Category Archives: Fraud Risk Assessment

An Ancient Skill

I remember Professor Jerome Taylor in his graduate class at the University of Chicago introducing us to the complexities of what the ancients called the trivium. Because the setting for the process of fraud examination is so often fraught with emotion and confusion, even a beginning fraud examiner quickly realizes that presenting evidence collected during examination fieldwork merely as a succession of facts often isn’t enough to fully convince clients and to adequately address their many concerns (many of which always seem to emerge all at once). To capture stakeholders’ attention, and to elicit a satisfactory response, CFEs need to possess some degree of rhetorical skill.

Rhetoric refers to the use of language to persuade and instruct. Throughout the Middle Ages, European universities taught rhetoric to beginning students as one of three foundational topics composing what was known as the trivium. Logic and grammar, the other two foundational topics, refer to the mechanics of thought and analysis, and to the mechanics of language, respectively. We CFEs and forensic accountants essentially follow the trivium in our work, whether we realize it or not. After gathering evidence through fieldwork, we apply logic to analyze that evidence and to present our vision of the facts to our client organizations in our final reports. We also use grammatical rules to structure text within our reports and memorandum.

Applying the trivium requires a balanced approach; too much focus on any one of the three components to the exclusion of the others can lead to ineffective communication. Fraud examiners need to consider all three trivium components evenly and avoid the common trap of collecting too much evidence or performing too much analysis in the belief that such concentrations will help strengthen our final reports.

The ancient Greeks defined three key components of rhetoric, the speech itself (text), the speaker delivering the speech (author), and those who listen to the speech (audience). Collectively, these components form what’s called the rhetorical triangle. For CFEs, the triangle’s three points equate to the final report or memorandum, the CFE him or herself, and our clients or stakeholders. All three of the rhetorical triangle components are interrelated, and they are each essential to the success of all investigative and/or assurance work. Each should be considered before any engagement and kept in mind throughout the engagement life cycle but especially during the report writing and presentation process.

Although the investigative team lead would be considered the primary author, each of the engagement team members plays a supporting role by authoring observations and preliminary findings that are then compiled into an integrated report. The person performing the important task of draft reviewer also has a role to play, ensuring that the final report meets ACFE and other applicable standards and fulfills the overall purpose defined in the planning document.

The character of the intended audience should be considered with each engagement. Audience members are not homogeneous; each may have different perspectives and expectations. For this reason, CFEs need to consult with them and consider their perspectives even before the engagement begins to the extent feasible.

Once engagement fieldwork has been completed, the authors compose a written report containing the results of the investigative field work. The report represents perhaps the most important outcome communication from the examination process, and the best chance to focus the client’s attention.

When crafting the final report, three separate but interrelated components, designated ‘appeals’, need to be considered and applied: ethos, logos, and pathos.

Ethos is an appeal to the audience’s perception of the honesty, authority, and expertise of the report’s author. Closely related to reputation, ethos is established when the audience determines that the author is qualified, trustworthy, and believable. Because the term ethics derives from ethos, adhering to ACFEs standards and Code of Ethics supports this appeal.

Some helpful formulations, in the form of questions, to keep in mind regarding the ethos component when formulating your report are:

–What assumptions does your audience likely make about you and the investigative process, what you produce, and the level of service you and your team provide?
–Is there a way to take advantage of their positive assumptions to improve the fraud investigation process for the future?
–What can you do to overcome their negative assumptions, if any?
–Do you create the expectation that what you produce and the level of service you provide will be above average or even exceptional?
–Are you using all the available channels to create an impression of excellence?

For CFEs with an on-going or long-term employment or other relationship with the client, the need to consider ethos begins long before the start of any particular engagement. Ethos is supported by the structure and governance of the fraud examination or forensic accounting function as well as by the selection of team members, including alignment between the type of engagements to be performed and the team’s qualifications, education, and training. The ethos appeal is also established by choosing to comply with examination and audit standards and with other professional requirements to demonstrate a high level of credibility, build trust, and gain a favorable reputation over time.

Logos appeals to the audience’s sense of logic, encompassing factors such as the reason and analysis used, the underlying meaning communicated, and the supporting facts and figures presented. The written document’s visual appeal, diagrams, charts, and other elements, as well as how the information is organized, presented, and structured, also factor into logos. Story conveys meaning. From the time we’re born we learn about the world around us through narratives. This aspect of logos continues to be important throughout our lives. We experience the world through our senses, particularly our eyes. Design and visual attractiveness are key to engaging an audience made up of the visual animals we are.

–Is what you are presenting easy to understand?
–Is your presentation design simple and pleasing to the eye?

Investigators need for logos is addressed by their written report’s executive summary; detailed observations, and findings as well as appendices with secondary information that can be used to further instruct the audience. The report describes the origin, drivers and overall purpose of the engagement, its findings, and conclusions. Ultimately, from a rhetorical standpoint, examiners try to tell a convincing, self-contained short story that conveys key messages to the audience. The structure and format of the report, together with its textual content and visual elements, also support the logos appeal.

Like ethos, the logos appeal is fulfilled long before an individual engagement begins. It starts with the rational, periodic assessment and identification of business processes at high-risk for fraud; areas requiring management’s attention, resulting in the development and implementation of effective anti-fraud controls. CFEs are then prepared to undertake engagements, executing steps to collect valid and relevant evidence to justify conclusions and to guide and support the client’s initiation of successful prosecutions.

Pathos is an appeal to the audience’s emotions, either positive (joy, excitement, hopefulness) or negative (anger, sadness). It is used to establish compassion or empathy. Unlike logos, pathos focuses on the audience’s irrational modes of response. The Greeks maintained that pathos was the strongest and most reliable form of persuasion. Pathos can be especially powerful when it is used well and connects with the audience’s underlying values and perspective. Used incorrectly, however, pathos can distort or detract from the impact of actual factual evidence.

Examiners should strive to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and look for ways to better understand the client/audience’s perspective. Attention to pathos can help support not only examination objectives, but the overarching goal of creating a satisfactory investigative outcome. CFEs should also be mindful of their overall tone and word selection, and ensure they balance negative and positive comments giving credit to individuals and circumstances where credit is due.

To some extent, pathos is interdependent with ethos and logos: The sting of negative results can be reduced somewhat by the positive effect of the other two appeals. For example, clients/audience members are more likely to accept bad news from someone they trust and respect, and who they know has followed a rational, structured approach to the engagement. But at the same time, ethos and logos can be offset by negative pathos. Preferred practice generally consists of holding regular meetings with corporate counsel and/or other critical stakeholders over the course of the investigation, maintaining transparency, and providing stakeholders with an opportunity to address investigative findings or provide evidence that counters or clarifies the CFEs observations.

In summary, while all three elements of rhetorical appeal play an important role in communication and while none should be neglected, CFEs and forensic accountants should pay particular attention to pathos. The dominance of feelings over reason is part of human nature, and examiners should consider this powerful element when planning and executing engagements and reporting the results. By doing so, certified investigators can help ensure audiences accept our message and make informed judgements related to fraud recovery, prosecution and possible restitution.

Loose Ends

A forensic accountant colleague of mine often refers to “loose-ends”. In his telling, loose-ends are elements of an investigation that get over-looked or insufficiently investigated which have the power to come back and bite an examiner with ill effect. That a small anomaly may be a sign of fraud is a fact that is no surprise to any seasoned investigator. Since fraud is typically hidden, the discovery of fraud usually is unlikely, at least at the beginning, to involve a huge revelation.

The typical audit does not presume that those the auditor examiners and the documents s/he reviews have something sinister about them. The overwhelming majority of audits are conducted in companies in which material fraud does not exist. However, the auditor maintains constant awareness that material fraud could be present.

Imagine a policewoman walking down a dark alley into which she knows a suspect has entered just before her. She doesn’t know where the suspect is, but as she walks down that alley, she is acutely aware of and attuned to her surroundings. Her senses are at their highest level. She knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that danger lurks nearby.

