Category Archives: Financial Fraud

And the Cash Flows On

As a fraud examiner and information systems auditor, I’ve always been a big fan of the cash flow statement and I think you should be too. For the non-accountant investigators among you, the cash flow statement reveals what happened to the client’s cash during the reporting period. It’s very much like your bank account statement: You have a beginning balance of cash at the start of the month, you deposit your paycheck, you write some checks for your mortgage and groceries, and then you end the month with a new cash balance. This is what a cash flow statement is: simply a beginning balance of cash, plus or minus some cash transactions, to arrive at an ending cash balance.

Another way to view the cash flow statement is as an income statement that is adjusted for non-cash transactions and transactions that have not yet impacted cash. Non-cash transactions are transactions that affect the income statement but will never affect cash. Depreciation is a non-cash transaction that is added back to profits on the cash flow statement since cash is never paid out or collected when an asset is depreciated. The cash flow statement also clarifies transactions that immediately impact cash. A company can make a sale but not collect on it, or incur an expense and not immediately pay for it in cash. These are called accounts receivable and accounts payable, respectively. Revenues that are earned but not received and expenses that are incurred but not paid would show up on the income statement, but not on the cash flow statement. So the formula for the statement is simply …

Beginning Cash Balance
+I- Net Cash Flows from Operating Activities
+I- Net Cash Flows from Investing Activities
+I- Net Cash Flows from Financing Activities
= Ending Cash Balance

There are two methods of reporting cash flows from operations; in the direct method, the sources of operating cash flows are listed along with the uses of operating cash flows, with the difference between them being the net cash flow from operating activities. In contrast, the indirect method reconciles net income per the income statement with net cash flows from operating activities; that is, accrual-basis net income is adjusted for non-cash revenues and expenses to arrive at net cash flows from operations. The net cash flows from operating activities is the same amount regardless of which method is used. The indirect method is usually easier to compute and provides a comparison of the company’s operating results under the accrual and cash methods of accounting. As a result, most companies choose to use the indirect method, but either method is acceptable.

So what does all this provide as a tool for the fraud examiner? Simply, the cash flow statement provides any CFE with lots of neat information for further analysis in a very compact form. First of all, the statement tells you what the company’s cash receipts and cash payments were for the period. Remember that it’s unlike the income statement in that the income statement takes into account all revenue and expense transactions, whether or not they affected cash. The cash flow statement only considers transactions that involve cash.

The cash flow statement divides the company’s cash transactions into three categories:

• Operating activities, which include all cash received and paid out in connection with the company’s normal business operations, such as cash received from customers and funds paid to vendors. This category essentially encompasses any cash transactions that affect items on the income statement.
• Investing activities, which are cash flows related to the sale or purchase of non-current assets, such as fixed assets, intangible assets, and investments. This category generally covers those cash transactions that affect the asset side of the balance sheet.
• Financing activities, which are all cash inflows and outflows pertaining to the company’s debt and equity financing. Inflows include the proceeds received from issuing stocks and bonds and from borrowing money from a bank. Outflows include debt repayments and cash dividends paid to shareholders. In general, this category includes the cash transactions that affect the liabilities and owners’ equity side of the balance sheet.

In a perfect world, a company should only need loans when it has a timing problem between collecting and spending money or when it’s expanding. However, if a company expends more money than it will ever make, it will eventually go out of business. This is where the cash flow statement is so useful to the fraud examiner. You will want to get an idea of the cash flow necessary to run the business so that you will be able to tell whether the company is generating enough cash from operations to continue to do business. The examiner can also evaluate the relationship between total cash generated from financing and investing activities and the amount generated by operating activities.

Some things you will want to note from the cash flow statement in connection with any suspected financial fraud:
• Does the company have heavy demands on its operating cash each period?
• Do the inflows equal or exceed the outflows?
• Is the cash balance increasing or decreasing over time?
• Is the company making smart decisions about sources and uses of cash given its apparent financial condition?

This is information pertinent to the investigation of a wide range of fraud scenarios, the successful investigation of which involves different data than that commonly available in the income statement. The income statement alone does not reveal a complete picture of the company’s financial health, necessary for a full investigation of so many types of fraud. Evaluating income and cash flows includes considering the timing of items, such as collections of accounts receivable. In the end, a company might have a fabulous looking income statement, but might not have any cash available for operations. This may occur because the revenues recorded on the income statement have not been collected. Remember, as part of doing business, companies usually allow customers to make purchases on credit; this means the companies will collect the cash subsequent to the actual recording of the revenues. For example, a small high-tech manufacturer might have a healthy looking profit on its income statement, but not be able to pay its employees’ salaries. However, the entrepreneurial owners of the company expect all is well, since they think the net income on the income statement to be equal to the amount of cash in the company’s bank account. But, as is often the case, there’s a timing difference between when the company records a sale and when it actually receives the cash from its customers. As a result, the cash balance seldom, if ever, will match the income on the income statement. Other transactions – such as accrued or prepaid expenses, depreciation, and inventory purchases – will also cause a disparity between an organization’s net income and its net cash flows.

The statement of cash flows represents a trove of invaluable information that can cast light on virtually every aspect of a client’s financial health and, thus inform any investigation. Use it to your advantage.

Inflexible Reporting

Our Chapter and the ACFE have published a number of articles and posts over the last few years about the various types of pressures that can push ethically challenged employees over the line between temptation and the perpetration of an actual accounting fraud. One category of such pressure stems directly from the nature of our present system of periodic financial reporting which, it can be argued, not only creates unnecessary volatility in the stock and financial markets but ends up requiring rational investors to demand a premium for securities investments by emphasizing the short term risk that near term, inflexable, quarterly earnings targets will not be met. The pressure to meet these short term targets can only give rise to operational inefficiencies which in turn drive up the inherent inefficiency in the transmission of information from public companies to financial markets based on a model which hasn’t changed much since its original definition during the Great Depression years of the 1930’s.

I’ve seen articles in the Journal of Accountancy and in other authoritative financial publications pointing toward a better way and, with the advent of and widening support for the electronic reporting of financial results to the SCC (the XBRL initiative), we can hope we’re well into the drawn of a new age. That there’s been pushback to this effort is understandable. Those familiar with the technical and professional minefield of the present quarterly reporting process can only feel sympathy with those financial officers who have to go through it, quarter by quarter and year after year. Questions originally abounded about process and mechanics like how is electronically published financial information going to be verified and what real controls are there over its reliability? What happens if there’s an honest mistake?

Think about all this from the point of view of the fraud examiner. If enterprises, listed and non-listed, can make the transition from a periodic to a real-time, electronic based financial reporting system, the resulting efficiencies and the decrease in numerous types of fraud related risk would be truly striking. Real-time financial reporting would free our clients from the tyranny of the present, economically nonsensical, reporting of quarterly results. How much of the incentive to commit financial fraud to meet the numbers does that immediately alleviate? As one financial expert after another has pointed out over the years, there’s just no justification for focusing on a calendar quarter as the unit in which to take stock of financial performance, beyond the fact that that’s what’s presently codified in the law. By contrast, what if financial information were published and available to all users on a real-time basis? The immediate availability of such information, continuously updated, on whatever basis is appropriate for the individual enterprise and its industry, would force companies to adopt a reporting unit that ready makes sense to them and to their principal information users. For some companies that unit might be a week, a month, a quarter, semi-annually or a year. So be it. Let a thousand flowers bloom; the upshot is that what would end up being reported would make sense for the company, its industry and for the information users rather than the one-size fits all, set in stone, prescription of the present law.

An additional advantage, and one with immediate implications for fraud prevention, would be the opportunity for increased efficiency in financial markets as investment dollars could be allocated not according to quarterly results or according to the best guess estimates of financial analysts, but by reliable financial information provided directly by the company all the time; goodbye to many of the present information control vulnerabilities that support insider trading because information is not widely and efficiently disseminated. The point is that by employing digital, cloud-based analytics report building tools properly, users of all kinds could customize a set of up-to-date financial reports (in whatever format) on whatever time period, that suits their fancy.

