Category Archives: Construction Fraud

The Unsanctioned Invoice

Of all the frauds classified as occupational, one of the most pernicious encountered by CFEs is the personal purchase with company funds scam. I say pernicious because not only is this type of fraud a cancer, devouring it’s host organization from within, but also because this basic fraud scenario can take on so many different forms.

Instead of undertaking externally involved schemes to generate cash, many employed fraudsters choose to betray their employers by simply purchasing personal items with their company’s money. Company accounts are used by the vampires to buy items for their side businesses and for their families. The list of benefiting recipients goes on and on. In one case a supervisor started a company for his son and directed work to the son’s company. In addition to this ethically challenged behavior, the supervisor saw to it that his employer purchased all the materials and supplies necessary for running the son’s business. As the fraud matured, the supervisor purchased materials through his employer that were used to add a room to his own house. All in all, the perpetrator bought nearly $50,000 worth of supplies and materials for himself and various others using company money.

One might wonder why a purchases fraud is not classified by the ACFE as a theft of inventory or other assets rather than as a billing scheme. After all, in purchases schemes the fraudster buys something with company money, then takes the purchased item for himself or others. In the case cited above, the supervisor took building materials and supplies. How does this differ from those frauds where employees steal supplies and other materials? On first glance, the schemes appear very similar. In fact, the perpetrator of a purchases fraud is stealing inventory just as s/he would in any other-inventory theft scheme. Nevertheless, the heart of the scheme is not the taking of the inventory but the purchasing of the inventory. In other words, when an employee steals merchandise from a warehouse, s/he is stealing an asset that the company needs, an asset that it has on hand for a particular reason. The harm to the victim company is not only the cost of the asset, but the loss of the asset itself. In a purchasing scheme, on the other hand, the asset which is taken is superfluous. The perpetrator causes the victim company to order and pay for an asset which it does not really need in the course of business, so the only damage to the victim company is the money lost in purchasing the particular item. This is why purchasing schemes are categorized as invoice frauds.

Most of the employees identified by the ACFE as undertaking purchase schemes do so by running unsanctioned invoices through the accounts payable system. The fraudster buys an item and submits the bill to his employer as if it represented a purchase on behalf of the company. The goal is to have the company pay the invoice. Obviously, the invoice which the employee submits to his company is not legitimate. The main hurdle for a fraudster to overcome, therefore, is to avoid scrutiny of the invalid invoice and to obtain authorization for the bill to be paid.

As in the many cases of shell company related schemes we’ve written about on this blog, the person who engages in a purchases scheme is often the very person in the company whose duties include authorizing purchases. Obviously, proper controls should preclude anyone from approving her own purchases. Such poorly separated functions leave little other than her conscience to dissuade an employee from fraud. Nevertheless, CFEs see many examples of small to medium sized companies in which this lapse in controls exists. As the ACFE continues to point out, fraud arises in part because of a perceived opportunity. An employee who sees that no one is reviewing his or her actions is more likely to turn to fraud than one who knows that her company applies due diligence in the attempt to detect all employee theft.

An example of how poor controls can lead to fraud was the case where a manager of a remote location of a large, publicly traded company was authorized to both order supplies and approve vendor invoices for payment. For over a year, the manager routinely added personal items and supplies for his own business to orders made on behalf of his employer. The orders often included a strange mix of items; technical supplies and home furnishings might, for instance, be purchased in the same order. Because the manager was in a position to approve his own purchases, he could get away with such blatantly obvious frauds. In addition to ordering personal items, the perpetrator changed the delivery address for certain supplies so that they would be delivered directly to his home or side business. This scheme cost the victim company approximately $300,000 in unnecessary purchases. In a similar case, an employee with complete control of purchasing and storing supplies for his department bought approximately $100,000 worth of unnecessary supplies using company funds. The employee authorized both the orders and the payments. The excess supplies were taken to the perpetrator’s home where he used them to manufacture a product for his own business. It should be obvious that not only do poor controls pave the way for fraud, a lack of oversight regarding the purchasing function can allow an employee to remove huge amounts from the company’s bottom line.