Fraud audits (and audits in general) aren’t like that. Fraud audits are more like walking through a busy mall and watching normal people go about their daily activities. In the back of the examiner’s mind, he knows that among all the shoppers are a few, a very few, shoplifters. They look just like everyone else. The examiner knows they are there because statistical studies and past experience have shown that they are, but he doesn’t know exactly where or who they are or when he will encounter them, if at all. If he were engaged to find them, he would have to design procedures to increase the likelihood of discovery without in any way annoying the substantial majority of honest shoppers in whose midst they swim.

A fraud risk assessment evaluates areas of potential fraud to determine whether the current control structure and environment are addressing fraud risk at a level that aligns with the organization’s risk appetite and risk tolerance. Therefore, it is important during the development and implementation of the risk management program to specifically address various fraud schemes to establish the correct levels of control.

It occurred to me a while back that a fraud risk assessment can of thought of as ignoring a loose-end if it fails to include sufficient consideration of the client organization’s ethical dimension. That the ethical dimension is not typically included as a matter of course in the routine fraud risk assessment constitutes, to my mind, a lost opportunity to conduct a fuller, and potentially, a more useful assessment. As part of their assessments, today’s practitioners can potentially use surveys, Control Self-Assessment sessions, focus groups, and workshops with employees to take the organization’s ethical temperature and determine its ethical baseline. Under this expanded model, the most successful fraud risk assessment would include small brainstorming sessions with the operational management of the business process(s) under review. Facilitated by a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE), these assessments would look at typical fraud schemes encountered in various areas of the organization and identify the internal controls designed to mitigate each of them. At a high level, this analysis examines internal controls and the internal control environment, as well as resources available to prevent, detect, and deter fraud.

Fraud risk assessments emphasize possible collusion and management overrides to circumvent internal controls. Although an internal control might be in place to prevent fraudulent activity, the analysis must consider how this control could be circumvented, manipulated, or avoided. This evaluation can help the CFE understand the actual robustness and resilience of the control and of the control environment and estimate the potential risk to the organization.

One challenge at this point in the process is ensuring that the analysis assesses not just roles, but also those specific individuals who are responsible for the controls. Sometimes employees will feel uncomfortable contemplating a fellow employee or manager perpetrating fraud. This is where an outside fraud expert like the CFE can help facilitate the discussion and ensure that nothing is left off the table. To ask and get the answers to the right questions, the CFE facilitator should help the respondents keep in mind that:

o Fraud entails intentional misconduct designed to avoid detection.
o Risk assessments identify where fraud might occur and who the potential perpetrator(s) might be.
o Persons inside and outside of the organization could perpetrate such schemes.
o Fraud perpetrators typically exploit weaknesses in the system of controls or may override or circumvent controls.
o Fraud perpetrators typically find ways to hide the fraud from detection.

It’s important to evaluate whether the organization’s culture promotes ethical or unethical decision-making. Unfortunately, many organizations have established policies and procedures to comply with various regulations and guidelines without committing to promoting a culture of ethical behavior. Simply having a code of conduct or an ethics policy is not enough. What matters is how employees act when confronted with an ethical choice; this is referred to by the ACFE as measuring the organization’s ethical baseline.

Organizations can determine their ethical baseline by periodically conducting either CFE moderated Control Self-Assessment sessions including employees from high-risk business processes, through an online survey of employees from various areas and levels within the organization, or through workshop-based surveys using a balloting tool that can keep responses anonymous. The broader the survey population, the more insightful the results will be. For optimal results, surveys should be short and direct, with no more than 15 to 20 questions that should only take a few minutes for most employees to answer. An important aspect of conducting this survey is ensuring the anonymity of participants, so that their answers are not influenced by peer pressure or fear of retaliation. The survey can ask respondents to rate questions or statements on a scale, ranging from 1—Strongly Disagree to 5—Strongly Agree. Sample statements might include:

1. Our organizational culture is trust-based.
2. Missing approvals are not a big deal here.
3. Strong personalities dominate most departments.
4. Pressure to perform outweighs ethical behavior.
5. I share my passwords with my co-workers.
6. Retaliation will not be accepted here.
7. The saying “Don’t rock the boat!” fits this organization.
8. I am encouraged to speak up whenever needed.
9. Ethical behavior is a top priority of management.
10.I know where I can go if I need to report a potential issue of misconduct.

The ethical baseline should not be totally measured on a point system, nor should the organization be graded based on the survey results. The results should simply be an indicator of the organization’s ethical environment and a tool to identify potential areas of concern. If repeated over time, the baseline can help identify both positive and negative trends. The results of the ethical baseline survey should be discussed by the CFE with management as part of a broader fraud risk assessment project. This is especially important if there are areas with a lack of consensus among the survey respondents. For example, if the answer to a question is split down the middle between strongly agree and strongly disagree, this should be discussed to identify the root cause of the variance. Most questions should be worded to either show strong ethical behaviors or to raise red flags of potential unethical issues or inability to report such issues promptly to the correct level in the organization.

In summary, the additional value created by combining of the results of the traditional fraud risk assessment with an ethical baseline assessment can help CFEs better determine areas of risk and control that should be considered in building the fraud prevention and response plans. For example, fraud risk schemes that are heavily dependent on controls that can be easily overridden by management may require more frequent assurance from prevention professionals than those schemes that are mitigated by system-based controls. And an organization with a weak ethical baseline may require more frequent assessment of detective control procedures than one with a strong ethical baseline, which might rely on broader entity-level controls. By adding ethical climate evaluation to their standard fraud risk assessment procedures, CFEs can tie up what otherwise might be a major loose-end in their risk evaluation.

The Sword of Damocles

The media provide us with daily examples of the fact that technology is a double-edged sword. The technological advancements that make it easy for people with legitimate purposes to engage with our client businesses and governmental agencies also provide a mechanism for those bent on perpetrating theft and frauds of all kinds.

The access to services and information that customers have historically demanded has opened the flood gates through which disgruntled or unethical employees and criminals enter to commit fraud. Criminals are also exploiting the inadequacies of older fraud management policies or, in some instances, the overall lack thereof. Our parent organization, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) has estimated that about 70 percent of all companies around the world experienced some type of fraud in 2016, with total global losses due to fraud exceeding US $4 trillion annually and expected to rise continually.  Organizations have incurred, on average, the loss of an estimated 7 percent of their annual revenues to fraud, with $994 billion of that total in the US alone. The ACFE has also noted that the frauds reported lasted a median length of 18 months before being detected. In addition to the direct impact of revenue loss, fraud erodes customer satisfaction and drains investments that could have been directed to corporate innovation and growth. Organizations entrusted with personally identifiable information are also held directly accountable in the eyes of the public for any breach. Surveys have shown that about one-third of fraud victims avoid merchants they blame for their victimization.

We assurance professionals know that criminals become continuously more sophisticated and the fraud they perpetrate increasingly complex. In response, the requirements for fraud risk management have significantly changed over the last few years. Fraud risk management is now not a by-product, but a purposeful choice intended to mitigate or eliminate an organizations’ exposure to the ethically challenged. Fraud risk management is no longer a “once and done” activity, but has become an on-going, ideally concurrent, program. As with all effective processes, it must be performed according to some design. To counter fraud, an organization must first understand its unique situation and the risk to which it may be exposed. This cannot be accomplished in a vacuum or through divination, but through structured analysis of an organization’s current state. Organizations are compelled by their increasingly cyber supported environments to establish an appropriate enterprise fraud risk management framework aligned with the organization’s strategic objectives and supported by a well-planned road map leading the organization to its properly defined target state of protection. Performing adequate analysis of the current state and projecting the organization goals considering that desired state is essential.  Analysis is the bedrock for implementation of any enterprise fraud risk management framework to effectively manage fraud risk.

Fraud risk management is thus both a top-down and a bottom-up process. It’s critical for an organization to establish and implement the right policies, processes, technology and supporting components within the organization and to diligently enforce these policies and processes collaboratively and consistently to fight fraud effectively across the organization. To counter fraud at an enterprise level, organizations should develop an integrated counter fraud program that enables information sharing and collaboration; the goal is to prevent first, detect early, respond effectively, monitor continuously and learn constantly. Counter fraud experience in both the public and for-profit sectors has resulted in the identification of a few critical factors for the successful implementation of enterprise-wide fraud risk management in the present era of advanced technology and big data.

