Tag Archives: Fraud

Something’s Not Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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On the Record

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I first wrote about Scott London in April 2013, soon after he had been arrested on insider trading charges. He was sentenced to 14 months in prison and was released early, for good behavior, earlier this year. I was listening to my regular Planet Money podcast last week and, like an awesome Christmas gift, they were interviewing Scott London about what he did and why he did it.

London spoke about how, when he was an audit partner at KPMG, he started sharing non-public information on his clients with a golfing buddy. It is not as though London did not know that what he was doing was both unethical and illegal. He speaks about how much training KPMG gave to employees, training that he himself gave at times. Yet, when his friend’s business was struggling and his friend asked for just a little help, Scott London was able to rationalize what he did. In his mind, the money that Bryan Shaw, the friend, was making was small and this made what he was doing not so bad. This is something that happens often in fraud stories. Most frauds start small, either because the fraudster is testing the waters or because the fraudster initially intends to just take a little to cover their perceived need. It is generally because the initial idea of a fraud is small so it does not seem like a big deal and will not hurt anyone. it is a good reminder that when you are looking into or for fraud, you should not just look for large amounts. The fraudsters are going to do what they can to stay under the radar and many are going to be committing in ways that minimize, in their minds, what they are doing.

All in all, Shaw paid London about $70,000 in cash and gifts, while Shaw made $1.27 million from the insider trading. I was amused to hear London’s shock at how much money Shaw made trading on the information that he got from London. You see, when Shaw asked for the tips, he proposed that they share the money equally. It was funny that London was shocked to find out that the person who had partnered with him in an illegal pursuit had been less than honest with him. I suppose he had not heard that there is no honor among thieves. I am not sure if he was surprised because he realized how much more money he should have been paid or if he thinks he would have nipped the insider trading in the bud had he known just how much money was at stake (making the crime a bigger deal than he imagined).

During the podcast, the Planet Money folk discussed whether insider trading is a victimless crime. They struggled to find who is hurt by the trading. They came to their conclusions about who is hurt and you can also read various others opine. When I look at insider trading and think about who can be seen as victims, I have a long list. If you are competing in what you believe is a level playing field but where some parties know more than you do, it is just about a given that those parties are going to beat you every time. And, in this day and age where many retirement and savings plans involve trading on the stock market, why would you even bother if you knew that there were people making lots of money, primarily because they had inside information that you were not privy to?

There are so many layers in the Scott London story that could fill a book and, one such book, by James Ulvog, about Scott London’s fraud is well worth a read. Hearing from Scott London himself was a great gift and is a lesson in insider trading, tone at the top, how easily a fraud can begin and the consequences of taking the path that he took. Thank you Santa and Planet Money!

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The Best! The Worst!

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Today is marathon Sunday in New York City and, for years now, I have lived less than a block from the marathon route. It is one of the most exciting days of the year for me and I love walking down to the end of my block to join the over one million spectators who line the 26.2-mile route to cheer on the runners. All too often, New Yorkers are thought of as people who just don’t care about others. Per the stereotype, it’s just keep out of our way, don’t look us in the eye and don’t do anything that will slow us down and we won’t have any problems. Marathon day is a day when I am reminded that the city is a city full of people who do things like come out to cheer and high-five strangers as those strangers test their bodies and spirits. I love it.

There are moments, such as the marathon, that bring out the best in people. Disasters, as sad as they may be, also bring out the best in people. People come out and give time, money and other resources to help those in need. Tragically, disasters also tend to bring out the worst in some people. Some among us see disasters as a great opportunity to take advantage of others, for personal gain. Some of the fraudsters are blatant in their unscrupulous ways because they are targeting the desperate among us. A current example is the migrant crisis in Europe, where refugees, seeking to escape dangers at home, will give up all their resources in the hopes of reaching a safer place. Instead, some hand over money to greedy criminals who then lead them into more danger and, sometimes, even death.

Other fraudsters are more slick in their strategies to profit from the suffering of others. In recent months, natural disasters such as fires and tropical storms, have left many in the United States needing assistance. Just in October, while communities in South Carolina were struggling to recover from flooding damage, warnings were being sent out because of an influx of fake charities. These counterfeit charities, preying on the generosity of those wishing to do something to help the displaced and impacted, were taking people’s money and doing nothing to help those in need. Just a couple of days ago in New York, a company agreed to pay a settlement of $700,000 for pretending to collect secondhand clothing to help charities. Instead, this company sold the clothing, paid almost nothing to the charities and made profits of over $10 million dollars, it is estimated.

Because, even in situations where we should be helping others, there are those who are looking to help themselves at the cost of those around them, it is important to be vigilant.