Not all fraudsters are free to approve their own purchases. Those who cannot must rely on other methods to get their personal bills paid by the company. The chief control document in many voucher systems is the purchase order. When an employee wants to buy goods or services, s/he submits a purchase requisition to a superior. If the purchase requisition is approved, a purchase order is sent to a vendor. A copy of this purchase order, retained in the voucher, tells accounts payable that the transaction has been approved. Later, when an invoice and receiving report corresponding to this purchase order are assembled, accounts payable will issue a check.

So in order to make their purchases appear authentic, some fraudsters generate false purchase orders. In one case, an employee forged the signature of a division controller on purchase orders. Thus the purchase orders appeared to be authentic and the employee was able to buy approximately $3,000 worth of goods at his company’s expense. In another instance, a part time employee at an educational institution obtained unused purchase order numbers and used them to order computer equipment under a fictitious name. The employee then intercepted the equipment as it arrived at the school and loaded the items into his car. Eventually, the employee began using fictitious purchase order numbers instead of real ones. The scheme came to light when the perpetrator inadvertently selected the name of a real vendor. After scrutinizing the documents, the school knew that it had been victimized. In the meantime, the employee had bought nearly $8,000 worth of unnecessary equipment.

Purchase orders can also be altered by employees who seek to obtain merchandise at their employer’s expense. In one instance, several individuals conspired to purchase over $2 million worth of materials for their personal use. The ringleader of the scheme was a low-level supervisor who had access to the computer system which controlled the requisition and receipt of materials. This supervisor entered the system and either initiated orders of materials that exceeded the needs of a particular project or altered existing orders to increase the amount of materials being requisitioned. Because the victim organization had poor controls, it did not compare completed work orders on projects to the amount of materials ordered for those projects. This allowed the inflated orders to go undetected.

Another way for an employee to get a false purchase approved is to misrepresent the nature of the purchase. In many companies, those with the power to authorize purchases are not always attentive to their duties. If a trusted subordinate vouches for an acquisition, for instance, busy supervisors often give rubber stamp approval to purchase requisitions. Additionally, employees sometimes misrepresent the nature of the items they are purchasing in order to pass a cursory review by their superiors.

Instead of running false invoices through accounts payable, some employees make personal purchases on company credit cards or running accounts with vendors. As with invoicing schemes, the key to getting away with a false credit card purchase is avoiding detection. Unlike invoicing schemes, however, prior approval for purchases is not required. An employee with a company credit card can buy an item merely by signing his or her name (or forging someone else’s) at the time of purchase. Later review of the credit card statement, however, may detect the fraudulent purchase.

As with invoicing schemes, those who committed the frauds were often in a position to approve their own purchases;, the same is often true with credit card schemes. A manager in one case, reviewed and approved his own credit card statements. This allowed him to make fraudulent purchases on the company card for approximately two years.

Finally, there is, the fraudster who buys items and then returns them for cash. A good example of such a scheme is that in which an employee made fraudulent gains from a business travel account. The employee’s scheme began by purchasing tickets for herself and her family through her company’s travel budget. Poor separation of duties allowed the fraudster to order the tickets, receive them, prepare claims for payments, and distribute checks. The only review of her activities was made by a busy and rather uninterested supervisor who approved the employee’s claims without requiring support documentation. Eventually, the employee’s scheme evolved. She began to purchase airline tickets and return them for their cash value. An employee of the travel agency assisted in the scheme by encoding the tickets as though the fraudster had paid for them herself. That caused the airlines to pay refunds directly to the fraudster rather than to her employer. In the course of two years, this employee embezzled over $100,000 through her purchases scheme.

Bob the Builder

bobthebuilder

by Rumbi Petrozzello
2016 Vice President – Central Virginia ACFE Chapter

The soundtrack of my summer was a cacophony of drills, sanders and related discordant noises, all guaranteed to drive me to near insanity. Since the bulk of this seemed to be happening right outside my window, the result was a shrinking view of the sky, more views into the homes of my neighbors than I ever wanted and a near-constant film of dust on everything in our home, despite all our best efforts. I thought that construction was looming large only in my life but, coming off a trip to Nashville, Tennessee, I see that I’m far from alone. I took a tour bus around the city and, it almost seemed the city skyline was made up of little else than the silhouettes of massive construction cranes. There’s a lot going on in an industry that, at least in New York City, has a history of control by organized crime.