The first is fraud risk management by design. Organizations like the ACFE have increasingly acknowledged the continuously emerging pattern of innovative frauds and the urgency on the part of all organizations to manage fraud risk on a daily, concurrent basis.  As a result, organizations have attempted implementation of the necessary management processes and solutions. However, it is not uncommon that our client organizations find themselves lacking in the critical support components of such a program.  Accordingly, their fraud risk mitigation efforts tend to be poorly coordinated and, sometimes, even reactionary. The fraud risk management capabilities and technology solutions in place are generally implemented in silos and disconnected across the organization.  To coordinate and guide the effort, the ACFE recommends implementation of the following key components:

— A rigorous risk assessment process — An organization must have an effective fraud risk assessment process to systematically identify significant fraud risk and to determine its individual exposure to such risk. The assessment may be integrated with an overall risk assessment or performed as a stand-alone exercise, but it should, at a minimum, include risk identification, risk likelihood, significance assessment and risk response; a component for fraud risk mitigation and implementation of compensating controls across the critical business processes composing the enterprise is also necessary for cost-effective fraud management.

–Effective governance and clearly defined organizational responsibilities — Organizations must commit to an effective governance process providing oversight of the fraud management process. The central fraud risk management program must be equipped with a clear charter and accountability that will provide direction and oversight for counter fraud efforts. The fraud risk must be managed enterprise-wide with transparency and communication integrated across the organization. The formally designated fraud risk program owner must be at a level from which clear management guidelines can be communicated and implemented.

–An integrated counter fraud framework and approach — An organization-wide counter fraud framework that covers the complete landscape of fraud management (from enterprise security, authentication, business process, and application policy and procedure controls, to transaction monitoring and management), should be established. What we should be looking for as CFEs in evaluating a client’s program is a comprehensive counter fraud approach to continually enhance the consistency and efficacy of fraud management processes and practices.

–A coordinated network of counter fraud capabilities — An organization needs a structured, coordinated system of interconnected capabilities (not a point solution) implemented through management planning and proper oversight and governance. The system should ideally leverage the capabilities of big data and consider a broad set of attributes (e.g., identity, relationships, behaviors, patterns, anomalies, visualization) across multiple processes and systems. It should be transparent across users and provide guidance and alerts that enable timely and smart anti-fraud related decisions across the organization.

Secondly, a risk-based approach. No contemporary organization gets to stand still on the path to fraud risk management. Criminals are not going to give organizations a time-out to plug any holes and upgrade their arsenal of analytical tools. Organizations must adopt a risk-based approach to address areas and processes of highest risk exposures immediately, while planning for future fraud prevention enhancements. Countering fraud is an ongoing and continually evolving process, and the journey to the desired target state is a balancing act across the organization.

Thirdly, continual organizational collaboration and systemic learning. Fraud detection and prevention is not merely an information-gathering exercise and technology adoption, but an entire life cycle with continuous feedback and improvement. It requires the organization’s commitment to, and implementation of continual systemic learning, data sharing, and communication. The organization also needs to periodically align the enterprise counter fraud program with its strategic plan.

Fourthly, big data and advanced analytics.  Technological breakthroughs and capabilities grounded in big data and analytics can help prevent and counter fraudulent acts that impact the bottom line and threaten brand value and customer retention. Big data technology can ingest data from any source, regardless of structure, volume or velocity. It can harness, filter and sift through terabytes of data, whether in motion or at rest, to identify and relate the elements of information that really matter to the detection of on-going as well as of potential frauds. Big data off-the-shelf solutions already provide the means to detect instances of fraud, waste, abuse, financial crimes, improper payments, and more. Big data solutions can also reduce complexity across lines of business and allow organizations to manage fraud pervasively throughout the entire life cycle of any business process.

In summary, smart organizations manage the sword of potential fraud threats with well-planned road maps supported by proper organization and governance.  They analyze their state to understand where they are, and implement an integrated framework of standard management processes to provide the guidance and methodology for effective, ethics based, concurrent anti-fraud practice. The management of fraud risk is an integral part of their overall risk culture; a support system of interconnected counter fraud capabilities integrated across systems and processes, enabled by a technology strategy and supporting formal enterprise level oversight and governance.

A Ship of Fools

Our Chapter’s January-February 2018 lecture for CPE credit is concerned with the broader ethical implications of the types of fraud, many interlocking and coordinated, that made up the 2007-2008 Great Recession.  At the center of the scandal were ethically challenged actions by bank managements and their boards, but also by the investment companies and ratings agencies, who not only initiated much of the fraud and deception but, in many cases, actively expanded and perpetuated it.

Little more than a glance at the historical record confirms that deception by bank executives of regulators and of their own investors about illegal activity or about the institution’s true financial condition to conceal poor performance, poor management, or questionable transactions is not new to the world of U.S. finance. In fact, it was a key practice during the meltdown of the financial markets in 2007. In addition, the period saw heated debate about alleged deception by the rating agencies, Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch, of major institutional investors, who depended on the agencies’ valuations of subprime-backed securities in the making of investment decisions. Thus, not only deceptive borrowers and unscrupulous mortgage brokers and appraisers contributed to the meltdown. The maelstrom of lies and deception that drove the entire U.S. financial system in mid to late 2005 accelerated to the point of no return, and the crisis that ensued proved unavoidable.

There were ample instances of bank deception in the years leading up to the Great Depression of the 1930’s. The facts came out with considerable drama and fanfare through the work of the era’s Pecora Commission. However, the breadth and scope of executive deception that came under the legal and regulatory microscope following the financial market collapse of 2007 to 2009 represent some of history’s most brazen cases of concealment of irresponsible lending practices, fraudulent underwriting, shady financial transactions, and intentionally false statements to investors, federal regulators, and investigators.

According to the ACFE and other analysts, the lion’s share of direct blame for the meltdown lies with top executives of the major banks, investment firms, and rating agencies. They charge the commercial bank bosses with perpetuating a boom in reckless mortgage lending and the investment bankers with essentially tricking institutional investors into buying the exotic derivative securities backed by the millions and millions of toxic mortgages sold off by the mortgage lenders. The commercial bank bosses and investment bankers were, according to these observers, aided and abetted by the rating agencies, which lowered their rating standards on high-risk mortgage-backed securities that should never have received investment-grade ratings but did so because the rating agencies were paid by the very investment banks which issued the bonds. The agencies reportedly feared losing business if they gave poor ratings to the securities.

As many CFEs know, fraud is always the principal credit risk of any nonprime mortgage lending operation. It’s impossible in practice to detect fraud without reviewing a sample of the loan files. Paper loan files are bulky, so they are photographed, and the images are stored on computer tapes. Unfortunately, most investors (the large commercial and investment banks that purchased non-prime loans and pooled them to create financial derivatives) didn’t review the loan files before purchasing them and did not even require the original lenders to provide them with the loan tapes requisite for subsequent review and audit.

The rating agencies also never reviewed samples of loan files before giving AAA ratings to nonprime mortgage financial derivatives. The “AAA’ rating is supposed to indicate that there is virtually no credit risk, the risk being thought equivalent to U.S. government bonds, which the finance industry refers to as “risk-free.”  The rating agencies attained their lucrative profits because they gave AAA ratings to nonprime financial derivatives exposed to staggering default risk. A graph of their profits in this era rises like a stairway to the stars. Turning a blind eye to the mortgage fraud epidemic was the only way the rating agencies could hope to attain, and sustain, those profit levels. If they had engaged forensic accountants to review even small samples of nonprime loans, they would have been confronted with only two real choices: (1) rating them as toxic waste, which would have made it impossible to sell the associated nonprime financial derivatives or (2) documenting that they themselves were committing, aiding and abetting, a blatant accounting fraud.

A statement made during the 2008 House of Representatives hearings on the topic of the rating agencies’ role in the crisis represents an apt summary of how the financial and government communities viewed the actions and attitudes of the three rating agencies in the years leading up to the subprime crisis. An S&P employee, testified that “the rating agencies continue to create an even bigger monster, the CDO [collateralized debt obligation] market. Let’s hope we all are wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters.”

