Tag Archives: internal auditing

Internal Auditors as Fraud Auditors

Although fraud prevention is always more effective and less costly than fraud detection (and subsequent investigation), unfortunately prevention is not always possible. That’s why, as CFE’s and forensic accountants we should all be heavy promoters (and supporters) of client internal audit functions.  That is also why we should make it a goal that all employees of our client companies be trained in how to identify the major red flags of fraud they may encounter in their daily activities. Mastering key detection techniques is doubly essential for the internal audit and financial professionals employed by those same enterprises. Our Chapter has long preached that once internal auditors and financial managers know what to look for, there is an enhanced chance that fraud or suspicious activity will be detected one way or another, but only if the organization has the proper monitoring, reporting, and auditing procedures in place.

With that said, many organizations require internal audits of specific business processes and units only once every two or three years. In an age when so much can change so quickly in an internet dominated world, this approach is not the most effective insofar as fraud detection and prevention are concerned. This is especially so because conventional audits were most often not designed to detect fraud in the first place, usually focusing on specified groups of internal controls or compliance with existing policies, laws and regulations. That’s why the ACFE and Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) now recommend that a fraud risk assessment (FRA) be conducted annually and that the fraud-auditing procedures designed to detect red flags in the high-risk areas identified by the FRA be incorporated into internal audit plans immediately.

There is often a fine line between detection and prevention. In fact, some detection steps overlap with prevention methods, as in the case of conflict of interest, where enforcing a management financial disclosure policy may both detect conflicting financial interests and prevent frauds resulting from them by virtue of the actual detection of the relationships. In most organizations, however, carefully assessing the description of prevention and detection controls demonstrates that there is usually a clear distinction between the two.

The IIA tell us that the internal audit function is a critical element in assessing the effectiveness of an institution’s internal control system. The internal audit consists of procedures to prevent or identify significant inaccurate, incomplete, or unauthorized transactions; deficiencies in safeguarding assets; unreliable financial reporting; and deviations from laws, regulations, and institutional policies. When properly designed and implemented, internal audits provide directors and senior management with timely information about weaknesses in the internal control system, facilitating prompt remedial action. Each institution should have an internal audit function appropriate to its size and the nature and scope of its activities.

This is a complex way of saying that our client’s internal audit function should focus on monitoring the institution’s internal controls, which, although not mentioned explicitly, include controls specifically designed to prevent fraud.  To effectively assess anti-fraud controls, auditors first must exercise detection techniques and procedures that confirm the existence of red flags or actual evidence of potential fraud in the risk areas identified by the FRA.

The Chief Internal Auditor is typically responsible for the following:

–Performing, or contracting for, a control risk assessment documenting the internal auditor’s understanding of significant business activities and associated risks. These assessments typically analyze the risks inherent in each business line, the mitigating control processes, and the resulting residual risk exposure;

–An internal audit plan responsive to results of the control risk assessment. This plan typically specifies key internal control summaries within each business activity, the timing and frequency of internal audit work, and the resource budget;

–An internal audit program that describes audit objectives and specifies procedures performed during each internal audit review;

–An audit report presenting the purpose, scope, and results of each audit. Work papers should be maintained to document the work performed and support audit findings.

There is a joint ACFE-IIA-AICPA document with which every CFE should be familiar.  ‘The Business Risk of Fraud’ provides clarity about the internal auditor’s role in detecting fraud in our client organization’s operations and financial statements. Specifically, the document states that internal auditors should consider the organization’s assessment of fraud risk when developing their annual audit plan and periodically assess management’s fraud detection capabilities. They should also interview and regularly communicate with those conducting the assessments, as well as with others in key positions throughout the company, to help them assess whether all fraud risks have been considered. Moreover, according to the document, when performing audits, internal auditors should devote sufficient time and attention to evaluating the “design and operation” of internal controls related to preventing and detecting significant fraud risks. They should exercise professional skepticism when reviewing activities to be on guard for the signs of potential fraud. Potential frauds uncovered during an engagement should be treated in accordance with a well-defined response plan consistent with professional and legal standards.