It’s hardly surprising – construction projects span long periods of time and require many moving parts. There can be several contractors responsible for different parts of a construction project, and each of those contractors hires subcontractors. Because projects range from moderate to long term, contractors and subcontractors will bill periodically for work in progress and, there is a lot of leeway for estimating just how much of the project has been completed. Depending on the contract, there may be head room to get paid for cost overruns and, if there’s room for that, you can be sure that someone is going to try to take advantage. There is no shortage of ways in which fraud or error can occur when it comes to construction. Controlling various aspects of the construction industry was lucrative business for organized crime for many years. Nowadays, the regular fraudster on the street has also found his way into profiting from construction related fraud – if the opportunity is there, the ethically challenged always seem to find ways to exploit it.

As forensic accountants and fraud examiners, we may find ourselves being called upon to investigate such frauds. Sometimes companies decide to be proactive and bring us in to assess, suggest and institute practices that will help prevent, detect and deter fraudulent activities. In either case, there is much that we can do. An important aspect of this type of effort is our emphasizing to the client and the wider business community the importance of well-kept and comprehensive business records. As tedious as some of this may feel to those maintaining the records, such records can prove invaluable when things go wrong. Contractors and their subcontractors should both maintain up-to-date ledgers. The ledger information should be corroborated by supporting information. Examples of critical documentation are:

  • Payroll records – this includes matching the ledger information to time cards, information from payroll processing companies and filings with city, state and federal authorities.
  • Bank statements – bank statements should be reconciled to the general ledger and there should be searches for possible bank accounts that are not reported on the ledger. Is the contractor transferring funds to accounts for related companies? What information is on the credit card statements and how does it relate to the contractors’ ledgers? Does information on brokerage accounts match information in the general ledger?
  • Invoices – do the vendors declarations of what’s going on make sense? Do their submitted expenses make sense? Can you immediately understand their expenses or is the information vague and lacking enough detail to determine what the vendor is being paid for? Have costs been misclassified? Follow the money … we should always stop and take the time to look and see where the money is going and why it’s going there.

Many construction projects employ union workers. Because unions tend to be organizations with lots of bureaucracy, it follows that they tend also to be organizations with lots of records. If a union tells you that it does not have many records, that fact alone should raise a red flag. When seeking to verify information from such organizations, there are various standard records we can request:

  • Shop steward report – This is a report that will show the names of the employees working, the times they reported for work and left and out and the number of hours worked. This information can be very useful in testing if the hours claimed are reasonable.
  • Job descriptions – Do the job descriptions make sense and do they match the employees that are claiming to be doing the work? In one case in New York City, a legally blind man was listed on the books as a heavy machinery operator. Subsequent investigation revealed that he was indeed blind; and he never went anywhere near heavy machinery.
  • Member profiles – Review benefits and see to whom the union pays those benefits. Review the records and see if anything jumps out at you as being unusual, requiring further information and perhaps investigation. Do you have a member (or members) listed who’s well-paid for not doing much?
  • Look at the records the general contractor keeps and see if they match the records kept by the union.

If you’ve been brought in to perform proactive fraud prevention and detection work, encourage and suggest that, if one does not already exist, the company set up an effective and comprehensive whistleblower program. Confidential sources are often the most important element of an investigation. These sources can also be very helpful in making sure that you ask for all the documents needed for your specific investigation and they can also make valuable suggestions precisely where else you can look for vital case information.

If my city is anything like yours, there are a lot of construction projects being planned and in the works. You don’t have to look hard at all to find media reporting on cost overruns and fraud in the construction industry. From The Big Dig in Boston to personal tales told to you by friends, there are many ways in which the moving parts of any construction project can be exploited by fraudsters. There are also many ways in which we can be of service as forensic accountants and fraud examiners to deter, detect and investigate every aspect of this exploitation.