With respect to bank executives, the examples of proved and alleged deception during the period are so numerous as to almost defy belief. Among the most noteworthy are:

–The SEC investigated Citigroup as to whether it misled investors by failing to disclose critical details about the troubled mortgage assets it was holding as the financial markets began to collapse in 2007. The investigation came only after some of the mortgage-related securities being held by Citigroup were downgraded by an independent rating agency. Shortly thereafter, Citigroup announced quarterly losses of around $10 billion on its subprime-mortgage holdings, an astounding amount that directly contributed to the resignation of then CEO, Charles Prince;

–The SEC conducted similar investigations into Bank of America, now-defunct Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch (now a part of Bank of America);

–The SEC filed civil fraud charges against Angelo Mozilo, cofounder and former CEO of Countrywide Financial Corp. In the highest-profile government legal action against a chief executive related to the financial crisis, the SEC charged Mozilo with insider trading and alleged failure to disclose material information to shareholders, according to people familiar with the matter. Mozilo sold $130 million of Countrywide stock in the first half of 2007 under an executive sales plan, according to government filings.

As the ACFE points out, every financial services company has its own unique internal structure and management policies. Some are more effective than others in reducing the risk of management-level fraud. The best anti-fraud controls are those designed to reduce the risk of a specific type of fraud threatening the organization.  Designing effective anti-fraud controls depends directly on accurate assessment of those risks. How, after all, can management or the board be expected to design and implement effective controls if it is unclear about which frauds are most threatening? That’s why a fraud risk assessment (FRA) is essential to any anti-fraud  Program; an essential exercise designed to determine the specific types of fraud to which your client organization is most vulnerable within the context of its existing anti-fraud controls. This enables management to design, customize, and implement the best controls to minimize fraud risk throughout the organization.  Again, according to the ACFE (joined by the Institute of Internal Auditors, and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants), an organization’s contracted CFEs backed by its own internal audit team can play a direct role in this all-important effort.

Your client’s internal auditors should consider the organization’s assessment of fraud risk when developing their annual audit plan and review management’s fraud management capabilities periodically. They should interview and communicate regularly with those conducting the organization’s risk assessments, as well as with others in key positions throughout the organization, to help them ensure that all fraud risks have been considered appropriately. When performing proactive fraud risk assessment engagements, CFEs should direct adequate time and attention to evaluating the design and operation of internal controls specifically related to fraud risk management. We should exercise professional skepticism when reviewing activities and be on guard for the tell-tale signs of fraud. Suspected frauds uncovered during an engagement should be treated in accordance with a well-designed response plan consistent with professional and legal standards.

As this month’s lecture recommends, CFEs and forensic accountants can also contribute value by proactively taking a proactive role in support of the organization’s underlying ethical culture.

Vendor Assessment – Backing Corporate Counsel

Pre-emptive fraud risk assessments targeting client vendor security are increasingly receiving CFE attention. This is because in the past several years, sophisticated cyber-adversaries have launched powerful attacks through vendor networks and connections and have siphoned off money, millions of credit card records and customers’ sensitive personal information.

There has, accordingly, been a noticeable jump in those CFE client organizations whose counsel attribute security incidents to current service providers, contractors and to former partners. The evolution of targets and threats outside the enterprise are powerfully influencing the current and near-future of the risk landscape. CFEs who regard these easily predicted changes in a strategic manner can proactively assist their client’s security and risk leadership to identify new fraud prevention opportunities while managing the emerging risk. To make this happen enterprises require adequate oversight insight into vendor involved fraud security risk as part of a comprehensive cyber-risk management policy.

Few managements anticipated only a few years ago that their connectivity with trusted vendors would ever result in massive on-line exploits on sister organizations like retailers and financial organizations, or, still less, that many such attacks would go undetected for months at a time. Few risk management programs of that time would have addressed such a risk, which represents not only a significant impact but whose occurrence is also difficult to predict. Such events were rare and typically beyond the realm of normal anticipation; Black Swan events, if you will. Then, attackers, organized cyber-criminals and some nation-states began capturing news headlines because of high-profile security breaches. The ACFE has long told us that one-third (32 percent) of fraud survey respondents report that insider crimes are costlier or more damaging than incidents perpetrated by outsiders and that employees are not the only source of insider threat; insider threat can also include former employees, service providers, consultants, contractors, suppliers and business partners.

Almost 500 such retailer breaches have been reported this year alone targeting credit card data, personal information, and sensitive financial information. There has, accordingly, been a massive regulatory response.  Regulators are revisiting their guidelines on vendor security and are directing regulated organizations to increase their focus on vendor risk as organizations continue to expand the number and complexities of their vendor relationships. For example, the US Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (0CC) and the Board of Governors of the US Federal Reserve System have released updated guidance on the risk management of third-party relationships. This guidance signals a fundamental shift in how retail financial institutions especially need to assess third-party relationships. In particular, the guidance calls for robust risk assessment and monitoring processes to be employed relative to third-party relationships and specifically those that involve critical activities with the potential to expose an institution to significant risk. CFEs and other assurance professionals can proactively assist the counsels of their client enterprises to elevate their vendor-related security practices to keep pace with ever-evolving fraud threats and security risk associated with their client’s third-party relationships.

Vendor risk oversight from a security point of view demands a program that covers the entire enterprise, outlining the policy and guidelines to manage and mitigate vendor security risk, combined with clearly articulated vendor contracts negotiated by the corporate counsel’s function. Such oversight will not only help organizations improve cybersecurity programs but also potentially advance their regulatory and legal standing in the future. What insights can CFEs, acting proactively, provide corporate counsel?

First, the need for executive oversight. Executive alignment and business context is critical for appropriate implementation throughout the organization. Proper alignment is like a command center, providing the required policies, processes and guidelines for the program. The decision to outsource is a strategic one and not merely a procurement decision. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance that executive committees provide direction for the vendor risk management program. The program can obtain executive guidance from:

–The compliance function to provide regulatory and other compliance requirements that have specific rules regarding vendor risk management to which the vendor organizations must adhere;

–The IT risk and control function to determine the risk and the risk level, depending on the nature of access/data sensitivity shared with the vendor(s). The vendor risk management program should utilize the key risk indicators provided by this function to address risk during vendor assessments;

–The contract governance function and corporate counsel to ensure that vendor contracts adequately address the need for security assessments and define vendors’ obligations to complete these assessments.

Most larger organizations today deal with a considerable amount of third parties and service providers. Missing contact information, responsibility matrices or updated contracts are typical areas of concern about which risk managers might have engaged CFEs initiate fraud risk assessments. This can pose a significant challenge, especially, when there are multiple teams involved to carry out the procurement business process. A vendor and contract database (VCD) ensures that an accurate and complete inventory of vendors is maintained, including other third-party relationships (e.g., joint ventures, utilities, business partners, fourth parties, etc.).

In effectively assessing a vendor risk management program, the CFE can’t conduct the same type of fraud risk assessment for all vendors. Rather, it’s necessary to identify those vendor services deemed to carry the greatest risk and to prioritize them accordingly. The first step is to understand which vendors and services are in the scope from an active fraud risk management perspective. Once this subset of vendors has been identified and prioritized, due diligence assessments are performed for the vendors, depending on the level of client internal versus vendor-owned fraud prevention and detection controls. The results of these assessments help establish the appropriate trust-level rating (TLR) and the future requirements in terms of CFE assisted reassessments and monitoring. This approach focuses resources on the vendor relationships that matter most, limiting unnecessary work for lower-risk relationships. For example, a vendor with a high TLR should be prioritized over a vendor with a low TLR.

Proper control and management of vendor risk requires continuous re-assessment. It’s important to decide the types of on-going assessments to be performed on vendors depending on the level of their TLR and the risk they represent.

Outsourced relationships usually go through iterations and evolve as they mature. As your client organizations strategize to outsource more, they should also validate trust level(s) in anticipation of more information and resources being shared. With technological advancements, a continuously changing business environment and increased regulatory demands, validating the trust level is a continuous exercise. To get the most rational and effective findings, it’s best to use the results of ongoing assessments. In such a reiterative process, it is necessary to continuously monitor and routinely assess vendors based on the trust level they carry. The program should share information about the vendor security posture and risk levels with corporate counsel or other executive sponsor, who can help the organization progress toward the target profile. Clearly communicating the fraud risk from a business perspective can be an additional feature, especially when reports are furnished to inform internal stakeholders, internal audit functions, lines of business and the board of directors, if necessary.