But many have also pointed out that if there is to be such a shift from periodic to real-time financial reporting, there needs to be a fundamental change in basic attitudes toward financial reporting. Those who report and those who inspect financial information will have to change their focus from methods by which the numbers themselves are checked (audited) to methods (as with XBRL) that focus on the reliability of the system that generates the numbers. That’s where fraud examiners and other financial insurance professionals come in. On-line financial information will be published with such frequency and so rapidly, that there will be no time to “check” individual numbers; the emphasis for assurance professionals will, therefore, need to shift away from checking numbers and balances to analysis of and reporting on the integrity of the system of internal controls over the reporting system itself; understanding of the details of the internal control system over financial reporting will gain a level of prominence it’s never had before.

Fraud examiners need to be aware of these issues when counseling clients about the profound impact that digitally based, on-line reporting of financial information is and will have on their fraud prevention and fraud risk assessment programs. As with all else in life, real time financial reporting will inevitably decrease the risk of some fraud scenarios and increase the risk of others.

The Multi-Purpose Final Report

ACFE training has long told us that a prudently crafted final examination report can have a variety of important uses. As we know, when the fraud investigation has been completed, the investigator writes a formal report. The report itself plus expert opinions and testimony are then used as needed to support the resolution of issues that can relate to a whole host of matters potentially concerning taxes, employment, regulatory reporting, litigation (civil and criminal), and insurance claims.

Because the report can be used for such varied purposes, it should always be constructed under the assumption that it will be challenged in court. This requires that the report meet very high standards; any errors or misstatements in it may be used to undermine the credibility of both the report and of the investigator who wrote it.

Frauds typically result in business losses. For income tax purposes, such losses may be classified as either deductions or offsets to reportable revenues depending on the type of loss and the taxing authority. In cases of misappropriation, almost any type of asset can be fraudulently converted, and in some cases, a valuation expert might be needed to determine the dollar amount of the loss.

In cases of occupational fraud, the financial records can be so damaged from the fraud scheme that an exact determination of the loss is impossible. In such cases, the report may attempt to estimate the loss using any reasonable means available because taxing authorities often permit estimation of losses in cases of destroyed records.

Some occupational fraud schemes result in so much damage to the financial records that the entity will not have enough information to file tax returns. This can happen, for example, if the revenue records are either destroyed or rendered unreliable as a result of fraudulent transactions and journal entries. In such cases, it might be necessary to conduct a major reconstruction of the accounting records before losses can be determined, reliable financial statements can be generated, and tax returns can be filed. In fact, in some cases, the fraud investigator’s report might need to focus on the loss due to destruction of the financial records and leave open the issue of misappropriation pending reconstruction of the financial records. Of course, depending on the scope of the investigation and the available information, the investigator might both reconstruct the financial records and report on any misappropriation losses.

Another tax-related issue involves the embezzlement of funds set aside to pay payroll taxes. The U.S. federal tax system sometimes refers to such funds as trust fund taxes because under tax law, these funds belong to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) from the moment they are collected. The business and the owners merely serve as trustees in collecting the taxes on behalf of the IRS.

Employers who terminate an employee for committing fraud can eventually battle the employee in litigation. In some cases, the former employee may sue for wrongful termination of employment, defamation, or discrimination. In other cases, an employee who is to be fired might have collective bargaining rights that require an arbitration process with a right of appeal. Fired employees may also attempt to claim government unemployment compensation benefits.

As a general rule, employees who are fired for serious misconduct (e.g., fraud) are not entitled to benefits. However, employees may argue that their termination was not deserved and may request a hearing to argue their side of the story. If this occurs, a fraud investigation report could serve as important evidence.

Whether a fired employee receives unemployment benefits may be important in determining the amount the company is required to pay for unemployment insurance. As a result, an employer who routinely fires employees runs the risk of incurring considerable increases in the cost of unemployment insurance. To make things even worse, if a fired employee was the one in charge of making unemployment insurance contributions but did not make them on time, a penalty rate of 150 percent could be applied to the employer’s future contributions. The exact consequences depend on the particular state involved because rules for unemployment insurance for state and federal governments differ. As a result of the possible tax and legal consequences as well as of possibly embarrassing publicity, employers are frequently reluctant to fire dishonest employees. Instead, they do things to encourage dishonest employees to leave voluntarily after taking measures to prevent them from continuing the fraud. In some cases, employers actually give dishonest employees favorable recommendations for future jobs.

Sometimes, a fraud investigation report may trigger mandatory reporting of the fraud to a government agency. For example, §1233.3 (a) of Title 12 (Banks and Banking) of the U.S. Electronic Code of Federal Regulations states the following:

‘A regulated entity shall submit to the Director a timely written report upon discovery by the regulated entity that it has purchased or sold a fraudulent loan or financial instrument, or suspects a possible fraud relating to the purchase or sale of any loan or financial instrument.’

A fraud investigation report can sometimes be more helpful in ruling out fraud than in ruling it in. For example, a report might read, “A detailed examination of the financial records did not reveal any intentional irregularities or evidence of fraud or misappropriation.” On the other hand, when there is fraud, the report might read something like, “There was a series of irregular computerized journal entries made in the accounts receivables ledgers and corresponding shortages in the cash account. The employee in charge of the computerized journal entries left the company before this investigation began and was not available for an interview. The owner states that only she and the former employee had access to the journal in question.”

The wording in this report suggests that the former employee may have embezzled funds from collections on account by making irregular journal entries. But the report cannot guarantee that s/he did so, nor can it definitively conclude that a fraud occurred. As a general rule in advance of an occupational fraud investigation, interested parties should not assume that the investigation will result in a report that gives a definitive answer to whether a fraud occurred. A more reasonable outcome is a report that identifies missed or damaging records or missing assets.

Fraud reports can be very helpful in both criminal and civil litigation. However, they can be less than satisfying in trying to persuade authorities to prosecute a suspect. What happens too often is that police or prosecutors browse through a fraud investigation report looking for a clear statement that identifies the guilty person. But, of course, such statements don’t appear in independent fraud investigation reports written by CFEs.

In many cases, a fraud investigation report is enough to at least persuade authorities to look at a case, especially with the hope of getting a quick confession. But if the suspect denies everything or lawyers up, law enforcement quickly realizes that they will need to hire a forensic accountant (because it is unlikely that they have one of their own) and will be forced to try to understand what they consider to be arcane and obscure accounting concepts.

The saying in law enforcement circles (as with the news media) is “if it bleeds, it leads.” In a metropolitan area, police quickly send a dozen squad cars, a SWAT team, and a helicopter to pursue someone who robs a liquor store of $100 with a penknife. But the same police respond with glassy eyes if the owner of the same liquor store reports that his accountant has robbed the business of $100,000 using a computer to manipulate the accounting records.

Although it does happen, most victims do not sue their fraudsters, primarily because fraudsters are typically judgment proof, meaning they do not have sufficient assets to repay their victims. However, criminal courts can and do order restitution, which can provide a strong motive for the victim to prosecute the perpetrator. In some jurisdictions, courts order convicted fraudsters to make regular restitution payments directly to the court, which then distributes them to the victim.

Finally, many companies have insurance with coverage for losses related to fraud. This coverage can include losses such as those due to the costs of preparing a proof of loss, losses due to embezzlement, losses of valuable papers and records, and loss of income. Independent fraud investigation reports can be very helpful in supporting insurance claims. Furthermore, one nice thing about embezzlement coverage is that some polices are written so that it is necessary only to prove that a loss has occurred, not who the guilty party is. The usefulness of a fraud investigation report with respect to losses of valuable papers and records, and loss of income, depends on the scope of the investigation. In many cases, the scope does not include determining the amount of losses of income or damage to valuable papers and records.

Inventory of Fraud

One of the first frauds I worked on early in my career was a scheme by management to overstate the periodic inventory of the Prison Industries system of a state Department of Corrections.   In that case the manipulation was carried out by creating false inventory counts and altering records after the physical count.

What made this an especially interesting case of management fraud were the various reasons that the audit report subsequently revealed why accounting management had decided to overstate the inventory:

  • To overstate the income of Prison Industries.
  • To achieve internally projected goals.
  • To increase Prison Industry’s perceived value in the eyes of State government administration.
  • To meet Department of Corrections stiff goals for Prison Industry management.
  • To hide poor operational performance.
  • To enhance the perceived performance of individual members of Prison Industries management.
  • To hide the theft of some inventory.