  • It was Halloween yesterday and parents were checking to make sure that the treats that their kids collected were safe for consumption. Yes, people may appear to be doing good things, but it is only smart to make sure that everything is above-board.
  • Even though it may seem like a drag, check up on who you are giving your money or time to.
  • The name may sound familiar, but make sure it really is who you think it is.
  • If you feel uncomfortable about something, it is okay to say no. There are many opportunities to give back to those in need and you will find the opportunity where you are sure that what you are doing is benefitting those who need it.
  • Don’t give your personal information to anyone.
  • If you believe that you have been scammed, contact your local authorities and report it.

Giving is a vital part of what makes us communities. Just make sure that you are giving to the right people and not the unscrupulous scammers around. You know, like that obnoxious person in the neighborhood who decides that they just have to cross the street as the runners are passing by. Don’t give that guy the time of day.

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While We Are Making Plans

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Because I live in the Northeastern part of the United States, I have become one of those people who lives for the brief summer months. There are only a few brief months of warmth and sunshine (and, often, humidity) in which to have a fun life. There are outdoor shows, there is the beach, there are picnics and that’s just a small sliver of all that needs to be done before the cold and darkness return. In my case, I had also signed up for a half marathon, to be run in the middle of October. Summer was my chance to keep on running and build my endurance and distance. When I run, I run on streets and have to deal with cracks in the sidewalk, people getting in my way and traffic. I am always on the lookout to stay safe and not hurt myself. So, in addition to all the stretching and foam rolling (never enough) that I do in order to prevent injury, on top of all of the careful calibration of distance that I do so that I don’t hurt myself by doing too much too soon, I am also keeping a watchful eye on every step that I take in order to keep myself safe and sound during my run.

Well, on a bright and sunny Sunday morning, at the beginning of August, I stepped out of my apartment building and into the parking lot, armed with a whole lot of recycling to put out. The next thing I knew, I had tripped over something (turned out to be a concrete block) and I was stumbling. The recycling flew out of my hands and the first thought that I had was, “this better not mess with my running”. In an attempt to break my fall, I jammed my leg into the ground and a sharp pain shot up my leg. I crumpled, in my mind, elegantly to the ground. It turns out that for all my measures to protect my body, all it took was taking out the trash in order to fracture my knee. I ended up with my knee in a brace and using a cane (that I still have). Throw in a surgery that I had in September and it turns out that this summer was not the summer I had imagined at all. An acquaintance said to me that life is what happens while we are making plans.

Most people business owners, similarly, spend a lot of time and invest a lot into protecting their businesses from most expected challenges. Depending on the size and complexity of the business, this will range from control systems to detect and prevent fraud and waste, to various reports that business owners and management use to monitor how the business is doing. The question that stands though is, what are business owners and management doing to deal with the unexpected or the events that they hope will never happen? Does the business have a disaster recovery plan? Has the business taken steps to encourage tips that will help uncover weaknesses in control systems and catch fraud and waste? Does the business know what it will do when fraud and waste are uncovered? Yes we make plans and take precautions, but are we ready to deal with what happens when the unexpected happens? Are we ready for, you know, life?

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Not Again…

I don’t know what life was like for you, growing up, but my youth was full of lectures. I never just got into trouble. I got into trouble AND I got a lecture to go along with it. We never just went on vacation; we went on vacation, had to write an essay about our experiences AND we got a lecture about how both things were important. We didn’t just discuss our report cards, good or bad; we discussed our report cards AND got a lecture about the long-term benefits of each class we were taking. The lectures often came with true-life stories about one or both of my parents, someone they knew or someone who lived in their “day”. I am not saying that I was lectured a lot, but I did hear some stories more than once. On the occasions that I tried to interrupt to say that I had heard the story, I was told either that there was a new lesson to be learned, or asked why, if I knew the story and the wisdom it imparted, I continued to make the same mistakes.

Well, at last, I get it. Because the other day, I came across a case that includes so many lessons on fraud that, if I were teaching a semester on fraud, I could use it as an example in just about every lesson. This is the case of Christopher Myles, a former bookkeeper in New York City. He worked at Central Park Realty Holding Corp., and some of its affiliates, and reported to the President of the company. Tragically, in May 2010, the President, suffered a stroke and ended up in “a comatose-like state until her death in February 2012”.

With the president incapacitated, no one stepped in to VERIFY Myles’ work. By the time September 2011 rolled around, Christopher was aware that he could pretty much do whatever he wanted without anyone really questioning what was going on. He knew that he now had the OPPORTUNITY to defraud his employer and he took advantage of this opportunity. True to the trend, Christopher Myles started his fraud on a small scale, using the President’s credit cards to pay for personal expenses. He escalated quickly and by early 2012, he was transferring funds out of her personal bank account in order to pay his and his mother’s bills. He did this until there was no longer any money in the President’s bank account. Myles did not let this empty bank account stop him though; he then started transferring money from the business accounts, first, into the President’s personal bank account and, subsequently, into his own personal accounts. On days when he felt particularly bold, or reckless, Myles would transfer money straight into his and his mother’s personal bank accounts. Christopher Myles had unfettered access to all of these accounts, both business and personal, and never needed anyone else to sign off on any of the funds he moved into and out of these accounts. The lack of segregation of duties made this fraud simple for Myles.

