Tag Archives: Fraud Detection

Concealment Strategies & Fraud Scenarios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Consignment arrangements made to appear to be final sales;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.