These reasons are in contrast to fraudster goals if a fraud scheme’s overall objective is to show reduced inventory:

  • To reduce income.
  • The entity has achieved its goals and wants to show reduced results.
  • To reduce the overall value of the business or enterprise.
  • A new management team is in place and wants to defer reporting additional performance to the future.

Such inventory counting related schemes are likely to occur with inventory components perceived to be less likely of being counted or in conjunction with a planned reason for the false count. The hope is that any examiner/auditor will view the false count as an error versus an intentional plan to misstate the inventory. Therefore, the examiner needs to ensure that management has no record of the test counts. Certain types of inventory counts are more susceptible to being false, such as:

  • Periodic Inventory. This particular inventory is susceptible to false counting because the auditor has no inventory reports to determine what the inventory should have been prior to the count.
  • Perpetual Inventory. Variances or in-transit items are often used as an explanation for any deviations.
  • Multiple Inventory locations. The non-tested sites are susceptible to false counts because the auditor is not performing procedures at those locations. Management may also use other scams in conjunction with the false-count fraud schemes.

As every accounting student knows, inventory is tangible property that either (1) is held for sale in the ordinary course of business (finished goods); (2) is in the process of production for such sale (work in process); or (3) is currently consumed either directly or indirectly in the production of goods or services available for sale (raw materials). The primary basis of accounting for inventory is cost. By definition, inventory excludes long-term assets subject to depreciation accounting.

The inventory records at Prison Industries were complex. Inventory was constantly being transferred between manufacturing processes, was often dispensed in several locations across the state’s correctional system, and normally comprised a significantly large amount of items. For these reasons, as well as the variety of decisions made about direct valuations, inventory was an appealing place for management to decide to commit financial statement fraud, in this case by manipulating and altering the physical inventory count.

Inventory falsification occurred at Prison Industries when the entity showed inventory on its financial statements that both did not exist and was improperly valued;  the two methods were  used simultaneously.  Techniques used to inflate the value of inventory included the creation of false documents, such as inventory count sheets, receiving reports, and manipulation of the actual physical inventory. During the fraud, it was common for management to insert phony inventory count sheets during the inventory observation or to alter the quantities on the count sheets. There where instances where management created the illusion that inventory existed with the help of phony inventory items. Simply put, some items of inventory that appeared real on paper were actually fake.

The fraud examination was originated as a result of predication provided by a Hot Line tip and featured the application of a number of procedures.

Interviews were conducted with management and personnel. Questions asked included the following to determine whether the inventory represented by management actually existed and whether it was properly valued:

– Do the inventories included in the Prison Industries balance sheet physically exist?
– Does the inventory represent items held for use in the ordinary course of production?
– Do inventory quantities include all items on hand or in transit?
– Are inventory listings accurately compiled and are they properly included in the inventory accounts?
– Does the State have legal title or ownership rights to the inventory items?
– Does the inventory exclude items billed to customers or owned by others?
– Are inventory costs the result of an acceptable method consistently applied?
– Are inventories properly classified in the balance sheet and are the related disclosures adequate?

The examiners calculated the inventory turnover ratio. The inventory turnover ratio measures how fast inventory was moving through the entity. If the inventory is inflated, then the average inventory balance will be overstated, causing the inventory turnover ratio to decline. The  inventory turnover ratio was compared with the results from prior years and with industry averages for reasonableness.

Price tests were performed. A fraud examiner must determine whether the pricing of the inventory is reasonable. Price testing employs vouching, tracing, and re-computation procedures to test the auditee’s  pricing of its inventory. An examiner should test the application of prices by vouching items to vendors’ invoices and to cost accounting records to verify that the inventory is properly priced. For example, an examiner selects from the inventory detail item L243, classified as a raw material. According to the company’s records as of the balance sheet date, there are twenty L243s at $120 apiece. The examiner reviews the last invoice representing the purchase of L243s and discovers that the company purchased the L243s at $60 apiece. This price discrepancy is a sign that management might be trying to inflate the value of its inventory. Vendors’ invoices should also be traced to the books to confirm proper price recording. Examiners should recompute the quantities indicated on-hand by the observation with vendor prices to determine that the inventory, balances on the balance sheet are correct.

Following the fraud examination inventory was re-performed. The physical inventory was re-performed to ensure that the enterprise’s application of corrective action to methods for counting inventory would result in an accurate and reliable count in future. The re-examination of physical inventory included observation, as well as inquiries and physical examination (i.e., test counts). It is important to remember that management is responsible for the propriety of the inventory. The examiner observed the re-taking of the inventory to satisfy his/her reliance on management’s representations of the quantities and prices.

Cut off tests were performed. A cut-off test is a procedure to control the shipping and receiving activities at the physical inventory date. For the time of the physical inventory, the examiner  noted the numbers of the last pre-numbered shipping and receiving documents because purchases of inventory often are recorded when received and sales recorded when shipped. Identifying the document numbers helped the examiner determine whether the inventory was properly or improperly included or excluded from the inventory counts. For instance, if management indicated that the last shipping document for 1991 was #2500, then the examiner would assume that #2501 was shipped in January 1992. If, upon review of shipping document #2501, the examiner notices that the inventory was shipped in 1991, then there is the possibility that management is inflating the quantity and value of the company’s inventory at year-end. Therefore, inquiry and further testing are warranted. These cut-off numbers are often used in conjunction with the cut-off test used in accounts receivable and accounts payable testing. If cut-off procedures appear unclear or indicate possible inclusions in inventory of goods sold, then cut-off tests should be expanded.

There are several other audit procedures that can be used in detecting inventory fraud scenarios. These include:

  • Reviewing the statement of cash flows and asking whether the increases and decreases in cash make sense in relation to the inventory account balances and changes.
  • Computing the inventory turnover ratio and days-to-sell ratio. Do these ratios make sense in relation to what the auditor has verified regarding the physical aspects of the inventory?
  • Computing the percentage of gross profit and the related percentage of the cost of goods sold, and then the trend to look for understatement of the cost of goods sold percentage.
  • Ensuring there is a consistent use of the inventory cost flow assumption. For example, the use of first-in-first out (FIFO) gives a higher net income in an inflationary environment.

It was the large number of items comprising the inventory that made it an attractive target for fraudulent manipulation at Prison Industries. Theft and misuse are the actions of choice when it comes to inventory fraud. The rationale typically Is: “Who is going to miss a few hundred widgets in an inventory of thousands, perhaps millions?” The size of inventory as a percentage of the amount of total assets also makes it an easy target for management-initiated financial reporting misstatement. Having the possibility of two types of fraudulent acts ganging up on inventories at the same time, the CFE doesn’t want to waste time going down the wrong path, so it’s very important to determine which fraudulent act is likely occurring.

Any discussion of fraud likelihood involves the concepts of concealment, conversion, and opportunity. So, in addition to “how” the Inventory fraud took place, other questions need to be addressed, such as: How sophisticated is the concealment strategy? Who has the most benefit to gain by the theft, misuse, or misstatement of the inventories? Who has and where are the opportunities to divert/misstate inventories? These are the questions that need to be answered by the CFE/auditor, and fortunately, the tools and guidance are available from the ACFE to achieve the right answers when faced with almost any pattern of inventory fraud.

Regulating the Financial Data Breach

During several years of my early career, I was employed as a Manager of Operations Research by a mid-sized bank holding company. My small staff and I would endlessly discuss issues related to fraud prevention and develop techniques to keep our customer’s checking and savings accounts safe, secure and private. A never ending battle!

It was a simpler time back then technically but since a large proportion of fraud committed against banks and financial institutions today still involves the illegal use of stolen customer or bank data, some of the newest and most important laws and regulations that management assurance professionals, like CFEs, must be aware of in our practice, and with which our client banks must comply, relate to the safeguarding of confidential data both from internal theft and from breaches of the bank’s information security defenses by outside criminals.

As the ACFE tells us, there is no silver bullet for fully protecting any organization from the ever growing threat of information theft. Yet full implementation of the measures specified by required provisions of now in place federal banking regulators can at least lower the risk of a costly breach occurring. This is particularly true since the size of recent data breaches across all industries have forced Federal enforcement agencies to become increasingly active in monitoring compliance with the critical rules governing the safeguarding of customer credit card data, bank account information, Social Security numbers, and other personal identifying information. Among these key rules are the Federal Reserve Board’s Interagency Guidelines Establishing Information Security Standards, which define customer information as any record containing nonpublic personal information about an individual who has obtained a financial product or service from an institution that is to be used primarily for personal, family, or household purposes and who has an ongoing relationship with the institution.