If anyone had been watching him and taking notice, they may have noticed that Christopher Myles was living beyond his official means. He used his ill-gotten funds to buy a new home, go on shopping sprees and fancy vacations. This is another red flag for possible fraud. Throughout this fraud, created falsified bank statements and recorded all of these illicit transfers as business transfers. Unfortunately, no one followed up closely on any of these untruths. Perhaps none of those looking at the fake bank statements understood how the company worked and what kind expenses would appear as out of character, or maybe no one was familiar with the ledger and how to analyze it. I am not sure, but, the result was that Myles was able to continue his fraud for over two years (just a little bit longer than the median duration of a fraud), until November 2013, when he resigned.

It was only when his replacement discovered the fraudulent invoices that Myles created, in attempt to disguise his embezzlement, that Christopher Myles’ theft was discovered. A forensic investigation revealed that, in two years, Myles had stolen about $1.3 million from his employer. Myles’ former employer reported all of this to the authorities and, in addition to an indictment for the theft, Christopher Myles is also facing tax evasion charges. This is because, in the manner of Al Capone, Christopher Myles did not report any of his fraudulently acquired income on his tax returns.

Almost like a bonus in the lesson that keeps on giving series, once his theft had been exposed, Christopher Myles sent an email to all parties involved. In this email, he RATIONALIZED his fraud, claiming that he was entitled to the funds because he was due a raise and compensation for having to deal with a difficult coworker.

As I read the press release about Christopher Myles’ indictment, my jaw hung open. I said out loud, “wow, this has all the classic markers; it’s unbelievable!” Yet, the markers are classic for a reason. There are probably a lot more lessons to learn from the story of Christopher Myles, but don’t get me started!

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Checking Up

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Several years ago, I was working on an assignment that had me flying out to Boca Raton, Florida, every Monday and returning to New York City on Friday night. It was great because it was a brutal winter in New York City and pleasantly warm in Boca Raton. It was terrible because it was close to impossible to get anything done over the weekend. One week, I had to admit that there I needed to get one of my teeth looked at. It had been causing me some pain and I knew I had to sort it out before it started hurting a lot. My challenge was to find a dentist who took patients on weekend days and who I could get to easily. I found one online and went in to see him on a Saturday morning. He determined that I needed a filling fixed and he got to work. What I remember about that day is how incredibly painful it was and how unsympathetically the dentist kept ordering me to “be strong”. I was traumatized – so much so that I did not go anywhere near a dentist’s office for years after that. I knew I should, but the memory of the pain and a dentist who was in need of a heart kept me away. Other aspects of my body were very well taken of; I went to my annual physical and that was always a pleasure, compared to my dental disaster. I brushed my teeth but, other than that, they were pretty much on their own.

One nights, I fell asleep while sucking on a throat sweet and, the next morning, I woke up feeling as though my teeth were about to fall out of my head. I was in a panic; I was too young to be toothless. I was desperate and looked up dentists located close to my office. Thankfully, I was able to find a dentist, a few blocks away, who was able to fit me in that very day. As he examined me, a poem from my childhood, “Oh, I Wish I’d Looked After Me Teeth” ran through my head. Fortunately, this time around, I get to keep my teeth. My dentist was a great guy who doesn’t believe in causing pain and suffering and NEVER says to me, “be strong”. I did, however, have to go through a series of appointments to repair the damage that had accumulated over the years that I had avoided the dentist, dentist I could have avoided. I have not missed an appointment since, although I get nervous when the machine turns on, even just to polish my teeth.

Like my teeth, a business needs regular checkups to maintain its financial health. Yes, a lot of companies review their financials on a monthly or quarterly basis, but how many are assessing their control systems and taking steps to update and analyze how they prevent and detect fraud? The fact that the median length of a fraud is 18 months before it is detected and that many frauds can last many years as in the cases of Bernie Madoff and Rita Crundwell, to name a few high profile cases, implies that these steps are not taken often and rigorously enough. No one really thinks that it will happen to them and some people think that their finance department, accountant or auditor will keep them safe from fraud. This is because they do not fully understand the roles and duties of their auditors and accountants. Other people don’t want to spend the money on fraud prevention and detection. However, when you start thinking that Rita Crundwell stole over $54 million and a quick search of the internet brings up many other recent cases of embezzlement of millions of dollars that have been discovered. There are many more that either have not been recorded or are of lesser amounts.