Vendor fraud risk management elevates information security from a technical control business process to an effective management business process. Regular fraud risk security assessments of vendors give organizations the confidence that their business is aware of the security risk involved and is effectively managing it by transferring, mitigating or accepting it. Comprehensive vendor security assessments provide enterprises with insight on whether their systems and data are being deployed consistently with their security policies. Vendor fraud risk management is not a mere project; it is an ongoing program and requires continuous trust to keep the momentum going. Once the foundational framework has been established, our client organizations can look at enhancing maturity through initiatives such as improving guidelines and procedures, rationalizing assessment questionnaires, and more automation. Awareness and communication are key to ensuring that the program is effective and achieves its intended outcome, securing enterprises together with all their business partners and vendors.

New Rules for New Tools

I’ve been struck these last months by several articles in the trade press about CFE’s increasingly applying advanced analytical techniques in support of their work as full-time employees of private and public-sector enterprises.  This is gratifying to learn because CFE’s have been bombarded for some time now about the risks presented by cloud computing, social media, big data analytics, and mobile devices, and told they need to address those risk in their investigative practice.  Now there is mounting evidence of CFEs doing just that by using these new technologies to change the actual practice of fraud investigation and forensic accounting by using these innovative techniques to shape how they understand and monitor fraud risk, plan and manage their work, test transactions against fraud scenarios, and report the results of their assessments and investigations to management; demonstrating what we’ve all known, that CFEs, especially those dually certified as CPAs, CIAs, or CISA’s can bring a unique mix of leveraged skills to any employer’s fraud prevention or detection program.

Some examples …

Social Media — following a fraud involving several of the financial consultants who work in its branches and help customers select accounts and other investments, a large multi-state bank requested that a staff CFE determine ways of identifying disgruntled employees who might be prone to fraud. The effort was important to management not only because of fraud prevention but because when the bank lost an experienced financial consultant for any reason, it also lost the relationships that individual had established with the bank’s customers, affecting revenue adversely. The staff CFE suggested that the bank use social media analytics software to mine employees’ email and posts to its internal social media groups. That enabled the bank to identify accurately (reportedly about 33 percent) the financial consultants who were not currently satisfied with their jobs and were considering leaving. Management was able to talk individually with these employees and address their concerns, with the positive outcome of retaining many of them and rendering them less likely to express their frustration by ethically challenged behavior.  Our CFE’s awareness that many organizations use social media analytics to monitor what their customers say about them, their products, and their services (a technique often referred to as sentiment analysis or text analytics) allowed her to suggest an approach that rendered value. This text analytics effort helped the employer gain the experience to additionally develop routines to identify email and other employee and customer chatter that might be red flags for future fraud or intrusion attempts.

Analytics — A large international bank was concerned about potential money laundering, especially because regulators were not satisfied with the quality of their related internal controls. At a CFE employee’s recommendation, it invested in state-of-the-art business intelligence solutions that run “in-memory”, a new technique that enables analytics and other software to run up to 300,000 times faster, to monitor 100 percent of its transactions, looking for the presence of patterns and fraud scenarios indicating potential problems.

Mobile — In the wake of an identified fraud on which he worked, an employed CFE recommended that a global software company upgrade its enterprise fraud risk management system so senior managers could view real-time strategy and risk dashboards on their mobile devices (tablets and smartphones). The executives can monitor risks to both the corporate and to their personal objectives and strategies and take corrective actions as necessary. In addition, when a risk level rises above a defined target, the managers and the risk officer receive an alert.

Collaboration — The fraud prevention and information security team at a U.S. company wanted to increase the level of employee acceptance and compliance with its fraud prevention – information security policy. The CFE certified Security Officer decided to post a new policy draft to a collaboration area available to every employee and encouraged them to post comments and suggestions for upgrading it. Through this crowd-sourcing technique, the company received multiple comments and ideas, many of which were incorporated into the draft. When the completed policy was published, the company found that its level of acceptance increased significantly, its employees feeling that they had part ownership.

As these examples demonstrate, there is a wonderful opportunity for private and public sector employed CFE’s to join in the use of enterprise applications to enhance both their and their employer’s investigative efficiency and effectiveness.  Since their organizations are already investing heavily in a wide variety of innovative technologies to transform the way in which they deliver products to and communicate with customers, as well as how they operate, manage, and direct the business, there is no reason that CFE’s can’t use these same tools to transform each stage of their examination and fraud prevention work.

A risk-based fraud prevention approach requires staff CFEs to build and maintain the fraud prevention plan, so it addresses the risks that matter to the organization, and then update that plan as risks change. In these turbulent times, dominated by cyber, risks change frequently, and it’s essential that fraud prevention teams understand the changes and ensure their approach for addressing them is updated continuously. This requires monitoring to identify and assess both new risks and changes in previously identified risks.  Some of the recent technologies used by organizations’ financial and operational analysts, marketing and communications professionals, and others to understand both changes within and outside the business can also be used to great advantage by loss prevention staff for risk monitoring. The benefits of leveraging this same software are that the organization has existing experts in place to teach CFE’s how to use it, the IT department already is providing technical support, and the software is currently used against the very data enterprise fraud prevention professionals like staff CFEs want to analyze.  A range of enhanced analytics software such as business intelligence, analytics (including predictive and mobile analytics), visual intelligence, sentiment analysis, and text analytics enable fraud prevention to monitor and assess risk levels. In some cases, the software monitors transactions against predefined rules to identify potential concerns such as heightened fraud risks in any given business process or in a set of business processes (the inventory or financial cycles).  For example, a loss prevention team headed by a staff CFE can monitor credit memos in the first month of each quarter to detect potential revenue accounting fraud. Another use is to identify trends associated with known fraud scenarios, such as changes in profit margins or the level of employee turnover, that might indicate changes in risk levels. For example, the level of emergency changes to enterprise applications can be analyzed to identify a heightened risk of poor testing and implementation protocols associated with a higher vulnerability to cyber penetration.

Finally, innovative staff CFEs have used some interesting techniques to report fraud risk assessments and examination results to management and to boards. Some have adopted a more visually appealing representation in a one-page assessment report; others have moved to the more visual capabilities of PowerPoint from the traditional text presentation of Microsoft Word.  New visualization technology, sometimes called visual analytics when allied with analytics solutions, provides more options for fraud prevention managers seeking to enhance or replace formal reports with pictures, charts, and dashboards.  The executives and boards of their employing organizations are already managing their enterprise with dashboards and trend charts; effective loss prevention communications can make effective use of the same techniques. One CFE used charts and trend lines to illustrate how the time her employing company was taking to process small vendor contracts far exceeded acceptable levels, had contributed to fraud risk and was continuing to increase. The graphic, generated by a combination of a business intelligence analysis and a visual analytics tool to build the chart, was inserted into a standard monthly loss prevention report.

CFE headed loss prevention departments and their allied internal audit and IT departments have a rich selection of technologies that can be used by them individually or in combination to make them all more effective and efficient. It is questionable whether these three functions can remain relevant in an age of cyber, addressing and providing assurance on the risks that matter to the organization, without an ever wider use of modern technology. Technology can enable the an internal CFE to understand the changing business environment and the risks that can affect the organization’s ability to achieve its fraud prevention related objectives.

The world and its risks are evolving and changing all the time, and assurance professionals need to address the issues that matter now. CFEs need to review where the risk is going to be, not where it was when the anti-fraud plan was built. They increasingly need to have the ability to assess cyber fraud risk quickly and to share the results with the board and management in ways that communicate assurance and stimulate necessary change.

Technology must be part of the solution to that need. Technological tools currently utilized by CFEs will continue to improve and will be joined by others over time. For example, solutions for augmented or virtual reality, where a picture or view of the physical world is augmented by data about that picture or view enables loss prevention professionals to point their phones at a warehouse and immediately access operational, personnel, safety, and other useful information; representing that the future is a compound of both challenge and opportunity.