Its important to realize that, under the Interagency Guidelines, customer information refers not only to information pertaining to people who do business with the bank (i.e., consumers); it also encompasses, for example, information about (1) an individual who applies for but does not obtain a loan; (2) an individual who guarantees a loan; (3) an employee; or (4) a prospective employee. A financial institution must also require, by contract, its own service providers who have access to consumer information to develop appropriate measures for the proper disposal of the information.

The FRB’s Guidelines are to a large extent drawn from the information protection provisions of the Gramm Leach Bliley Act (GLBA) of 1999, which repealed the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act that substantially restricted banking activities. However, GLBA is best known for its formalization of legal standards for the protection of private customer information and for rules and requirements for organizations to safeguard such information. Since its enactment, numerous additional rules and standards have been put into place to fine-tune the measures that banks and other organizations must take to protect consumers from the identity-related crimes to which information theft inevitably leads.

Among GLBA’s most important information security provisions affecting financial institutions is the so-called Financial Privacy Rule. It requires banks to provide consumers with a privacy notice at the time the consumer relationship is established and every year thereafter.

The notice must provide details collected about the consumer, where that information is shared, how that information is used, and how it is protected. Each time the privacy notice is renewed, the consumer must be given the choice to opt out of the organization’s right to share the information with third-party entities. That means that if bank customers do not want their information sold to another company, which will in all likelihood use it for marketing purposes, they must indicate that preference to the financial institution.

CFEs should note , that most pro-privacy advocacy groups strongly object to this and other privacy related elements of GLBA because, in their view, these provisions do not provide substantive protection of consumer privacy. One major advocacy group has stated that GLBA does not protect consumers because it unfairly places the burden on the individual to protect privacy with an opt-out standard. By placing the burden on the customer to protect his or her data, GLBA weakens customer power to control their financial information. The agreement’s opt-out provisions do not require institutions to provide a standard of protection for their customers regardless of whether they opt-out of the agreement. This provision is based on the assumption that financial companies will share information unless expressly told not to do so by their customers and, if customers neglect to respond, it gives institutions the freedom to disclose customer nonpublic personal information.

CFEs need to be aware, however, that for bank clients, regardless of how effective, or not, GLBA may be in protecting customer information, noncompliance with the Act itself is not an option. Because of the current explosion in breaches of bank information security systems, the privacy issue has to some degree been overshadowed by the urgency to physically protect customer data; for that reason, compliance with the Interagency Guidelines concerning information security is more critical than ever. The basic elements partially overlap with the preventive measures against internal bank employee abuse of the bank’s computer systems. However, they go quite a bit further by requiring banks to:

—Design an information security program to control the risks identified through a security risk assessment, commensurate with the sensitivity of the information and the complexity and scope of its activities.
—Evaluate a variety of policies, procedures, and technical controls and adopt those measures that are found to most effectively minimize the identified risks.
—Application and enforcement of access controls on customer information systems, including controls to authenticate and permit access only to authorized individuals and to prevent employees from providing customer information to unauthorized individuals who may seek to obtain this information through fraudulent means.
—Access restrictions at physical locations containing customer information, such as buildings, computer facilities, and records storage facilities to permit access only to authorized individuals.
—Encryption of electronic customer information, including while in transit or in storage on networks or systems to which unauthorized individuals may gain access.
—Procedures designed to ensure that customer information system modifications are consistent with the institution’s information security program.
—Dual control procedures, segregation of duties, and employee background checks for employees with responsibilities for or access to customer information.
—Monitoring systems and procedures to detect actual and attempted attacks on or intrusions into customer information systems.
—Response programs that specify actions to be taken when the institution suspects or detects that unauthorized individuals have gained access to customer information systems, including appropriate reports to regulatory and law enforcement agencies.
—Measures to protect against destruction, loss, or damage of customer information due to potential environmental hazards, such as fire and water damage or technological failures.

The Interagency Guidelines require a financial institution to determine whether to adopt controls to authenticate and permit only authorized individuals access to certain forms of customer information. Under this control, a financial institution also should consider the need for a firewall to safeguard confidential electronic records. If the institution maintains Internet or other external connectivity, its systems may require multiple firewalls with adequate capacity, proper placement, and appropriate configurations.

Similarly, the institution must consider whether its risk assessment warrants encryption of electronic customer information. If it does, the institution must adopt necessary encryption measures that protect information in transit, in storage, or both. The Interagency Guidelines do not impose specific authentication or encryption standards, so it is advisable for CFEs to consult outside experts on the technical details applicable to your client institution’s security requirements especially when conducting after the fact fraud examinations.

The financial institution also must consider the use of an intrusion detection system to alert it to attacks on computer systems that store customer information. In assessing the need for such a system, the institution should evaluate the ability, or lack thereof, of its staff to rapidly and accurately identify an intrusion. It also should assess the damage that could occur between the time an intrusion occurs and the time the intrusion is recognized and action is taken.

The regulatory agencies have also provided our clients with requirements for responding to information breaches. These are contained in a related document entitled Interagency Guidance on Response Programs for Unauthorized Access to Customer Information and Customer Notice (Incident Response Guidance). According to the Incident Response Guidance, a financial institution should develop and implement a response program as part of its information security program. The response program should address unauthorized access to or use of customer information that could result in substantial harm or inconvenience to a customer.

Finally, the Interagency Guidelines require financial institutions to train staff to prepare and implement their information security programs. The institution should consider providing specialized training to ensure that personnel sufficiently protect customer information in accordance with its information security program.

For example, an institution should:

—Train staff to recognize and respond to schemes to commit fraud or identity theft, such as guarding against pretext spam calling.
—Provide staff members responsible for building or maintaining computer systems and local and wide area networks with adequate training, including instruction about computer security.
—Train staff to properly dispose of customer information.

Trust but Check

The community support for a business, and business in general, depends on the credibility that stakeholders place in corporate commitments, the company’s reputation, and the strength of its competitive advantage. All of these depend on the trust that stakeholders place in a company’s activities. Trust, in turn, depends on the values underlying corporate activities. Off-shore accounts, manipulation of shell corporations to evade taxes, loan fraud and management self-dealing are just a few instances of the moral cancer that, drop by drop, erodes trust until the point where the free enterprise systems of democratic nations are replaced by naked oligarchy, kleptocracy and cultures of corruption.

If the interests of all stakeholders are systematically not respected, then action that continues to be often painful to shareholders, officers, and directors usually occurs. In fact, it is unlikely that businesses or professions can achieve their long-run strategic objectives without the support of key stakeholders, such as shareholders, employees, customers, creditors, suppliers, governments, and host communities.

A constant theme and trend (as echoed in the trade press) has become increasingly more evident since the turn of the century. The judgment and moral character of executives, owners, boards of directors, and auditors has been often insufficient, on their own, to prevent increasingly severe corporate, ethical, and governance scandals. Governments and regulators world-wide have been required to constantly tighten guidelines and governance regulations to assure the protection of the public. The self-interested lure of greed has proven to be too strong for many to resist, and they have succumbed to conflicts of interest when left too much on their own. Corporations that were once able to shift jurisdictions to avoid new regulations regarding tax and other matters now are facing global measures designed to expose and control questionable ethics and governance practices. Assurance professionals themselves, of all types, are also facing international standards of behavior.

These changes have come about because of the pressures brought to bear on corporations and management by the reporting of scandals and abuses by a still potent free press and by suits by activist investors and other involved stakeholders. But changes in laws, regulations, and standards are only part of what stakeholders have contributed. The expectations for good ethical behavior and good governance practices have changed. Failure to comply with these expectations now impacts reputations, profits, and careers even if the behavior is strictly within legal boundaries.

