Tag Archives: Forensic Accounting

Now That I Think About It…

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When we talk about fraud and how it tends to happen, the classic fraud triangle is most commonly used to help us understand how it all happens. The sides of this triangle represent opportunity, pressure and rationalization. In this triangle there is a person, just a regular old person, like you and me. Fraud can happen to anyone and fraudsters are often regular people who find themselves under pressure, faced with the opportunity to perpetrate a fraud and the ability to rationalize it all.

Sometimes this person may face pressures. Maybe she has a family member who gets sick and now they have to deal with massive bills. Maybe the person has a gambling problem. Maybe he wants to live the jet set life that he sees his friends living. Whatever the reason may be, these people feel under a lot of pressure to get their hands on more money than they are currently earning.

Pressure or not, maybe this person sees an opportunity to defraud. Perhaps he can sign checks, AND, he has custody of the checkbook AND he performs the company’s bank reconciliations. He has all this access and responsibility and no one checking his work. So, now he has access to the money and he can doctor the books to cover up his wrongdoing. However it works out, these people see a weakness that they can take advantage of.

The third leg of this triangle is rationalization. This is where a person tells himself that there is a justification for what he is doing. Maybe she tells herself that she really needs the money to deal with this one emergency and this will happen only once. Maybe she then tells herself that this will happen only once and, to boot, she has been a loyal employee for a while so the company really owes her a little leeway for all that she has done. Maybe she tells herself that once she is out of this spot of trouble, she will pay the company back and it will be like it never happened in the first place. Maybe he tells himself that he is underpaid and that what he is doing is merely taking the money that he is rightly owed for all the hard work and time that he puts into the business. The rationalizations that people use are practically endless.

Earlier this year, I listened to the podcast “Ponzi Supernova”, a podcast about Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and what has happened since. One thing that was fascinating about this series was the conversations that Steve Fishman, journalist and narrator of the series, had with Bernie Madoff, infamous perpetrator of a massive Ponzi scheme. Bernie talked about his childhood and how affected he was by his father’s financial failures. Bernie tells Steve that, after seeing his father lose a lot of money and what it did to the family, Bernie swore he would never let that happen to him (perhaps one could see this as a pressure looming over his life). In the early 1960’s, Bernie Madoff violated market regulations and his clients’ trust by losing their money on risky deals. Instead of letting them know that this had happened, he lied to his clients, borrowed money from his father-in-law and carried on as though he was a brilliant investor. Speaking with Fishman, Madoff made it sound as though, because he did not want to fail as his father had, he took these steps so that he could continue to, at least, appear to be successful and very talented.

Bernie Madoff spoke with Steve Fishman a couple of years after he was caught (though, in some versions of his story, he claims he quit). Bernie Madoff also spoke with Diana Henriques, who wrote the book The Wizard of Lies, which is now an HBO Film by the same title. Their interactions also occurred a couple of years after Madoff’s fraud was discovered. After he had plead guilty to his crime. Yet, over and over again, Madoff seemed to continue to make excuses for his behavior and try to minimize what he did. Even though, when pleading guilty, he claimed that he acted alone, he has since changed his tune and as co-conspirators have testified against him, he then seems to say, “well, except for that person, I acted alone”. So, it seems that even after being caught, he is only sharing as much of the truth as he needs to and, what I have found to be most interesting, is that he appears to continue to rationalize what he did.

In an ideal world, one would imagine that having a fraud exposed and pleading guilty would bring a fraudster to his senses. When we imagine a person committing fraud as a regular person who has fallen into irregular behavior, the hope is that putting an end to this irregular behavior will bring this person to her senses and get them to admit that what they did was without excuses; that, even though they rationalized their actions when they perpetuated the fraud, they now saw the error of their ways and realized that the rationalizations were all without merit. During the hearing when he plead guilty, Madoff read a prepared statement where he apologized to his victims. However, even that apology came with a “but” attached. “While I never promised a specific rate of return to any client, I felt compelled to satisfy my clients’ expectations, at any cost.” Yet, listening to Ponzi Supernova, you learn that some clients would demand an adjustment to their statements when they did not receive the return they had been promised. Madoff has also placed blame on his victims, claiming that they knew, or should have known, what they were getting into, that he had warned them and that they did not lose as much as they claimed. And, I have found that it is not just Madoff who does this. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners talks to people who were convicted of fraud and, in video after video, the perpetrators found ways to hold others responsible for what they did – and this is after they had been found guilty and served their sentences. For instance, one blamed her supervisor for being too trusting, “I don’t blame them but…” she started her sentence. Another stated, “I asked you for help and you said no”, while yet another said “I won’t get caught again”, not “I won’t do it again because I realize it was wrong.

