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A Blueprint for Fraud Risk Assessment

It appears that several of our Chapter members have been requested these last few months to assist their employers in conducting several types of fraud risk assessments. They usually do so as the Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) member of their employing company’s internal audit-lead assessment team.   There is a consensus emerging among anti-fraud experts that conducting a fraud risk assessment (FRA) is critical to the process of detecting, and ultimately designing controls to prevent the ever-evolving types of fraud threatening organizations.

The ACFE tells us that FRAs do not necessarily specify what types of fraud are occurring in an organization. Instead, they are designed to focus detection efforts on specific fraud schemes and scenarios that could occur as well as on incidents that are known to have occurred in the past. Once these are identified, the audit team can proceed with the series of basic and specific fraud detection exercises that broad experience has shown to be effective. The objective of these exercises is to hopefully reveal the specific fraud schemes to which the organization is most exposed. This information will enable the organization’s audit team to recommend to management and to support the implementation of antifraud controls designed to address exactly those risks that have been identified.  It’s important to emphasize that fraud risk assessments are not meant to prevent fraud directly in and of themselves. They are exercises for identifying those specific fraud schemes and scenarios to which an organization is most vulnerable. That information is in turn used to conduct fraud audit exercises to highlight the circumstances that have allowed actual, known past frauds to occur or to blueprint future frauds that could occur so that the necessary controls can be put in place to prevent similar future illegal activity.

In the past, those FRAs that were conducted were usually performed by the firm’s external auditors. Increasingly, however, internal audit departments are being pressured by senior management to conduct FRAs of their own. Since internal audit departments are increasingly employing CFEs or have their expertise available to them through other company departments (like loss prevention or security), this effort can be effective since internal auditors have the tenure and experience with their organizations to know better than anyone how its financial and business operations function and can understand more readily how fraud could occur in particular processes, transactions, and business cycles.

Internal audit employed CFE’s and CIA’s aren’t involved by requirement of their professional standards in daily operations and can, therefore, provide an independent check on their organization’s overall risk management process. Audits can be considered a second channel of information on how well the enterprise’s anti-fraud controls are functioning and whether there are any deficiencies that need to be corrected.  To ensure this channel remains independent, it is important that the audit function report directly to the Audit Committee or to the board of directors and not to the chief executive officer or company president who may have responsibility for her company’s internal controls.

The Institute of Internal Auditors has endorsed audit standards that outline the techniques and procedures for conducting an FRA, specifically those contained in Statement of Auditing Standards 99 (SAS 99). By this (and other) key guidelines, an FRA is meant to assist auditors and/or fraud examiners in adjusting their audit and investigation plans to focus on gathering evidence of potential fraud schemes and scenarios identified by the FRA.

Responding to FRA findings requires the auditor to adjust the timing, nature, and extent of testing in such ways as:

• Performing procedures at physical locations on a surprise or unannounced basis by, for example, counting cash at different subsidiary locations on a surprise basis or reviewing loan portfolios of random loan officers or divisions of a savings and loan on a surprise basis;
• Requesting that financial performance data be evaluated at the end of the reporting period or on a date closer to period-end, in order, for example, to minimize the risk of manipulation of records in the period between the dates of account closings and the end of the reporting period;
• Making oral inquiries of major customers and vendors in addition to sending written confirmations, or sending confirmation requests to a specific party within vendor or customer organization;
• Performing substantive analytical procedures using disaggregated data by, for example, comparing gross profit or operating margins by branch office, type of service, line of business, or month to auditor-developed expectations;
• Interviewing personnel involved in activities in areas where a risk of material misstatement due to fraud has been identified in the past (such as at the country or regional level) to obtain their insights about the risk and how controls could address the risk.

CFE team members can make a substantial contribution to the internal audit lead team effort since it’s essential that financial operations managers and internal audit professionals understand how to conduct an FRA and to thoroughly assess the organization’s exposure to specific frauds. That contribution can add value to management’s eventual formulation and implementation of specific, customized controls designed to mitigate each type of fraud risk identified in the FRA. These are the measures that go beyond the basic, essential control checklists followed by many external auditors; they optimize the organization’s defenses against these risks. As such, they must vary from organization to organization, in accordance with the particular processes and procedures that are identified as vulnerable to fraud.