As ACFE training tells us, it’s become increasingly evident to most executives, owners, and auditors that their individual success is directly related to their ability to develop and maintain a corporate culture of integrity. They cannot afford the loss of reputation, revenue, reliability, and credibility as a result of a loss of integrity. It is no longer an effective, sustainable, or medium or long-term strategy to project or practice questionable ethics. ACFE training goes on to indicate a number of causes, or signs, of ethical problems within any given corporation:

— Pressure to meet goals, especially financial ones, at any cost;
–A culture that does not foster open and candid conversation and discussion;
–A CEO who is surrounded by people who will agree and flatter the CEO, as well as a CEO whose reputation is ‘beyond criticism’;
–Weak boards that do not exercise their fiduciary responsibilities with diligence;
–An organization that promotes people on the basis of nepotism and favoritism;
–Hubris. The arrogant belief that rules are for other people, but not for us;
–A flawed cost/benefit attitude that suggests that poor ethical behavior in one area can be offset by good ethical behavior in another area.

The LIBOR rate scandal of 2012 is an almost perfect example of ethical collapse and manifests a majority of the red flags enumerated above. The scandal featured the systematic manipulation of a benchmark interest rate, supported by a culture of fraud in the world’s biggest banks, in an environment where little or no regulation prevailed. After decades of abuse that enriched the big banks, their shareholders, executives and traders, at the expense of others, investigations and lawsuits were finally undertaken resulting in prosecutions and huge penalties for the banks and the individual traders involved.

The London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) rate is a rate of interest, first computed in 1985 by the British Banking Association (BBA), the Bank of England and others, to serve as a readily available reference or benchmark rate for many financial contracts and arrangements. Prior to its creation, contracts utilized many privately negotiated rates, which were difficult to verify, and not necessarily related to the market rate for the security in question. The LIBOR rate, which is the average interest rate estimated by leading banks that they would be charged if they were to borrow from other banks, provided a simple alternative that came to be widely used.

At the time of the LIBOR scandal, 18 of the largest banks in the world provided their estimates of the costs they would have had to pay for a variety of interbank loans (loans from other banks) just prior to 11:00 a.m. on the submission day. These estimates were submitted to Reuters news agency (who acted for the BBA) for calculation of the average, and its publication, and dissemination. Reuters set aside the four highest and four lowest estimates and averaged the remaining ten.

So huge were the investments affected that a small manipulation in the LIBOR rate could have a very significant impact on the profit of the banks and of the traders involved in the manipulation.

Insiders to the banking system knew about the manipulation of LIBOR rate submissions for decades, but changes were not made until the public became aware of the problem, and until the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) forced the U.K. government to act. The president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank (Fed), at that time emailed the governor of the Bank of England in June 2008, suggesting ways to “enhance” LIBOR. Although ensuing emails report agreement on the suggestions, and articles appeared in the trade press from 2008 to 2011, serious changes were not applied until October 2012 when the U.K. government accepted the recommendations of the Wheatley Review of Libor. This Review by Martin Wheatley, managing director of British Financial Services Authority, was commissioned in June 2012 in view of investigations, charges and settlements that were raising public awareness of LIBOR deficiencies.

One of the motivations for creating the Wheatley Review involved the prosecution of a former UBS and later Citigroup Inc. trader, on criminal fraud charges for manipulating the LIBOR rates. The trader, known to insiders as the “Rain Man” for his abilities and demeanor, allegedly sought his superiors approval before attempting to influence the LIBOR rates, an act that some observers thought at the time would provide a strong defense against conviction.

Insiders who knew of LIBOR manipulations were generally reluctant to take a public stand for earlier change. However, on July 27, 2012, a former trader for Morgan Stanley in London, published an article that told of his earlier attempts to bring LIBOR rate manipulations to the attention of authorities, but without success. In his article, he indicated how he learned as a new trader in 1991 that the banks manipulated their rate submissions to make profit on specific contracts, and to mask liquidity problems such as during the subprime lending crisis of 2008. For example, if the LIBOR rate submissions were misstated to be low, the discounted valuation of related assets would be raised, thus providing misleadingly higher levels of short-term, near-cash assets than should have been reported.

Numerous studies since the scandal have detailed the effects of unethical LIBOR manipulation. Just two examples of such manipulation. At the time of the scandal many home owners borrowed their mortgage loans on a variable- or adjustable-rate basis, rather than a fixed-rate basis. Consequently, many of these borrowers received a new rate at the first of every month based on the LIBOR rate. A study prepared for a class action lawsuit has shown that on the first of each month for the period 2007-2009, the LIBOR rate rose more than 7.5 basis points on average. As a consequence, one observer estimated that each LIBOR submitting bank may be liable for as much as $2.3 billion.

Municipalities raise funds through the issue of bonds, and many were encouraged to issue variable-rate, rather than fixed-rate, bonds to take advantage of lower interest payments. For example, the saving could be as much as $1 million on a $100 million bond. After issue, the municipalities were encouraged to buy interest rate swaps from their investment banks to hedge their risk of volatility in the variable rates by converting or swapping into a fixed rate arrangement. The seller of the swap agrees to pay the municipality for any requirement to pay interest at more than the fixed rate agreed if interest rates rise, but if interest rates fall the swap seller buys the bonds at the lower variable interest rate. However, the variable rate was linked to the LIBOR rate, which was artificially depressed, thus costing U.S. municipalities as much as $10 billion. Class action suits were eventually launched to recover these losses, which cost municipalities, hospitals, and other non-profits as much as $600 million a year.

At the end of the day, trust in each other and in our counter-parties is all we really have as economic actors; CFE’s and forensic accountants thus have a vital role to play in investigating, documenting and assisting in the identification and possible prosecution of those who, like the LIBOR manipulators, knowingly collude in making the choice to violate that trust.

Using Control to Foster a Culture of Honesty

One of the most frequent questions we seem to receive as practicing CFEs from clients and corporate counsel alike regards the proactive steps management can take to create what’s commonly designated a ‘culture of honesty’. What kinds of programs and controls can an entity implement to create such a culture and to prevent fraud?

The potential of being caught most often persuades likely perpetrators not to commit a contemplated fraud. As the ACFE has long told us, because of this principle, the existence of a thorough control system is essential to any effective program of fraud prevention and constitutes one of the most vital underpinnings of an honest culture.

Corporations and other organizations can be held liable for criminal acts committed as a matter of organizational policy. Fortunately, most organizations do not expressly set out to break the law. However, corporations and other organizations may also be held liable for the criminal acts of their employees if those acts are perpetrated in the course and scope of their employment and for the ostensible purpose of benefiting the corporation. An employee’s acts are considered to be in the course and scope of employment if the employee has actual authority or apparent authority to engage in those acts. Apparent authority means that a third party would reasonably believe the employee is authorized to perform the act on behalf of the company. Therefore, an organization could be held liable for something an employee does on behalf of the organization even if the employee is not authorized to perform that act.

An organization will not be vicariously liable for the acts of an employee unless the employee acted for the ostensible purpose of benefiting the corporation. This does not mean the corporation has to receive an actual benefit from the illegal acts of its employee. All that is required is that the employee intended to benefit the corporation. A company cannot seek to avoid vicarious liability for the acts of its employees by simply claiming that it did not know what was going on. Legally speaking, an organization is deemed to have knowledge of all facts known by its officers and employees. That is, if a prosecutor can prove that an officer or employee knew of conduct that raised a question as to the company’s liability, and the prosecutor can show that the company willfully failed to act to correct the situation, then the company may be held liable, even if senior management had no knowledge or suspicion of the wrongdoing.

In addition, the evolving legal principle of ‘conscious avoidance’ allows the government to prove the employer had knowledge of a particular fact which establishes liability by showing that the employer knew there was a high probability the fact existed and consciously avoided confirming the fact. Employers cannot simply turn a blind eye when there is reason to believe that there may be criminal conduct within the organization. If steps are not taken to deter the activity, the company itself may be found liable. The corporation can be held criminally responsible even if those in management had no knowledge of participation in the underlying criminal events and even if there were specific policies or instructions prohibiting the activity undertaken by the employee(s). The acts of any employee, from the lowest clerk on up to the CEO, can impute liability upon a corporation. In fact, a corporation can be criminally responsible for the collective knowledge of several of its employees even if no single employee intended to commit an offense. Thus, the combination of vicarious or imputed corporate criminal liability and the current U.S. Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations can create a risk for corporations today.

Although many of our client companies do not realize it, the current legal environment imposes a responsibility on companies to ferret out employee misconduct and to deal with any known or suspected instances of misconduct by taking timely and decisive measures.

First, the doctrine of accountability suggests that officers and directors aware of potentially illegal conduct by senior employees may be liable for any recurrence of similar misconduct and may have an obligation to halt and cure any continuing effects of the initial misconduct.