An Ethical Toolbox

As CFE’s we know organizations that have clearly articulated values and a strong culture of ethical behavior tend to control fraud more effectively. They usually have well-established frameworks, principles, rules, standards, and policies that encompass the attributes of generally accepted fraud control. These attributes include leadership, an ethical framework, responsibility structures, a fraud control policy; prevention systems, fraud awareness, third-party management systems, notification systems, detection systems, and investigation systems.

CFE’s are increasingly being called upon to assist in the planning for an assessment of a client organization’s integrity and ethics safeguards and then as active members of the team performing the engagement. The increasing demand for such assessments has grown out of the increasing awareness that a strong ethical culture is a vital part of effective fraud prevention.  Conducting such targeted research within the client organization, within its industry; and its region will help determine the emerging risk areas and potential gaps in most organizational anti-fraud safeguards. Four key elements of integrity and ethics safeguards have emerged over the past few years.  These are the fraud control plan, handling conflicts of interest, shaping ethical dealings with third parties, and natural justice principles for employees facing allegations of wrongdoing.

The need for a fraud control plan is borne out by an organization’s potential fraud losses; typically, about five percent of revenues are lost to fraud each year, according to the ACFE’s 2016 Report to the Nations on Occupational Fraud and Abuse. A fraud control plan typically will articulate an organization’s fraud risks, controls, and mitigation strategies, including:

–Significant business activities;
–Potential areas of fraud risk;
–Related fraud controls;
–Gaps in control coverage and assurance activities;
–Defined remedial actions to minimize fraud risks;
–Review mechanisms evaluating the effectiveness of fraud control strategies.

Management should review and update the fraud control plan periodically and report the results to the audit committee and senior management. Thus, the role of the board and of the audit committee of the board are vital for the implementation of any ethically based fraud control plan. The chairman of the board is, or should be, the chief advocate for the shareholders, and completely independent of management. It is the chairman’s primary job to direct the company’s executives and drive oversight of their activities in the name of the shareholders. An independent and highly skilled audit committee chairman is essential to maintain a robust system of checks and balances over all operations. To be truly effective, the chairman must be independent of those he or she is charged with watching.  The chairmen of the board and the audit committee must devote material time to their duties. While the board can use the company’s oversight functions to maintain a checks and balances process, there is no substitute for personal, direct involvement. The board must be willing to direct inquiries into allegations of misconduct, and have unquestioned confidential spending authority to conduct reviews and investigations as it deems necessary.

One of the most effective compliance tools available to the board is the day-to-day vigilance of the company’s employees. When an individual employee detects wrongdoing, he or she must have an effective and safe method to report observations, such as a third-party ethics hotline that reports to the chairman of the board and audit committee. All employees must be protected from retribution to avoid any possibility of corrupting the process.

A zero-based budgeting process, requiring that the individual elements of the company’s budget be built from the bottom up, reviewed in detail, and justified, can identify unusual spending in numerous corporate and operating units. This provides an in-depth view of spending as opposed to basing the current year’s spending, in aggregate, on last year’s spending, where irregularities may be buried and overlooked.

In organizations with an internal audit division the overall review would typically be performed by Director of Internal Audit (CAE) whom the CFE and other specialists would support. This review should be integrated into the organization’s wider business planning to ensure synergies exist with other business processes, and should link to the organization-wide risk assessment and to other anti-fraud processes.

The ACFE tells us that there is a growing consensus that managing conflicts of interest is critical to curbing corruption. Reports indicate that unmanaged conflicts of interest continue to cost organizations millions of dollars. To minimize these risks, organizations need a clear and well-understood conflict of interest policy, coupled with practical arrangements to implement and monitor policy requirements. Stated simply, a conflict of interest occurs when the independent judgment of a person is swayed, or might be swayed, from making decisions in the best interest of others who are relying on that judgment. An executive or employee is expected to make judgments in the best interest of the company. A director is legally expected to make judgments in the best interest of the company and of its shareholders, and to do so strategically so that no harm and perhaps some benefit will come to other stakeholders and to the public interest. A professional accountant is expected to make judgments that are in the public interest. Decision makers usually have a priority of duties that they are expected to fulfill, and a conflict of interests confuses and distracts the decision maker from that duty, resulting in harm to those legitimate expectations that are not fulfilled. Sometimes the term apparent conflict of interest is used, but it is a misnomer because it refers to a situation where no conflict of interest exists, although because of lack of information someone other than the decision maker would be justified in concluding (however tentatively) that the decision maker does have one

A special or conflicting interest could include any interest, loyalty, concern, emotion, or other feature of a situation tending to make the decision maker’s judgment (in that situation) less reliable than it would normally be, without rendering the decision maker incompetent. Commercial interests and family connections are the most common sources of conflict of interest, but love, prior statements, gratitude, and other subjective tugs on judgment can also constitute interest in this sense.

The perception of competing interests, impaired judgment, or undue influence also can be a conflict of interest. Good practices for managing conflicts of interest involve both prevention and detection, such as:

–Promoting ethical standards through a documented, explicit conflict of interest policy as well as well-stated values and clear conflicts provisions in the code of ethics;
–Identifying, understanding, and managing conflicts of interest through open and transparent communication to ensure that decision-making is efficient, transparent, and fair, and that everyone is aware of what to do if they suspect a conflict;
–Informing third parties of their responsibilities and the consequences of noncompliance through a statement of business ethics and formal contractual requirements;
–Ensuring transparency through well-established arrangements for declaring and registering gifts and other benefits;
–Ensuring that decisions are made independently, with evidence that staff and contractors routinely declare all actual, potential, and perceived conflicts of interests, involving at-risk areas such as procurement, management of contracts, human resources, decision-making, and governmental policy advice;
–Establishing management, internal controls, and independent oversight to detect breaches of policy and to respond appropriately to noncompliance.

Contemporary business models increasingly involve third parties, with external supplier costs now representing one of the most significant lines of expenditure for many organizations. Such interactions can provide an opportunity for fraud and corruption. An enterprise’s strong commitment to ethical values needs to be communicated to suppliers through a Statement of Business Ethics. Many forward-thinking organizations already have codes of ethics in place that set out the values and ethical expectations of both their board members and staff. The board code of conduct should define the behavioral standards for members, while the staff code of conduct should detail standards for employee conduct and the sanctions that apply for wrongdoing. Similar statements also are appropriate for third parties such as suppliers, service providers, and business partners.

A statement of business ethics outlines both acceptable and unacceptable practices in third-party dealings with an organization. Common features include:

–The CEO’s statement on the organization’s commitment to operating ethically;
–The organization’s values and business principles;
–What third parties can expect in their dealings with the organization and the behaviors expected of them;
–Guidance related to bribery, gifts, benefits, hospitality, travel, and accommodation; conflicts of interest; confidentiality and privacy of information; ethical communications; secondary employment; and other expectations.
–Contact information for concerns, clarification, reporting of wrongdoing, and disputes.

Once established, the organization needs to implement a well-rounded communication strategy for the statement of business ethics that includes education of staff members, distribution to third parties, publication on the organization’s website, references to it in the annual report, and inclusion in future tender proposals and bid packs.

Engaged and capable employees underpin the success of most organizations, yet management does not always recognize the bottom-line effects and employee turnover costs when innocent employees are the subject of allegations of fraud and other wrongdoing. About 60 percent of allegations against employees turn out to be unsubstantiated, according to the ACFE. A charter of rights compiles in a single document all the information that respondents to allegations of wrongdoing may require. Such a charter should be written in an easy-to-understand style to meet the needs of its target audience. It should:

–Outline the charter’s purpose, how it will operate, how it supports a robust complaints and allegations system, and how it aligns with the organization’s values;
–Describe how management handles workplace allegations and complaints, and ensure principles of natural justice and other legislative obligations, such as privacy, are in place;
–Provide a high-level overview diagram of the allegation assessment and investigation process, including the channels for submitting allegations; the distinct phases for logging, assessing, and investigating the allegations; and the final decision-making phase;
–Include details of available support such as contact information for human resource specialists, details about an external confidential employee help line, and processes for updates throughout the investigation;
–Illustrate the tiered escalation process for handling allegations that reflects (at one end) how issues of a serious, sensitive, or significant nature are addressed, and encourages (at the other end) the handling of low level localized issues as close to the source as possible;
–Provide answers to frequent questions that respondents might have about the process for dealing with allegations, such as “What can I expect?” “Are outcomes always reviewable?” “What does frivolous and vexatious mean?” “What will I be told about the outcome?” and “What happens when a process is concluded?”;
–Outline the options for independent reviews of adverse investigation outcomes.