Think about this:

  • Fraud goes on for an average of 18 months but many go on for much longer.
  • Usually fraudsters start out stealing a little money but as times goes on and they are not caught, the amounts stolen grow and grow and grow
  • The knowledge that a company has allowed theft to go on under its nose for years can negatively affect its reputation, leading people to believe that it may not be a safe and ethical place to do business

These are just a few things to think about when it comes to detecting and preventing fraud in your company. It only makes sense to get a qualified Forensic Accountant, Certified in Financial Forensics to assess and evaluate your companies systems in order to beef up your fraud prevention programs and also, perhaps to detect possible fraud? Now, I learnt a very painful lesson before I started to take care of my teeth. Do you want to learn a hard, and possibly expensive, lesson before you take proper care of your business?

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Gimme A Break!

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It almost seems a long time ago, but November and December had a great series of holidays that, for some, were leveraged into a week or two of time off. From the conversations that I have had with strangers in elevators, not a single person wished they could have just stayed in the office and worked. The only gripe was the weather (for those of us in the Northeast). Everyone needs time off to recharge and those who tell us otherwise are lying to themselves or to us.

However, for those bosses who don’t care about whether or not their workers are worn out, just as long as they show up, there is a reason to give time off that benefits them – security. You would not believe how many stories I have come across, of fraud perpetrated by employees who rarely took time off and , if they did, it was only ever for a couple of days at a time. The bosses loved them because they were so diligent and always there when anything was needed. It also turned out that these same employees were diligently stealing from their employers. because they were always in the office, they were able to make sure that people didn’t poke around in their work too much. Because they were always in, they were able to steer people away if anyone seemed to be getting close to discovering their scheme. Because they were always the face in the office, they were able to gain the trust of their employers. In this way, they were able to keep watch over their fraud schemes and keep them going on for a long time. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard about how shocked people were when a fraudster was exposed because of how diligent and ever-present that person was.

In theory, it is an admirable thing to have a worker who so loves coming into work that they won’t even take paid time off. However, when you think about it, why wouldn’t someone want to take time off that they are being paid to take? I don’t know about you but I do not have conversations where employees go on about how much they prefer being at work over spending time with loved ones, how much they love their daily commute and wouldn’t trade it for anything, or how they wish that weekends and days off would be abolished so they could spend more time at work. With this in mind, employees who do not want to take time off should be viewed with skepticism.

It is important that employers take advantage of the time off given, in order to perform fraud prevention and detection activities. This is mostly achieved by having another employee do the work of the vacationing employee. This is particularly important if the employee has a financial role or access to assets. A few examples of tasks that should be performed in an employee’s absence are:

  • reconciling the bank accounts;
  • receiving and opening mail, especially correspondence from banks and vendors
  • receiving and processing inventory;
  • disbursing checks.

Nobody likes to do someone else’s work, and that is a plus for a fraudster. But, doing someone else’s work has gotten many a fraudster caught (and often highlights errors and weaknesses). Bank reconciliations have been found to contain fictitious reconciling items. Checking the mail has revealed bank accounts that employees secretly opened and used to divert company funds for their own benefit. A check of vendor statements and payments has revealed payments being made to fake vendors. A lot of benefits are gained by employers when they give their workers time off and use that time to have their peers do the vacationers’ work. Several authorities, including the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the SEC recommend that banks and investment advisors, among others, adopt mandatory two-week vacation policies as a safeguard against fraud. This is an approach that other types of businesses should also consider adopting. Several companies have adopted this policy of a two consecutive weeks off. This gives sufficient time to have other employees perform the tasks of their vacationing colleagues.

There is another benefit to having others do the work of their coworkers, either when that employee is on vacation or by rotating tasks. This is increases the number of employees with knowledge of processes, with all the peculiarities a company will have that are not in the company manuals. I recently read a piece on TheInnerAuditor website about the dangers and risks involved when knowledge is held by one individual in a company. Invariably that person’s work is never checked (who would know how to) and no one ever knows when this special person makes an error or, even worse, is committing fraud. In addition to this, should this person quit, retire or fall ill, the company will find that has no idea how to do certain things or even where to find the information required for the task. This is because it has been easier to rely on this one brain trust than to learn what the trust knows. And the brain trust enjoys the power and authority given to them because they are always the smartest person in the room. I have written before about how notes on systems and processes may not include every single piece of information. Having others cycle through tasks is the best way to be sure that others know how to perform the tasks and that more than one person knows what is going on.

So, bosses, go ahead, give your employees a break, a real break. They will be happier and likely more productive for it and it will benefit your company. it will improve your chances of detecting and deterring fraud and it will help prevent errors. Finally, it will make sure that you don’t have to depend on one person to keep the business running.

And, workers, tell your bosses to give you lots of time off and remind them to, please, have someone do your work while you’re away. Assure them that you are not doing this for yourself. No, this is part of you looking out for their business.

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