It may be human to not want to admit full responsibility. Perhaps it is too hard for most of us to admit that we have done terrible things. Who really wants to be a monster, blamed for ruining lives, even when those lives are laid out in front for you? And if we are not harshly judging ourselves, even when caught, then can we really adjust our behaviors to do right and get back on the straight and narrow? I don’t know the answers to this but it is something I think about as I perform my work as a forensic accountant. If a person is not able to strip away rationalization and admit that they were just wrong when they perpetuated their fraud, then what are the chances that it won’t be so difficult to do it again?

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Massive Betrayal of Trust

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Photo by Mamnaimie Piotr

On September 8, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) put out a press release that it was fining Wells Fargo Bank $100 million for secretly opening deposit and credit card accounts, without customer approval. In addition to the CFPB fine, Wells Fargo was fined $35 million by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, $50 million by the City and Country of Los Angeles and will have to pay approximately $5 million in restitution to customers. This fraudulent behavior occurred on a massive scale and, based on the CFPB’s investigation, resulted in:

  • Employees opening 1,534,280 unauthorized deposit accounts;
  • Employees submitting applications for 565,443 credit-card accounts, without the knowledge or consent of the people in whose names the applications were made;
  • Employees creating fake email addresses in order to enroll consumers in online-banking services;
  • Employees requesting debit cards for customers, without the customers’ knowledge or consent, and creating PINs to activate these cards.

All of the above has happened only since January 1, 2011. That is about five years in which these shenanigans were going on. During this time, Wells Fargo fired about 5,300 employees but it does not appear that the bank did a lot more than that to change the culture and systems in order to keep these practices from recurring, or that it took any steps to do right by the customers who were affected. To boot, the executive who oversaw the unit where this all happened left without having to pay back any of the almost $125 million that she earned with the bank. To understand why employees engaged in these dishonest practices, it is important to understand how they benefitted.

Wells Fargo is valued at over $250 billion, making it the most valuable bank in United States, by this yardstick. Wells Fargo was also considered to be the king of cross-selling. Cross-selling is a practice where banks sell more than one service to a customer. For instance, say you open a checking account with Wells Fargo. If the person that you open your account with convinces you to then open a savings account, a credit card account and a mortgage, all of that is cross-selling. At Wells Fargo, employees were paid and received bonuses based on the number of different services they were able to sell to customers. At times, employees would have to work unpaid overtime hours in order to reach these goals and would be threatened with losing their jobs if they did not do enough cross-selling. These employees were told to do “whatever it takes” in order to meet sales goals and this turned out to include engaging in the fraudulent behaviors I noted above.

With the pressure to perform in order to increase earnings, through bonuses, or merely keep a job, the retail employees, at least 5,300 of them, found many opportunities to game the system. Controls at Wells Fargo, when it came to ensuring accounts were valid and authorized by customers, appears to have been very lax. For instance:

  • Employees were able to sign up customers for banking services and would use fake email addresses that used wellsfargo.com as the domain name, such as 1234@wellsfargo.com or none@wellsfargo.com. Doesn’t that seem rather brazen? It also seems like a security shortfall on the part of the bank, that the application process wouldn’t flag an email that doesn’t exist in your own system.
  • When employees opened fake deposit accounts, they would fund these accounts by transferring a customers money from an authorized account to the fake account. Sometimes, as a result of the transfer, the authorized account would incur insufficient balance and overdraft fees. Also, the fake accounts would also incur fees and Wells Fargo would withdraw money from the authorized accounts in order to pay these fees.
  • In a similar manner, credit card accounts opened, without the approval or knowledge of customers, would incur annual and other fees. At times, these customers would find that they were in collections and their credit scores had been affected by accounts that they did not even know they had.
  • Some customers actually received credit cards for accounts that they had not authorized. When these customers contacted Wells Fargo to complain about these cards, they were told to simply destroy the cards. Destroying a credit card does not close the credit card account, nor does the shredding of a card do anything as far as the shredding that your credit profile may have taken.
  • In order to meet quarterly goals, employees would hold back applications for account openings. The manual applications, that included sensitive personal information, would be stockpiled in an unsecured manner and the accounts would only be opened in the next sales goal period, in a practice referred to as sandbagging.
  • Wells Fargo also misled customers by telling them that they could not get one service without getting a bundle of other included services. That would be like opening a checking account and being told that you cannot do so unless you open a savings account and get a credit card with the bank.