Second, the Corporate Sentencing Guidelines, provide stiff penalties for corporations that fail to take voluntary action to redress apparent misconduct by senior employees.

Third, the Private Litigation Securities Reform Act requires, as a matter of statute, that independent auditors look for, and assess, management’s response to indications of fraud or other potential illegality. Where the corporation does not have a history of responding to indications of wrongdoing, the auditors may not be able to reach a conclusion that the company took appropriate and prompt action in response to indications of fraud.

Fourth, courts have held that a director’s duty of care includes a duty to attempt in good faith to assure corporate information and reporting systems exist. These systems must be reasonably designed to provide senior management and the board of directors timely, accurate information which would permit them to reach informed judgments concerning the corporation’s compliance with law and its business performance. In addition, courts have also stated that the failure to create an adequate compliance system, under some circumstances, could render a director liable for losses caused by non-compliance with applicable legal standards. Therefore, directors should make sure that their companies have a corporate compliance plan in place to detect misconduct and deal with it effectively. The directors should then monitor the company’s adherence to the compliance program. Doing so will help the corporation avoid fines under the Sentencing Guidelines and help prevent individual liability on the part of the directors and officers.

The control environment sets the moral tone of an organization, influencing the control consciousness of the organization and providing a foundation for all other control components. This component considers whether managers and employees within the organization exhibit integrity in their activities. COSO envisions that upper management will be responsible for the control environment of organizations. Employees look to management for guidance in most business affairs, and organizational ethics are no different. It is important for upper management to operate in an ethical manner, and it is equally important for employees to view management in a positive light. Managers must set an appropriate moral tone for the operations of an organization.

In addition to merely setting a good example, however, COSO suggests that upper management take direct control of an organization’s efforts at internal controls. This idea should be regularly reinforced within the organization. There are several actions that management can take to establish the proper control environment for an organization and foster a culture of honesty. These include:

–The establishment of a code of ethics for the organization. The code should be disseminated to all employees and every new employee should be required to read and sign it. The code should also be disseminated to contractors who do work on behalf of the organization. Under certain circumstances, companies may face liability due to the actions of independent contractors. It is therefore very important to explain the organization’s standards to any outside party with whom the organization conducts business.

–Careful screening of job applicants. One of the easiest ways to establish a strong moral tone for an organization is to hire morally sound employees. Too often, the hiring process is conducted in a slipshod manner. Organizations should conduct thorough background checks on all new employees, especially managers. In addition, it is important to conduct thorough interviews with applicants to ensure that they have adequate skills to perform the duties that will be required of them.

–Proper assignment of authority and responsibility. In addition to hiring qualified, ethical employees, it is important to put these people in situations where they are able to thrive without resorting to unethical conduct. Organizations should provide employees with well-defined job descriptions and performance goals. Performance goals should be routinely reviewed to ensure that they do not set unrealistic standards. Training should be provided on a consistent basis to ensure that employees maintain the skills to perform effectively. Regular training on ethics will also help employees identify potential trouble spots and avoid getting caught in compromising situations. Finally, management should quickly determine where deficiencies in an employee’s conduct exist and work with the employee to fix the problem.

–Effective disciplinary measures. No control environment will be effective unless there is consistent discipline for ethical violations. Consistent discipline requires a well-defined set of sanctions for violations, and strict adherence to the prescribed disciplinary measures. If one employee is punished for an act and another employee is not punished for a similar act, the moral force of the company’s ethics policy will be diminished. The levels of discipline must be sufficient to deter violations. It may also be advisable to reward ethical conduct. This will reinforce the importance of organizational ethics in the eyes of employees.

Monitoring is the process that assesses the quality of a control environment over time. This component should include regular evaluations of the entire control system. It also requires the ongoing monitoring of day-to-day activities by managers and employees. This may involve reviewing the accuracy of financial information, or verifying inventories, supplies, equipment and other organization assets. Finally, organizations should conduct independent evaluations of their internal control systems. An effective monitoring system should provide for the free flow of upstream communication.

Concealment Strategies & Fraud Scenarios

I remember Joseph Wells mentioning at an ACFE conference years ago that identifying the specific asset concealment strategy selected by a fraudster was often key to the investigator’s subsequent understanding of the entire fraud scenario the fraudster had chosen to implement. What Joe meant was that a fraud scenario is the unique way the inherent fraud scheme has occurred (or can occur) at an examined entity; therefore, a fraud scenario describes how an inherent fraud risk will occur under specific circumstances. Upon identification, a specific fraud scenario, and its associated concealment strategy, become the basis for fraud risk assessment and for the examiner’s subsequent fraud examination program.

Fraud concealment involves the strategies used by the perpetrator of the fraud scenario to conceal the true intent of his or her transaction(s). Common concealment strategies include false documents, false representations, false approvals, avoiding or circumventing control levels, internal control evasion, blocking access to information, enhancing the effects of geographic distance between documents and controls, and the application of both real and perceived pressure. Wells also pointed out that an important aspect of fraud concealment pertains to the level of sophistication demonstrated by the perpetrator; the connection between concealment strategies and fraud scenarios is essential in any discussion of fraud risk structure.

As an example, consider a rights of return fraud scenario related to ordered merchandise. Most industries allow customers to return products for any number of reasons. Rights of return refers to circumstances, whether as a matter of contract or of existing practice, under which a product may be returned after its sale either in exchange for a cash refund, or for a credit applied to amounts owed or to be owed for other products, or in exchange for other products. GAAP allows companies to recognize revenue in certain cases, even though the customer may have a right of return. When customers are given a right of return, revenue may be recognized at the time of sale if the sales price is substantially fixed or determinable at the date of sale, the buyer has paid or is obligated to pay the seller, the obligation to pay is not contingent on resale of the product, the buyer’s obligation to the seller does not change in the event of theft or physical destruction or damage of the product, the buyer acquiring the product for resale is economically separate from the seller, the seller does not have significant obligations for future performance or to bring about resale of the product by the buyer, and the amount of future returns can be reasonably estimated.

Sales revenue not recognizable at the time of sale is recognized either once the return privilege has substantially expired or if the conditions have been subsequently met. Companies sometimes stray by establishing accounting policies or sales agreements that grant customers vague or liberal rights of returns, refunds, or exchanges; that fail to fix the sales price; or that make payment contingent upon resale of the product, receipt of funding from a lender, or some other future event. Payment terms that extend over a substantial portion of the period in which the customer is expected to use or market the purchased products may also create problems. These terms effectively create consignment arrangements, because, no economic risk has been transferred to the purchaser.

Frauds in connection with rights of return typically involve concealment of the existence of the right, either by contract or arising from accepted practice, and/or departure from GAAP specified conditions. Concealment usually takes one or more of the following forms:

• Use of side letters: created and maintained separate and apart from the sales contract, that provide the buyer with a right of return;

• Obligations by oral promise or some other form of understanding between seller and buyer that is honored as a customary practice but arranged covertly and hidden;

• Misrepresentations designed to mischaracterize the nature of arrangements, particularly in respect of:

–Consignment arrangements made to appear to be final sales;

–Concealment of contingencies, under which the buyer can return the products, including failure to resell the products, trial periods, and product performance conditions;

–Failure to disclose the existence, or extent, of stock rotation rights, price protection concessions, or annual returned-goods limitations;

–Arrangement of transactions, with straw counterparties, agents, related parties, or other special purpose entities in which the true nature of the arrangements is concealed or obscured, but, ultimately, the counterparty does not actually have any significant economic risk in the “sale”.

Sometimes the purchaser is complicit in the act of concealment, for example, by negotiating a side letter, and this makes detection of the fraud even more difficult. Further, such frauds often involve collusion among several individuals within an organization, such as salespersons, their supervisors, and possibly both marketing and financial managers.

It’s easy to see that once a CFE has identified one or more of these concealment strategies as operative in a given entity, the process of developing a descriptive fraud scenario, completing a related risk assessment and constructing a fraud examination program will be a relatively straight forward process. As a working example, of a senario and related concealment strategies …

Over two decades ago the SEC charged a major computer equipment manufacturer with overstating revenue in the amount of $500,000 on transactions for which products had been shipped, but for which, at the time of shipment, the company had no reasonable expectation that the customer would accept and pay for the products. The company eventually accepted back most of the product as sales returns during the following quarter.

