a couple has been married for many years, trying to determine the character of an asset can be a challenge. A forensic accountant may be needed to trace that asset back many years, and possibly through various investments, to figure out the source of the original funds used to purchase the assets. Sometimes separate property has been mixed with community property (which is completely understandable as most believe their marriage will be permanent). In these cases, it is important to have a professional who can use acceptable methods to identify the different types of property to a level that is acceptable in a court of law. Things can get really complicated. For example:

  • What if one spouse comes to the marriage with separate property which carries debt. During the marriage payments on this property. Are those payments made with separate or community funds? Will that change the character of the property as a whole, or in part or not at all?
  • What about if one spouse comes to the marriage with a business that she or he works in during the marriage. At the time of the divorce, can the other spouse claim a part of the increase in value of the business? How could their contribution be assessed if at all?

Using presiding laws and their expertise, forensic accountants work to provide the evidence and calculations that the judge will use to come to conclusions about the apportionment of assets and income.

Another way in which the skills of a forensic accountant are used are during the discovery phase. This is the part of the divorce process where the lawyers gather information, documents and other evidence that they will then use to resolve the case. Discovery involves requesting and collecting documents, asking questions of various parties that must be answered, under oath, in either written form or in the presence of a court stenographer, issuing subpoenas, and asking the opposing party to admit that items on a list of statements are true. Credentialed forensic accountants are very important during discovery as they can help the attorneys draft documents, analyze and assess whether or not documents received are reliable and useful. They can help the lawyers put together the lists of the documents that they should request from the opposing parties.

The stress of dealing with a divorce can be better managed by engaging the services of a qualified professional who has an understanding of

  • tax issues,
  • financial statements,
  • tracing financial transactions,
  • analyzing the value and character of assets and liabilities, and
  • understanding the machinations of the local legal system.

Together with your lawyer, should you have to go through a divorce, a certified and experienced forensic accountant can help make the process less of a drama.

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Mmmm… Mmmm… Good!

ImageA few months ago, I voiced my opinion about how it would be great to have a forensic accountant as an option to run the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). I can’t deny it, it’s right here, written in Internet stone. The reason I spoke about it was that a new head of the SEC had just been announced and, yet again, it was a lawyer. I believed that having a CPA, credentialed in financial forensics, might shake things up or at least lead the SEC to think of new ways and methods to protect investors. I still believe that a qualified forensic accountant would make an excellent candidate, but it seems that, in the case of Mary Jo White, the new head of the SEC, I may have been haste in my criticisms.

When he nominated Mary Jo White to head the SEC, President Obama said, “You don’t want to mess with Mary Jo”. Apparently it wasn’t just talk. Mary Jo White has said, in an interview, “I think financial statement fraud has always been important to the SEC”, and that she has committed substantial resources to the detection and investigation of fraud in accounting and financial disclosures seems to back that statement. On 2 July, the SEC announced three new Division of Enforcement initiatives; the Financial Reporting and Audit Task Force (FRATF), the Microcap Fraud Task Force (MFTF) and the Center for Risk and Quantitative Analytics (CRQA). These are fancy sounding names, for sure, but what are they and why are they encouraging with respect to the SEC’s goals?

First, the FRATF’s focus is detecting and investigating fraudulent or improper financial reporting and engaging in enforcement actions related to accounting and disclosure fraud. The MFTF’s goal is to target abusive trading and fraudulent behavior in securities issues by microcap companies. Microcap means that the company’s market capitalization, which is the share price multiplied by the number of outstanding shares of that company, is between $50 and $300 million. This task force will pay particular attention to microcap companies that do not regularly issue public financial results, since the lack of regular publicly available reports means that potential investors have limited access to information about the company. This, in turn, increases the risk that the investors may be fed fraudulent information that they cannot sufficiently verify. Finally, the CRQA will, as its title suggests, specialize quantitative data and analytics. This is the high-tech innovation of the SEC. Here the SEC will work to identify risks and potential threats to investors, be a part, along with other agencies, of risk-based investigations and come up with ways to identify possible illegality. The CRQA will employ various data technologies to achieve this goal. Of course, the usefulness of quantitative data analytics is only as good as those who use it. There is a lot of data out there but you need to know how to work with it in order to get the information that you are looking for.

What is encouraging about the announcement of the initiatives is not only that the SEC has declared a focus on the proactive detection and investigation of possible fraud, it is also not just that the SEC is stepping up its use of technology and data analytics in its endeavors, it is in large part about the manpower that they say they are going to employ for these initiatives. The SEC has announced that they will include enforcement attorneys and accountants, which is a great idea. The successful pursuit of financial fraud requires the expertise of people who know the books and people who know the law. In particular, the collaboration of attorneys and forensic accountants can lead to a formidable fraud fighting force. Certified forensic CPAs not only understand financial records, they also know how to look for potential fraud in those financial records and this information must be of a standard suitable for a court of law. Working with attorneys, the forensic accountant can put together information and provide appropriate litigation services in cases that the SEC decides to pursue.

Yes, it is true; I did voice my dissenting opinion about the appointment of another in a long line of attorneys to head the SEC. I have not changed my mind that a well-credentialed forensic CPA would be a wonderful choice for this position. However, I do concede that it is apparent that Mary Jo White understands the importance of both legal and financial expertise when it comes to policing the financial markets. Vital roles are played by all parties in the investigation and prosecution of financial crime and in the protection of investors. So, as these initiatives go into action and work towards achieving their stated goals, I shall eat at least some of my words. As long as fewer parties are getting away with their financial misdeeds, I shall enjoy every mouthful.

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