Authority Figures

As fraud examiners and forensic accountants intimately concerned with the on-going state of health of our client’s fraud management programs, we find ourselves constantly looking at the integrity of the critical data that’s truly (as much as financial capital) the life blood of today’s organizations. We’re constantly evaluating the network of anti-fraud controls we hope will help keep those pesky, uncontrolled, random data driven vulnerabilities to fraud to a minimum. Every little bit of critical financial information that gets mishandled or falls through the cracks, every transaction that doesn’t get recorded, every anti-fraud policy or procedure that’s misapplied has some effect on the client’s overall fraud management picture and on our challenge.

When it comes to managing its client, financial and payment data, almost every small to medium sized organization has a Sandy. Sandy’s the person to whom everyone goes to get the answers about data, and the state of system(s) that process it; quick answers that no one else ever seems to have. That’s because Sandy is an exceptional employee with years of detailed hands-on-experience in daily financial system operations and maintenance. Sandy is also an example of the extraordinary level of dependence that many organizations have today on a small handful of their key employees. The now unlamented great recession, during which enterprises relied on retaining the experienced employees they had rather than on traditional hiring and cross-training practices, only exacerbated an existing, ever growing trend. The very real threat to the Enterprise Fraud Management system that the Sandy’s of the corporate data world pose is not so much that they will commit fraud themselves (although that’s an ever-present possibility) but that they will retire or get another job across town or out of state, taking their vital knowledge of company systems and data with them.

The day after Sandy’s retirement party and, to an increasing degree thereafter, it will dawn on Sandy’s management that it’s lost a large amount of information about the true state of its data and financial processing system(s). Management will also become aware, if it isn’t already, of its lack of a large amount of system critical data documentation that’s been carried around nowhere else but in Sandy’s head. The point is that, for some smaller organizations, their reliance on a few key employees for day to day, operationally related information goes well beyond what’s appropriate and constitutes an unacceptable level of risk to their entire fraud prevention programs. Today’s newspapers and the internet are full of stories about hacking and large-scale data breeches, that only reinforce the importance of vulnerable data and of the completeness of its documentation to the on-going operational viability of our client organizations.

Anyone whose investigated frauds involving large scale financial systems (insurance claims, bank records, client payment information) is painfully aware that when the composition of data changes (field definitions or content) surprisingly little of change related information is formally documented. Most of the information is stored in the heads of some key employees, and those key employees aren’t necessarily involved in everyday, routine data management projects. There’s always a significant level of detail that’s gone undocumented, left out or to chance, and it becomes up to the analyst of the data (be s/he an auditor, a management scientist, a fraud examiner or other assurance professional) to find the anomalies and question them. The anomalies might be in the form of missing data, changes in data field definitions, or changes in the content of the fields; the possibilities are endless. Without proper, formal documentation, the immediate or future significance of these types of anomalies for the fraud management system and for the overall fraud risk assessment process itself become almost impossible to determine.

If our auditor or fraud examiner, operating under today’s typical budget or time constraints, is not very thorough and misses the identification of some of these anomalies, they can end up never being addressed. How many times as an analyst have we all tried to explain something (like apparently duplicate transactions) about the financial system that just doesn’t look right only to be told, “Oh, yeah. Sandy made that change back in February before she retired; we don’t have too many details on it.” In other words, undocumented changes to transactions and data, details of which are now only existent in Sandy’s no longer available head. When a data driven system is built on incomplete information, the system can be said to have failed in its role as a component of the origination’s fraud prevention program. The cycle of incomplete information gets propagated to future decisions, and the cost of the missing or inadequately explained data can be high. What can’t be seen, can’t ever be managed or even explained.

In summary, it’s a truly humbling to experience to be confronted with how much critical financial information resides in the fading (or absent) memories of past or present key employees; what the ACFE calls authority figures. As fraud examiners we should attempt to foster a culture among our clients supportive of the development of concurrent systems of transaction related documentation and the sharing of knowledge on a consistent basis about all systems but especially regarding the recording of changes to critical financial systems. One nice benefit of this approach, which I brought to the attention of one of my audit clients not too long ago, would be to free up the time of one of these key employees to work on more productive fraud control projects rather than serving as the encyclopedia for the rest of the operational staff.

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