The SEC noted that the manufacturer’s written distribution agreements generally allowed the distributor wide latitude to return product to the company for credit whenever the product was, in the distributor’s opinion, damaged, obsolete, or otherwise unable to be sold. According to the SEC, in preparing the manufacturer’s financial statements for the target year, company personnel submitted a proposed allowance for future product returns that was unreasonably low in light of the high level of returns the manufacturer had received in the first several months of the year.

The SEC determined that various officers and employees in the accounting and sales departments knew the exact amount of returns the company had received before the year end, when the company’s independent auditors finished their fieldwork on the annual audit. Had the manufacturer revised the allowance for sales returns to reflect the returns information, the SEC concluded it would have had to reduce the net revenue reported for the fiscal year. Instead, the SEC found that several of the manufacturer’s officers and employees devised schemes to prevent the auditors from discovering the true amount of the returns, including 1), keeping the auditors away from the area at the manufacturer’s headquarters where the returned goods were stored, and 2), accounting personnel altering records in the computer system to reduce the level of returns. After all the facts were assembled, the SEC took disciplinary action against several company executives.

As with side agreements, a broad base of inquiry into company practices may be one of the best assessment techniques the CFE has regarding possible concealment strategies supporting fraud scenarios involving returns and exchanges. In addition to inquiries of this kind, the ACFE recommends that CFE’s may consider using analytics like:

• Compare returns in the current period with prior periods and ask about unusual increases.

• Because companies may slow the return process to avoid reducing sales in the current period, determine whether returns are processed in timely fashion. The facts can also be double-checked by confirming with customers.

• Calculate the sales return percentage (sales returns divided by total sales) and ask about any unusual increase.

• Compare returns after a reporting period with both the return reserve and the monthly returns to determine if they appear reasonable.

• Determine whether sales commissions are paid at the time of sale or at the time of collection. Sales commissions paid at the time of sale provide incentives to inflate sales artificially to meet internal and external market pressures.

• Determine whether product returns are adjusted from sales commissions. Sales returns processed through the so-called house account may provide a hidden mechanism to inflate sales to phony customers, collect undue commissions, and return the product to the vendor without being penalized by having commissions adjusted for the returned goods.

Analytics Confronts the Normal

The Information Audit and Control Association (ISACA) tells us that we produce and store more data in a day now than mankind did altogether in the last 2,000 years. The data that is produced daily is estimated to be one exabyte, which is the computer storage equivalent of one quintillion bytes, which is the same as one million terabytes. Not too long ago, about 15 years, a terabyte of data was considered a huge amount of data; today the latest Swiss Army knife comes with a 1 terabyte flash drive.

When an interaction with a business is complete, the information from the interaction is only as good as the pieces of data that get captured during that interaction. A customer walks into a bank and withdraws cash. The transaction that just happened gets stored as a monetary withdrawal transaction with certain characteristics in the form of associated data. There might be information on the date and time when the withdrawal happened; there may be information on which customer made the withdrawal (if there are multiple customers who operate the same account). The amount of cash that was withdrawn, the account from which the money was extracted, the teller/ATM who facilitated the withdrawal, the balance on the account after the withdrawal, and so forth, are all typically recorded. But these are just a few of the data elements that can get captured in any withdrawal transaction. Just imagine all the different interactions possible on all the assorted products that a bank has to offer: checking accounts, savings accounts, credit cards, debit cards, mortgage loans, home equity lines of credit, brokerage, and so on. The data that gets captured during all these interactions goes through data-checking processes and gets stored somewhere internally or in the cloud.  The data that gets stored this way has been steadily growing over the past few decades, and, most importantly for fraud examiners, most of this data carries tons of information about the nuances of the individual customers’ normal behavior.

In addition to what the customer does, from the same data, by looking at a different dimension of the data, examiners can also understand what is normal for certain other related entities. For example, by looking at all the customer withdrawals at a single ARM, CFEs can gain a good understanding of what is normal for that particular ATM terminal.  Understanding the normal behavior of customers is very useful in detecting fraud since deviation from normal behavior is a such a primary indicator of fraud. Understanding non-fraud or normal behavior is not only important at the main account holder level but also at all the entity levels associated with that individual account. The same data presents completely different information when observed in the context of one entity versus another. In this sense, having all the data saved and then analyzed and understood is a key element in tackling the fraud threat to any organization.

Any systematic, numbers-based system of understanding of the phenomenon of fraud as a past occurring event is dependent on an accurate description of exactly what happened through the data stream that got accumulated before, during, and after the fraud scenario occurred. Allowing the data to speak is the key to the success of any model-based system. This data needs to be saved and interpreted very precisely for the examiner’s models to make sense. The first crucial step to building a model is to define, understand, and interpret fraud scenarios correctly. At first glance, this seems like a very easy problem to solve. In practical terms, it is a lot more complicated process than it seems.

The level of understanding of the fraud episode or scenario itself varies greatly among the different business processes involved with handling the various products and functions within an organization. Typically, fraud can have a significant impact on the bottom line of any organization. Looking at the level of specific information that is systematically stored and analyzed about fraud in financial institutions for example, one would arrive at the conclusion that such storage needs to be a lot more systematic and rigorous than it typically is today. There are several factors influencing this. Unlike some of the other types of risk involved in client organizations, fraud risk is a censored problem. For example, if we are looking at serious delinquency, bankruptcy, or charge-off risk in credit card portfolios, the actual dollars-at-risk quantity is very well understood. Based on past data, it is relatively straightforward to quantify precise credit dollars at risk by looking at how many customers defaulted on a loan or didn’t pay their monthly bill for three or more cycles or declared bankruptcy. Based on this, it is easy to quantify the amount at risk as far as credit risk goes. However, in fraud, it is virtually impossible to quantify the actual amount that would have gone out the door as the fraud is stopped immediately after detection. The problem is censored as soon as some intervention takes place, making it difficult to precisely quantify the potential risk.

Another challenge in the process of quantifying fraud is how well the fraud episode itself gets recorded. Consider the case of a credit card number getting stolen without the physical card getting stolen. During a certain period, both the legitimate cardholder and the fraudster are charging using the card. If the fraud detection system in the issuing institution doesn’t identify the fraudulent transactions as they were happening in real time, typically fraud is identified when the cardholder gets the monthly statement and figures out that some of the charges were not made by him/her. Then the cardholder calls the issuer to report the fraud.  In the not too distant past, all that used to get recorded by the bank was the cardholder’s estimate of when the fraud episode began, even though there were additional details about the fraudulent transactions that were likely shared by the cardholder. If all that gets recorded is the cardholder’s estimate of when the fraud episode began, ambiguity is introduced regarding the granularity of the actual fraud episode. The initial estimate of the fraud amount becomes a rough estimate at best.
In the case in which the bank’s fraud detection system was able to catch the fraud during the actual fraud episode, the fraudulent transactions tended to be recorded by a fraud analyst, and sometimes not too accurately. If the transaction was marked as fraud or non-fraud incorrectly, this problem was typically not corrected even after the correct information flowed in. When eventually the transactions that were actually fraudulent were identified using the actual postings of the transactions, relating this back to the authorization transactions was often not a straightforward process. Sometimes the amounts of the transactions may have varied slightly. For example, the authorization transaction of a restaurant charge is sometimes unlikely to include the tip that the customer added to the bill. The posted amount when this transaction gets reconciled would look slightly different from the authorized amount. All of this poses an interesting challenge when designing a data-driven analytical system to combat fraud.

The level of accuracy associated with recording fraud data also tends to be dependent on whether the fraud loss is a liability for the customer or to the financial institution. To a significant extent, the answer to the question, “Whose loss is it?” really drives how well past fraud data is recorded. In the case of unsecured lending such as credit cards, most of the liability lies with the banks, and the banks tend to care a lot more about this type of loss. Hence systems are put in place to capture this data on a historical basis reasonably accurately.

In the case of secured lending, ID theft, and so on, a significant portion of the liability is really on the customer, and it is up to the customer to prove to the bank that he or she has been defrauded. Interestingly, this shift of liability also tends to have an impact on the quality of the fraud data captured. In the case of fraud associated with automated clearing house (ACH) batches and domestic and international wires, the problem is twofold: The fraud instances are very infrequent, making it impossible for the banks to have a uniform method of recording frauds; and the liability shifts are dependent on the geography.  Most international locations put the onus on the customer, while in the United States there is legislation requiring banks to have fraud detection systems in place.

