Charting the Road Ahead

There are a number of good reasons why fraud examiners and forensic accountants should work hard at including inclusive, well written descriptions of fraud scenarios in their reports; some of these reasons are obvious and some less so. A well written fraud report, like little else, can put dry controls in the context of real life situations that client managers can comprehend no matter what their level of actual experience with fraud. It’s been my experience that well written reports, couched in plain business language, free from descriptions of arcane control structures, and supported by hard hitting scenario analysis can help spark anti-fraud conversations throughout the whole of a firm’s upper management.

A well written report can be a vital tool in transforming that discussion from, for example, relatively abstract talk about the need for an identity management system to a more concrete and useful one dealing with the report’s description of how the theft of vital business data has actually proven to benefit a competitor.

Well written, comprehensive fraud reports can make fraud scenarios real by concretely demonstrating the actual value of the fraud prevention effort to enterprise management and the Board. They can also graphically help set the boundaries for the expectations of what management will expect the prevention function to do in the future if this, or similar scenarios, actually re-occur. The written presentation of the principal fraud or loss scenario treated in the report necessarily involves consideration of the vital controls in place to prevent its reoccurrence which then allows for the related presentation of a qualitative assessment of the present effectiveness of the controls themselves. A well written report thus helps everyone understand how all the control failures related to the fraud interacted and reinforced each other; it’s, therefore, only natural that the fraud examiner or analyst recommend that the report’s intelligence be channeled for use in the enterprise’s fraud and loss prevention program.

Strong fraud report writing has much in common with good story telling. A narrative is shaped explaining a sequence of events that, in this case, has led to an adverse outcome. Although sometimes industry or organization specific, the details of the specific fraud’s unfolding always contains elements of the unique and can sometimes be quite challenging for the examiner even to narrate. The narrator/examiner should especially strive to clearly identify the negative outcomes of the fraud for the organization for those outcomes can sometimes be many and related. Each outcome should be explicitly explicated and its impact clearly enumerated in non-technical language.

But to be most useful as a future fraud prevention tool the examiner’s report needs to make it clear that controls work as separate lines of defense, at times in a sequential way, and at other times interacting with each other to help prevent the re-occurrence of the adverse event. The report should attempt to demonstrate in plain language how this structure broke down in the current instance and demonstrate the implications for the enterprise’s future fraud prevention efforts. Often, the report might explain, how the correct operation of just one control may provide adequate protection or mitigation. If the controls operate independently of each other, as they often do, the combined probability of all of them failing simultaneously tends to be significantly lower than the probability of failure of any one of them. These are the kinds of realities with the power to significantly and positively shape the fraud prevention program for the better and, hence, should never be buried in individual reports but used collectively, across reports, to form a true combined resource for the management of the prevention program.

The final report should talk about the likelihood of the principal scenario being repeated given the present state of preventative controls; this is often best-estimated during discussions with client management, if appropriate. What client management will truly be interested in is the probability of recurrence, but the question is actually better framed in terms of the likelihood over a long (extended) period of time. This question is best answered by involved managers, in particular with the loss prevention manager. If the answer is that this particular fraud risk might materialize again once every 10 years, the probability of its annual occurrence is a sobering 10 percent.

As with frequency estimation, to be of most on-going help in guiding the fraud prevention program, individual fraud reports should attempt to estimate the severity of each scenario’s occurrence. Is it the worst case loss, or the most likely or median loss? In some cases, the absolute worst case may not be knowable, or may mean something as disastrous as the end-of-game for the organization. Any descriptive fraud scenario presented in a fraud report should cover the range of identified losses associated with the case at hand (including any collateral losses the business is likely to face). Documented control failures should always be clearly associated with the losses. Under broad categories, such as process and workflow errors, information leakage events, business continuity events and external attacks, there might have to be a number of developed, narrative scenarios to address the full complexity of the individual case.

Fraud reports, especially for large organizations for which the risk of fraud must always remain a constant preoccupation, can be used to extend and refine fraud prevention programs. Using the documented results of the fraud reporting process, report data can be converted to estimates of losses at different confidence intervals and fed to the fraud prevention program’s estimated distributions for frequency and severity. The bottom line is that organizations of all sizes shouldn’t just shelve their fraud reports but use them as vital input tools to build and maintain the ongoing process of fraud risk assessment for ultimate inclusion in the enterprise’s loss prevention and fraud prevention programs.

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