With how widespread these practices were, it seems that employees were sharing knowledge about how to best bulk up their cross-selling numbers, without actually cross-selling. Also, when customers complained about fees, it is unclear how much of a follow-up there was to discover if what had happened was a mistake or not. Then, when Wells Fargo discovered this behavior and fired an employee, the bank did not take any steps to let the impacted customers know that their information had been used to open accounts in their name and, if applicable, charge them fees. The bank did not go back and refund customers the fees they had been charged, unless the customer raised a stink about them. When I was discussing this case with my husband and explaining how customers were negatively affected, he had a tale of his own. He has a credit card (not Wells Fargo) and the company changed his credit card information, without letting him know. When he sent payment on his account, they accepted the payment, without telling him that the account was closed, and then charged him interest and fees on the balance that had been moved to a new account. He, not the credit card company, had to figure out what had happened and he, not the credit card company had to calculate the monies that needed to be refunded to him and make sure that the company was not just holding money on a nonexistent account but actually crediting it to his account.

As a result of this case, in addition to the fines that Wells Fargo has been ordered to pay, there are steps the bank has been ordered to take in order to improve the culture and strengthen the system so that this kind of behavior can be prevented, detected and corrected in the future. This includes:

  • Employee training to prevent “Improper Sales Practices” and improve integrity at the bank;
  • Creating monitoring processes and policies to effectively deal with customer complaints;
  • Creating systems to ensure that customer approval is received before accounts are opened on their behalf;
  • Revising the basis for how employees are paid and reviewing sales goals to ensure that they are not unrealistic and do not impose unreasonable pressure on employees.

Wells Fargo will continue to be monitored for five years, to make sure that they comply with the CFPB’s consent order.

On your part, with all your accounts, you can check to make sure that they accounts that you have are ones that you have authorized and that transactions made in your name are valid. Some steps that you can take are:

  • Review your credit report on a regular basis to make sure that all accounts listed are ones that you know about. Several financial institutions offer free credit reports to customers. If this is not an option for you, you can visit the Annual Credit Report website. On this website, you are entitled to credit report per year, from each of the three major credit reporting companies. A strategy to employ is to check a report with one agency every four months;
  • Check your bank statements regularly (at least monthly) for any transactions that are incorrect. Even if it is a small amount, look into a transaction. That small amount could be an indication of something bigger;
  • If you receive a card in the mail that you did not apply for it, follow-up on it and make sure that it is cancelled. Then check your credit report again.

On the Wells Fargo website, the Chairman and CEO states that “Everything we do is built on trust.” It seems that many employees have been playing lip service to that value and we know that, even with trust, it is important to verify. Take the time to check in on your finances. There may be mistakes that need fixing and there may also be pressured employees who are trying to get ahead or merely hold onto their jobs by engaging in dishonest practices.

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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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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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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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Ask, Ask and Ask Again…

James Petrozzello

James Petrozzello

When I was a kid, I asked a lot of questions. Okay, I still ask a lot of questions, but, apparently, back then I really maxed out on the question asking. An aunt once said, “Everything is what, why, where, how! Don’t you know how to say a sentence that’s not a question?” I didn’t see what was wrong with that – how else was I to know the answers to the questions in my head if I did not ask them out loud? But one day someone said to me, “Hey, be careful with all those questions. Don’t you know that curiosity killed the cat?”

Well, no, I did not but that question raised a whole lot of other questions. How did the cat get killed? What was the cat curious about? What did it have to do with me? I had seen many cats in my life as, for example, my grandmother had several. However, I had never seen a cat that seemed particularly curious about anything. I did know enough to recognize, from the tone of voice, that this person did not want me asking any more questions, so the mystery of the cat’s curiosity and its ensuing death remained.

Curiosity killed the cat. This is what I have figured out since then. Do you know who says that? People who don’t want to be questioned. Do you know what kind of people those are? Those are people who are either:

  • People with huge egos who think they are too good at what they do to be questioned; or
  • People who don’t know what they’re doing and don’t want other people to know that; or
  • People who don’t want you to know what they are doing.

All three types of people are dangerous in their own ways.

The first group of people, the big egos, can be difficult to deal with, especially if those people are your supervisors. Somehow you have to convince the egos that it is in their best interest to have a check. The easy route is to become an enabler to the supervisor and to keep your head down and do as you are told. What should keep you from doing that is the thought of the consequences of your silence. Remember that usually the mistakes of people in positions of power tend to have large and far-reaching effects. Sometimes people have been doing their work for many years and believe that they are so good at what they do that no one can tell them better. You just have to find a diplomatic way of asking your questions. You know what, just because you are asking it doesn’t mean that something is wrong, it may just mean that you want to know more about what is going on.