The extent to which our client organizations take responsibility also tends to depend on how much they care about the customer who has been defrauded. When a very valuable customer complains about fraud on her account, a bank is likely to pay attention.  Given that most such frauds are not large scale, there is less need to establish elaborate systems to focus on and collect the data and keep track of past irregularities. The past fraud information is also influenced heavily by whether the fraud is third-party or first-party fraud. Third-party fraud is where the fraud is committed clearly by a third party, not the two parties involved in a transaction. In first-party fraud, the perpetrator of the fraud is the one who has the relationship with the bank. The fraudster in this case goes to great lengths to prevent the banks from knowing that fraud is happening. In this case, there is no reporting of the fraud by the customer. Until the bank figures out that fraud is going on, there is no data that can be collected. Also, such fraud could go on for quite a while and some of it might never be identified. This poses some interesting problems. Internal fraud where the employee of the institution is committing fraud could also take significantly longer to find. Hence the data on this tends to be scarce as well.

In summary, one of the most significant challenges in fraud analytics is to build a sufficient database of normal client transactions.  The normal transactions of any organization constitute the baseline from which abnormal, fraudulent or irregular transactions, can be identified and analyzed.  The pinpointing of the irregular is thus foundational to the development of the transaction processing edits which prevent the irregular transactions embodying fraud from even being processed and paid on the front end; furnishing the key to modern, analytically based fraud prevention.

First Things First

About a decade ago, I attended a training session at the Virginia State Police training center conducted by James D. Ratley, then the training director for the ACFE. The training session contained some valuable advice for CFE’s and forensic accountants on immediate do’s and don’ts if an examiner strongly suspects the presence of employee perpetrated financial fraud within a client’s organization. Mr. Ratley’s counsel is as relevant today as it was then.

Ratley advised that every significant employee matter (whether a theft is involved or not) requires thoughtful examiner deliberation before any action is taken, since hasty moves will likely prove detrimental to both the investigator and to the client company. Consequently, knowing what should not be done if fraud is suspected is often more important to an eventual successful outcome than what should be done.

First, the investigator should not initially confront the employee with his or her suspicions until the investigator has first taken several important preliminary investigative steps.  Even when those steps have been taken, it may prove necessary to use a different method of informing the employee regarding her status, imminent material harm notwithstanding. False (or even valid) accusations can lead to defamation lawsuits or at the very least to an extremely uncomfortable work environment. The hasty investigator or management could offend an innocent person by questioning her integrity; consequently, your client company may never be able to regain that person’s trust or prior level of commitment. That downside is just one example of the collateral damage that can result from a fraud. Even if the employee is ultimately found to be guilty, an investigator’s insinuation gives him or her time to alter records and conceal the theft, and perhaps even siphon off more assets. It takes only a moment for an experienced person to erase a computer’s hard drive and shred documents. Although, virtually all business records can be reconstructed, reconstruction is a costly and time-consuming process that always aggravates an already stressful situation.

Second, as a rule, never terminate or suspend the suspect employee until the preliminary investigative steps referred to above have been taken.  The desire on the part of management to take decisive action is understandable, but hasty actions may be detrimental to the subsequent investigation and to the company. Furthermore, there may be certain advantages to continuing the person’s employment status for a brief period because his or her continued status might compel the suspect to take certain actions to your client’s or to the investigation’s benefit. This doesn’t apply to government employees since, unlike private sector employees, they cannot be compelled to participate in the investigation. There can be occasions, however, where it is necessary to immediately terminate the employee. For example, employees who serve in a position whose continued employment could put others at risk physically, financially, or otherwise may need to be terminated immediately. Such circumstances are rare, but if they do occur, management (and the CFE) should document the entire process and advise corporate counsel immediately.

Third, again, as a rule, the investigator should never share her initial suspicions with other employees unless their assistance is crucial, and then only if they are requested to maintain strict confidentiality.  The CFE places an arduous burden on anyone in whom s/he has confided. Asking an employee to shoulder such responsibilities is uncharted territory for nearly anyone (including for the examiner) and can aggravate an already stressful situation. An examiner may view the confidence placed in an employee as a reflection of his and management’s trust. However, the employee may view the uninvited responsibility as taking sides with management at the expense of his relationship with other employees. Consequently, this step should be taken only if necessary and, again, after consultation with counsel and management.

Regarding the do’s, Ratley recommended that the instant that an employee fraud matter surfaces, the investigator should begin continuous documentation of all pertinent investigation-related actions taken. Such documentation includes a chronological, written narrative composed with as much specificity as time permits. Its form can take many shapes, such as handwritten notes, Microsoft Word files, spreadsheets, emails to yourself or others, and/or relevant data captured in almost any other reproducible medium. This effort will, of course, be time consuming for management but is yet another example of the collateral damage resulting from almost any employee fraud. The documentation should also reference all direct and related costs and expenses incurred by the investigator and by the client company. This documentation will support insurance claims and be vital to a subsequent restitution process.  Other collateral business damages, such as the loss of customers, suppliers, or the negative fiscal impact on other employees may also merit documentation as appropriate.

Meetings with corporate counsel are also an important do.  An employee fraud situation is complex and fraught with risk for the investigator and for the client company. The circumstances can require broad and deep expertise in employment law, criminal law, insurance law, banking law, malpractice law, and various other legal concentrations. Fortunately, most corporate attorneys will acknowledge when they need to seek additional expertise beyond their own experience since a victim company counsel specializing in corporate matters may have little or no background in matters of fraud. Acknowledgment by an attorney that s/he needs additional expertise is a testament to his or her integrity. Furthermore, the client’s attorney may contribute value by participating throughout the duration of the investigation and possible prosecution and by bringing to bear his or her cumulative knowledge of the company to the benefit of the organization.

Next, depending on the nature of the fraud and on the degree of its fiscal impact, CFEs should meet with the client’s CPA firm but exercise caution. The client CPA may be well versed in their involvement with your client through their work on income taxes, audit, review, and compilations, but not in forensic analysis or fraud examination. Larger CPA firms may have departments that they claim specialize in financial forensics; the truth is that actual experience in these matters can vary widely. Furthermore, remember that the situation occurred under your client CPA’s watch, so the firm may not be free of conflict.

Finally, do determine from management as early as possible the range of actions it might want to take with respect to the suspect employee if subsequent investigation confirms the suspicion that fraud has indeed occurred.  Deciding how to handle the matter of what to do with the employee by relying upon advice from management and from the legal team can be quite helpful in shaping what investigative steps are taken subsequently. Ratley pointed out that the level and availability of evidence often drive actions relating to the suspect. For example, the best course of action for management may be to do nothing immediately, to closely monitor and document the employee’s activities, to suspend the employee with pay, or immediately terminate the suspect’s employment. There may be valid reasons to exercise any one of these options.

Let’s say the CFE is advised by management to merely monitor and document the employee’s activities since the CFE currently lacks sufficient evidence to suspend or terminate the employee immediately. The CFE and the client’s IT operation could both be integral parts of this option by designing a plan to protect the client from further loss while the investigation continues behind the scenes. The investigation can take place after hours or under the guise of an “efficiency audit,” “business planning,” or other designation. In any case, this option will probably require the investigator to devote substantial time to observe the employee and to concurrently conduct the investigation.   The CFE will either assemble sufficient evidence to proceed or conclude there is inadequate substantiation to support the accusation.

A fraud is a devastating event for any company but Mr. Ratley’s guidance about the first steps in an investigation of employee perpetrated financial fraud can help minimize the damage.  He concluded his remarks by making two additional points; first, few executives are familiar by experience with situations that require CFE or forensic accountant expertise; consequently, their often-well-meaning actions when confronted with the actuality of a fraud can result in costly mistakes regarding time, money and people. Although many such mistakes can be repaired given sufficient money and time, they are sometimes devastating and irrecoverable.  Second, attorneys, accountants and others in the service professions frequently lack sufficient experience to recognize the vast differences between civil and criminal processes.  Consequently, these professionals often can provide the best service to their corporate clients by referring and deferring to more capable fraud examination specialists like certified fraud examiners and experienced forensic accountants.