For Appearance Sake

By Rumbi Petrozzello, CPA/CFF, CFE
2017 Vice-President – Central Virginia Chapter ACFE

Last Thursday, the 15th of June 2017, the New York State Senate Committee on Ethics and Internal Governance met. The previous sentence reads like a big yawn with which no one, beyond perhaps the members of the committee itself, would be concerned. However, this meeting was big news. The room was packed with members of the media and every member of the committee was in attendance. Why? Because this was the first meeting the committee had empaneled since 2009, as confirmed by the committee’s published archive of events. It turns out that it was indeed a big deal that all committee members were in attendance because, for eight years straight, none of the committee members had attended a single meeting.

If you are thinking that the ethics committee did not meet for eight years because there were no ethical issues to discuss and our state’s legislative leadership practiced only ethical and upright behavior, you would be sorely mistaken. John Sampson, the State Senator who chaired the committee at that last meeting in 2009 was found guilty, of obstruction of justice and of lying to federal agents in 2015 and sentenced to jail time in January 2017. Evidently, taking their cues from the tone at the top evidenced by the leadership of their ethics committee, during the same eight-year meeting hiatus, seven other state senators were convicted on charges that included mail fraud, looting a nonprofit and bribery.

So, you might ask, what happened at the meeting last week? The committee had come together to discuss stipends, that are supposed to go to committee chairs, that were apparently also being paid to committee vice-chairs (and, in one case, to a deputy vice-chair, whatever that is). There was a motion proposed to stop making these payments to anyone but the committee chair. It seems that just coming together was more than enough work for the committee and, therefore, they tabled the motion, a motion that would not even have been binding, until its next meeting. It should be noted that two of the senators receiving this chair stipend, as vice-chairs, serve on the ethics committee and both voted to postpone voting on the motion. It would be laughable if it were a laughing matter.

Think about where you work and about all the clients with whom we work, as fraud examiners and forensic accountants. We work with our clients and with those who employ us to suggest comprehensive policies that cover good business practices and ethical behaviors and actions. Reading about the shenanigans of the State Senate Committee on Ethics recalled several thoughts:

The assumption that personnel will automatically be motivated to behave as corporate owners want is no longer valid. People are motivated more by self-interest than in the past and are likely to come from backgrounds that emphasize different priorities of duty. As a result, there is greater need than ever for clear guidance and for identifying and effectively managing threats to good governance and accountability.

Even when different employee backgrounds are not an issue, personnel can misunderstand the organization’s objectives and their own role and fiduciary duty. For example, many directors and employees at Enron evidently believed that the company’s objectives were best served by actions that brought short term profit:

—through ethical dishonesty, manipulation of energy markets or sham displays of trading floors;
—through book keeping that was illusory;
—through actions that benefited themselves at the expense of other stakeholders.

Frequently, employees are tempted to cut ethical corners, and they have done so because they believed that their top management wanted them to; they were ordered to do so; or they were encouraged to do so by misguided or manipulative incentive programs. These actions occurred although the board of directors would have preferred (sometimes with hindsight) that they had not. Personnel simply misunderstood what was expected by the board because guidance was unclear or they were led astray and did not understand that they were to report the problem for appropriate corrective action, or to whom or how.

Among our clients, lack of proper guidance or reporting mechanisms may have been the result of directors and others not understanding their duties as fiduciaries. Directors owe shareholders and regulators several duties, including obedience, loyalty, and due care. Recognition of the increasing complexity, volatility and risk inherent in modern corporate interests and operations, particularly as their scope expands to diverse groups and cultures has led to the requirement for risk identification, assessment and management systems.

  • If our client businesses want to do an excellent job at implementing effective ethics programs, orientation of new employees should always involve a review of the code of ethical practice by the staff tasked with compliance and with enforcing policies. How many entities are actively practicing what they preach during such sessions? The values that a company’s directors wish to instill to motivate the beliefs and actions of its personnel need to be conveyed to provide the required guidance. Usually, such guidance takes the form of a code of conduct that states the values selected, the principles that flow from those values, and any rules that are to be followed to ensure that appropriate values are respected.
  • After orientation, what steps are companies taking to maintain their ethics programs on an on-going basis? Principles are more useful to employees than just rules because principles facilitate interpretation when the precise circumstances encountered do not exactly fit the rules prescribed. A blend of principles and rules is often optimal in maintaining of a code of conduct in the long term.
  • Is leadership periodically coming together to talk about where their firm stands when it comes to ethics and compliance? A code on its own may be nothing more than ‘ethical art’ that hangs on the wall but is rarely studied or followed. Experience has revealed that, to be effective, a code must be reinforced by a comprehensive ethical culture.
  • Is anyone reviewing how whistleblowing claims are being dealt with? Does the company even have a whistleblower program? If so, does the staff even know about it and how it works? Whistle-blowers are part of a needed monitoring, risk management and remediation system.
  • Is leadership setting a positive tone at the top and displaying the behaviors that it is demanding from employees? The ethical behavior expected must be referred to in speeches and newsletters by top management as often as they refer to their health and safety programs, or to their antipollution program or else it will be viewed as less important by employees. If personnel never or rarely hear about ethical expectations, they will perceive them as not a serious priority.

Once, I worked at a company where senior management smoked in the office; behavior that is illegal and was, on paper, not allowed. When staff members complained to human resources, no corrective action was taken. Frustrated, some staff members called the city hotline to file a report. Following visits from the city, human resources put up no smoking signs and then notices encouraging employees to keep reports of inappropriate staff smoking internal. By only paying lip service to policy, this company’s management seemed populated by future candidates for the State’s Senate Ethics Committee. But my former employer doesn’t stand alone as evidenced by frauds at Wells Fargo and at others. A company can pull out screeds of rules and regulations, but what matters most is what the staff knows and what the leadership does.

In the case of the New York State Senate Committee on Ethics and Internal Governance, what it did was delay a vote on the issues before it until the next meeting. And when will the next meeting be? After taking eight years to set up its last meeting, the committee was in no hurry to set a date for the next. They adjourned without scheduling the next one. They did, however, take a moment to congratulate themselves on attending this meeting. You can’t forget the important stuff.

Fraud Risk Assessing the Trusted Insider

A bank employee accesses her neighbor’s accounts on-line and discloses this information to another person living in the neighborhood; soon everyone seems to be talking about the neighbor’s financial situation. An employee of a mutual fund company accesses his father-in-law’s accounts without a legitimate reason or permission from the unsuspecting relative and uses the information to pressure his wife into making a bad investment from which the father-in-law, using money from the fund account, ultimately pays to extricate his daughter. Initially, out of curiosity, an employee at a local hospital accesses admission records of a high-profile athlete whom he recognized in the emergency room but then shares that information (for a price) with a tabloid newspaper reporter who prints a story.

Each of these is an actual case and each is a serious violation of various Federal privacy laws. Each of these three scenarios were not the work of an anonymous intruder lurking in cyberspace or of an identity thief who compromised a data center. Rather, this database browsing was perpetrated by a trusted insider, an employee whose daily duties required them to have access to vast databases housing financial, medical and educational information. From the comfort and anonymity of their workstations, similar employees are increasingly capable of accessing personal information for non-business reasons and, sometimes, to support the accomplishment of actual frauds. The good news is that CFE’s can help with targeted fraud risk assessments specifically tailored to assess the probability of this threat type and then to advise management on an approach to its mitigation.

The Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission’s (COSO’s) 2013 update of the Internal Control Integrated Framework directs organizations to conduct a fraud risk assessment as part of their overall risk assessment. The discussion of fraud in COSO 2013 centers on Principle 8: “The organization considers the potential for fraud in assessing risks to the achievement of objectives.” Under the 1992 COSO framework, most organizations viewed fraud risk primarily in terms of satisfying the U.S. Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 requirements to identify fraud controls to prevent or detect fraud risk at the transaction level. In COSO 2013, fraud risk becomes a specific component of the overall risk assessment that focuses on fraud at the entity and transaction levels. COSO now requires a strong internal control foundation that addresses fraud broadly to encompass company objectives as part of its strategy, operations, compliance, and reporting. Principle 8 describes four specific areas: fraudulent financial reporting, fraudulent nonfinancial reporting, misappropriation of assets, and illegal acts. The inclusion of non-financial reporting is a meaningful change that addresses sustainability, health and safety, employment activity and similar reports.

One useful document for performing a fraud risk assessment is Managing the Business Risk of Fraud: A Practical Guide, produced by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, and by our organization, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, as well as by the Institute of Internal Auditors. This guide to establishing a fraud risk management program includes a sample fraud policy document, fraud prevention scorecard, and lists of fraud exposures and controls. Managing the Business Risk of Fraud advises organizations to view fraud risk assessment as part of their corporate governance effort. This commitment requires a tone at the top that embraces strong governance practices, including written policies that describe the expectations of the board and senior management regarding fraud risk. The Guide points out that as organizations continue to automate key processes and implement technology, thus allowing employees broad access to sensitive data, misuse of that data becomes increasingly difficult to detect and prevent. By combining aggressive data collection strategies with innovative technology, public and private sector organizations have enjoyed dramatic improvements in productivity and service delivery that have contributed to their bottom line. Unfortunately, while these practices have yielded major societal benefits, they have also created a major challenge for those charged with protecting confidential data.

CFE’s proactively assessing client organizations which use substantial amounts of private customer information (PCI) for fraud risk should expect to see the presence of controls related to data access surveillance. Data surveillance is the systematic monitoring of information maintained in an automated, usually in a database, environment. The kinds of controls CFE’s should look for are the presence of a privacy strategy that combines the establishment of a comprehensive policy, an awareness program that reinforces the consequences of non-business accesses, a monitoring tool that provides for ongoing analysis of database activity, an investigative function to resolve suspect accesses and a disciplinary component to hold violators accountable.

The creation of an enterprise confidentiality policy on the front end of the implementation of a data surveillance program is essential to its success. An implementing organization should establish a data access policy that clearly explains the relevant prohibitions, provides examples of prohibited activity and details the consequences of non-business accesses. This policy must apply to all employees, regardless of their title, seniority or function. The AICP/ACFE Guide recommends that all employees, beginning with the CEO, be required to sign an annual acknowledgment affirming that they have received and read the confidentiality policy and understand that violations will result in the imposition of disciplinary action. No employees are granted access to any system housing confidential data until they have first signed the acknowledgment.

In addition to issuing a policy, it is imperative that organizations formally train employees regarding its various provisions and caution them on the consequences of accessing data for non-business purposes. During the orientation process for new hires, all employees should receive specialized training on the confidentiality policy. As an added reminder, prior to logging on to any database that contains personal information, employees should receive an electronic notice stating that their activities are being monitored and that all accesses must be related to an official business purpose. Employees are not granted access into the system until they electronically acknowledge this notice.

Given that data surveillance is a process of ongoing monitoring of database activity, it is necessary for individual accesses to be captured and maintained in a format conducive to analysis. There are many commercially available software tools which can be used to monitor access to relational databases on a real-time basis. Transaction tracking technology, as one example, can dynamically generate Structured Query Language (SQL), based upon various search criteria, and provides the capability for customized analyses within each application housing confidential data. The search results are available in Microsoft Excel, PDF and table formats, and may be printed, e-mailed and archived.

Our CFE client organizations that establish a data access policy and formally notify all employees of the provisions of that policy, institute an ongoing awareness program to reinforce the policy and implement technology to track individual accesses of confidential data have taken the initial steps toward safeguarding data. These are necessary components of a data surveillance program and serve as the foundation upon which the remainder of the process may be based. That said, it is critical that organizations not rely solely on these components, as doing so will result in an unwarranted sense of security. Without an ongoing monitoring process to detect questionable database activity and a comprehensive investigative function to address unauthorized accesses, the impact of the foregoing measures will be marginal.

The final piece of a data surveillance program is the disciplinary process. The ACFE tells us that employees who willfully violate the policy prohibiting nonbusiness access of confidential information must be disciplined; the exact nature of which discipline should be determined by executive management. Without a structured disciplinary process, employees will realize that their database browsing, even if detected, will not result in any consequence and, therefore, they will not be deterred from this type of misconduct. Without an effective disciplinary component, an organization’s privacy protection program will ultimately fail.

The bottom line is that our client organizations that maintain confidential data need to develop measures to protect this asset from internal as well as from external misuse, without imposing barriers that restrict their employees’ ability to perform their duties. In today’s environment, those who are perceived as being unable to protect the sensitive data entrusted to them will inevitably experience an erosion of consumer confidence, and the accompanying consequences. Data surveillance deployed in conjunction with a clear data access policy, an ongoing employee awareness program, an innovative monitoring process, an effective investigative function and a standardized disciplinary procedure are the component controls the CFE should look for when conducting a proactive fraud risk assessment of employee access to PCI.

Assessing the Unknown

Some level of uncertainty and risk must exist in any fraud examination involving financial statement fraud. For example, there may be uncertainty about the competence of management and the accounting staff, about the effectiveness of internal controls, about the quality of evidence, and so on. These uncertainties or risks are commonly classified as inherent risks, control risks, or detection risks.

Assessing the degree of risk present and identifying the areas of highest risk are critical initial steps in detecting financial statement fraud. The auditor specifically evaluates fraud risk factors when assessing the degree of risk and approaches this risk assessment with a high level of professional skepticism, setting aside any prior beliefs about management’s integrity.  Knowledge of the circumstances that can increase the likelihood of fraud, as well as other risk factors, should aid in this assessment.

SAS 99 identifies fraud risk categories that auditors and fraud examiners may evaluate in assessing the risk of fraud. The three main categories of fraud risk factors related to fraudulent financial reporting are management characteristics, industry characteristics and operating characteristics including financial stability.

Management characteristics pertain to management’s abilities, pressures, style, and attitude as they have to do with internal control and the financial reporting process. These characteristics include management’s motivation to engage in fraudulent financial reporting – for instance, compensation contingent on achieving aggressive financial targets; excessive involvement of non-financial management in the selection of accounting principles or estimates; high turnover of senior management, counsel, or board members; strained relationship between management and external auditors; and any known history of securities violations.

Industry characteristics pertain to the economic and regulatory environment in which the entity operates, ranging from stable features of that environment to changing features such as new accounting or regulatory requirements, increased competition, market saturation, or adoption by the company of more aggressive accounting policies to keep pace with the industry.

Operating characteristics and financial stability encompass items such as the nature and complexity of the entity and its transactions, the geographic areas in which it operates, the number of locations where transactions are recorded and disbursements made, the entity’s financial condition, and its profitability. Again, the fraud examiner would look for potential risk factors, such as significant pressure on the company to obtain additional capital, threats of bankruptcy, or hostile take-over.

The two primary categories of fraud risk factors related to asset misappropriation are susceptibility of assets to misappropriation and adequacy of controls.  Susceptibility of assets to misappropriation refers to the nature or type of an entity’s assets and the degree to which they are subject to theft or a fraudulent scheme.  A company with inventories or fixed assets that includes items of small size, high value, or high demand often is more susceptible, as is a company with easily convertible assets such as diamonds, computer chips or large amounts of cash receipts or cash on hand.  Cash misappropriation is also included  in this category through fraudulent schemes such as vendor fraud. Adequacy of controls refers to the ability of controls to prevent or detect misappropriations of assets, owning to the design, implementation and monitoring of such controls.

SAS 99 discusses fraud risk factors in the context of the fraud triangle which we’ve often discussed on this blog.  SAS 99 also suggests that the auditor consider the following attributes of risk:

–Type of risk that may be present – that is fraudulent financial reporting, asset misappropriation and/or corruption.

–Significance of risk – that is whether it could result in a material misstatement.

–Likelihood of the risk

–Pervasiveness of the risk – that is whether it relates to the financial statements as whole or to just particular accounts, transactions or assertions.

Finally, management selection and application of accounting principles are important factors for the examiner to consider.