When I worked in audit, I remember being told, a few times, to audit a section of a client’s books by following “last year’s audit papers”. I would read the work papers and sometimes I would have questions about why a particular step was taken. There were occasions when, probably because of time pressures, the audit manager would tell me to just do the work. Now, I am not saying that these managers did not know what they were doing but I will say that their reactions sure made it look as though they did not know what they were doing. As a person who feels that there are too  few hours in a day to waste them doing work for no good reason, I would insist that my questions, about why I had to do something, were answered. At times the explanations made sense and I was able to a better job, knowing what I was doing and why I was doing it. On other occasions, the conversations led to our tweaking the audit approach in order to better achieve our goal. There are times when I ask what people are doing and why they are doing it and they can’t give a reason beyond, “this is what they told me to do, so I’m doing it.” Again, talking through the work with them tends to result in work being performed at a higher level because now the people know why are doing something so they know what to look for and what results to aim for.

The last group of people, the ones who don’t want you to know what they are doing, are the slickest group of all. Their whole approach is to either make you feel as though your questions have been answered or that the explanations are so complicated that you couldn’t possibly understand. They work very hard to keep you from getting answers to their questions. Some employ the tactic of being so scary and standoffish that you don’t even want to ask them how their weekend was, let alone what they are doing and why. Others try to make their work sound super complicated and they scramble your brains with fancy words and technical terms until you say “oh right, okay” and wander off, hoping that you didn’t look too stupid in the conversation. They could also make their work sound so boring that you start to fall asleep in the middle of the second sentence of their explanation, and leave them to do what you couldn’t possibly stay awake long enough to care about. People like this are one of the reasons why frauds can go on for months or even years. They become so practiced at deception and avoiding being properly questioned about their work, that they can just keep on doing what they have been doing with virtually no fear of being caught. Their ideal environment is one where no one is asking questions.

I like to ask questions. When I am at work, one of the biggest reasons I ask questions is to help me do a better job. All too often, questions are not asked and a task ends up being performed several times over. There are times when I ask questions and I end up finding out about documents or other information that make my work much simpler. Also, I love it when I ask questions and I find out that the work has already been done, the information is available and I have time to tackle a new, unresolved issue. Don’t be afraid to ask, and ask, and ask. Your questions could make your work more productive, uncover fraud or error or just make life more interesting because you have learned something new. And, please, don’t sentence a child to years of fruitless wondering about a cat’s curiosity. Please.

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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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Take The Wheel

big_sandwichI am a take charge kind of person. My friends call me The Sheriff and my husband even gave me a sheriff badge that I wear occasionally. It is hardly a surprise that I have turned out this way – I come from take charge stock. My father was a corporate CEO and my mother, after being in charge of several things, now is in charge of a farm. I like to be in control of the situations that I am in and I have been known to give my opinion on things before being asked. Sometimes, while traveling around the city, despite my lack of a sense of direction, I am always happy to try to give directions to lost strangers. I do try to make myself as qualified as possible to take charge by accumulating incredible amounts of generally useless information in my head. However, every so often, that information that I thought was just taking up space in my brain comes in handy and helps me sheriff a situation.

All that said, time and experience have taught me that I cannot not possibly know everything and that, sometimes, there are people who are better at doing something than I am. At times like that, I have had to learn to step back and let someone else take the wheel. Today is Super Bowl Sunday and, as become customary, my husband and I host a party. Due to a lot of the reading that I do and my attempts to lead an active and healthy life, I then to be very particular about the food in our home and also about how things are ordered and operated in the kitchen. On Super Bowl Sunday, though, James makes the main dish of the event – his legendary chili. On Super Bowl Sunday, James is particular about how the television and seating is placed, so that people can actually watch the game. On Super Bowl Sunday, James creates the crazy questions for the game pool. He takes charge and I take directions. I am happy to do this because his superior skills in these areas are what make our Super Bowl party so awesome.

Recognizing where and when you need the assistance of an expert is vital to survival, be it the survival of your business or the survival of your personal assets. We are in the midst of tax season and, even though I am a CPA and, although many of my friends and family believe that means I am a tax whiz, I know that we shall be taking our rather complicated financial information to a CPA who specializes, not just in taxes, but particularly in the industry that James is in. I know a lot about taxes but it is not my specialty and, as we all know, the tax code is a complicated one. Whether you are dealing with getting your tax return prepared, a business valuation issue or a workplace fraud, you will get the best results when you find the right person to take charge. It will be worth the time and expense when you do this. For trying to take short cuts or do it yourself may end up costing you more in the long run, both in time and money.

I am able to sit and write because someone else has taken the wheel, but now I must dash because the doorbell just rang and the game is about to start. I could get used to giving up control, especially if that comes with delicious chili and a gigantic sandwich.

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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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