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?