As an example, company A may process invoices in such a tightly controlled way, with double or triple approvals of new vendors, manual review of all invoices, and so on, that an FRA reveals few if any areas where red flags of vendor fraud can be identified. Company B, on the other hand, may process invoices simply by having the appropriate department head review and approve them. In the latter case, an FRA would raise red flags of potential fraud that could occur through double billing, sham company schemes, or collusion between a dishonest vendor and a company insider. For that reason, SAS 99 indicates that some risks are inherent in the environment of the entity, but most can be addressed with an appropriate system of internal control. Once fraud risk assessment has taken place, the entity can identify the processes, controls, and other procedures that are needed to mitigate the identified risks. Effective internal controls will include a well-developed control environment, an effective and secure information system, and appropriate control and monitoring activities. Because of the importance of information technology in supporting operations and the processing of transactions, management also needs to implement and maintain appropriate controls, whether automated or manual, over computer generated information.

The ACFE tells us that the heart of an effective internal controls system and the effectiveness of an anti-fraud program are contingent on an effective risk management assessment.  Although conducting an FRA is not terribly difficult, it does require careful planning and methodical execution. The structure and culture of the organization dictate how the FRA is formulated. In general, however, there is a basic, generally accepted form of the FRA that the audit and fraud prevention communities have agreed on and about which every experienced CFE is expected to be knowledgeable. Assessing the likelihood and significance of each potential fraud risk is a subjective process that should consider not only monetary significance, but also significance to an organization’s reputation and its legal and regulatory compliance requirements. An initial assessment of fraud risk should consider the inherent risk of a particular fraud in the absence of any known controls that may address the risk. An organization can cost-effectively manage its fraud risks by assessing the likelihood and significance of fraudulent behavior.

The FRA team should include a senior internal auditor (or the chief internal auditor, if feasible) and/or an experienced inside or outside certified fraud examiner with substantial experience in conducting FRAs for organizations in the company’s industry.  The management of the internal audit department should prepare a plan for all the assignments to be performed. The audit plan includes the timing and frequency of planned internal audit work. This audit plan is based on a methodical control risk assessment A control risk assessment documents the internal auditor’s understanding of the institution’s significant activities and their associated risks. The management of the internal audit department should establish the principles of the risk assessment methodology in writing and regularly update them to reflect changes to the system of internal control or work process, and to incorporate new lines of business. The risk analysis examines all the entity’s activities, and the complete internal control system. Based on the results of the risk analysis, an audit plan for several years is established, considering the degree of risk inherent in the activities. The plan also considers expected developments and innovations, the generally higher degree of risk of new activities, and the intention to audit all significant activities and entities within a reasonable time period (audit cycle principle for example, three
years). All those concerns will determine the extent, nature and frequency of the assignments to be performed.

In summary…

• A fraud risk assessment is an analysis of an organization’s risks of being victimized by specific types of fraud;
• Approaches to FRAs will differ from organization to organization, but most FRAs focus on identifying fraud risks in six key categories:
— Fraudulent financial reporting;
— Misappropriation of assets;
— Expenditures and liabilities for an improper purpose;
— Revenue and assets obtained by fraud;
— Costs and expenses avoided by fraud;
— Financial misconduct by senior management.
• A properly conducted FRA guides auditors in adjusting their audit plans and testing to focus specifically on gathering evidence of possible fraud;
• The capability to conduct an FRA is essential to effective assessment of the viability of existing anti-fraud controls and to strengthen the organization’s inadequate controls, as identified by the results of the FRA;
• In addition to assessing the types of fraud for which the organization is at risk, the FRA assesses the likelihood that each of those frauds might occur;
• After the FRA and subsequent fraud auditing work is completed, the FRA team should have a good idea of the specific controls needed to minimize the organization’s vulnerability to fraud;
• Auditing for fraud is a critical next step after assessing fraud risks, and this requires auditing for evidence of frauds that may exist according to the red flags identified by the FRA.

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.