Among the most helpful guides for CFEs to recommend to clients for their internal auditors use in planning a detailed audit to detect fraud is the all-important SAS 99 which contains key fraud detection techniques including guidance on the performance of certain financial ratio analysis. Analytical procedures performed during planning may be helpful in identifying the risks of material misstatement due to fraud. However, because such analytical procedures generally use data aggregated at a high level, the results of those analytical procedures provide only a broad initial indication about whether a material misstatement of the financial statements may exist. Accordingly, the results of analytical procedures performed during planning should be considered along with other information gathered by the auditor in identifying the risks of material misstatement due to fraud.

SAS 99 was formulated with the aim of detecting fraud that has a direct impact on “material misstatement.” Essentially this means that anything in the organization’s financial activities that could result in fraud-related misstatements in its financial records should be audited for by using SAS 99 as a guide. SAS 99 breaks down the potential fraudulent causes of material misstatement into two categories:

1. Misstatement due to fraudulent financial reporting (i.e., “book cooking”);

2. Misstatement due to misappropriation of assets (i.e., theft).

The fraud auditing procedures of SAS 99, or of any other reputable audit guidance, can greatly assist internal auditors in distinguishing between actual fraud and error. Often the two have similar characteristics, with the key difference being that of the existence or absence of intent. Toward this end, SAS 99 and other key fraud auditing guidelines provide detailed procedures for gathering evidence of potential fraud based on the lists of fraud risks resulting from the client’s FRA. As SAS 99 states:

‘SAS 99. . . strongly recommend[s] direct involvement by internal auditors in the organization’s fraud-auditing efforts: Internal auditors may conduct proactive auditing to search for corruption, misappropriation of assets, and financial statement fraud. This may include the use of computer-assisted audit techniques to detect types of fraud. Internal auditors also can employ analytical and other procedures to isolate anomalies and perform detailed reviews of high-risk accounts and transactions to identify potential financial statement fraud. The internal auditors should have an independent reporting line directly to the audit committee, enabling them to express any concerns about management’s commitment to appropriate internal controls or to report suspicions or allegations of fraud involving senior management.

Specifically, SAS 99 provides a set of audit responses designed to gather hard evidence of potential fraud that could exist based on what the client organization learned from its FRA. These responses are critical to the auditor’s success in identifying clear red flags of potential fraud in our client’s operations. The responses are wide ranging and include anything from the application of appropriate ratio analytics, to thorough and detailed testing of controls governing specific business process procedures, to the analysis of anomalies in vendor or customer account activity. There are three broad categories into which such detailed internal audit fraud auditing responses fall:

1. The nature of auditing procedures performed may need to be changed to obtain evidence that is more reliable or to obtain additional corroborative information;
2. The timing of substantive tests may need to be modified. The auditor might conclude that substantive testing should be performed at or near the end of the reporting period to best address an identified risk of material misstatement due to fraud;
3. The extent of the procedures applied should reflect the assessment of the risks of material misstatement due to fraud. For example, increasing sample sizes or performing analytical procedures at a more detailed level may be appropriate.

The contribution of a fully staffed and management-supported internal audit function to a subsequent CFE conducted fraud examination can be extraordinary and its value never overstated; no client fraud prevention and detection program should ever be considered complete without one.

The Initially Immaterial Financial Fraud

At one point during our recent two-day seminar ‘Conducting Internal Investigations’ an attendee asked Gerry Zack, our speaker, why some types of frauds, but specifically financial frauds, can go on so long without detection. A very good question and one that Gerry eloquently answered.

First, consider the audit committee. Under modern systems of internal control and corporate governance, it’s the audit committee that’s supposed to be at the vanguard in the prevention and detection of financial fraud. What kinds of failures do we typically see at the audit committee level when financial fraud is given an opportunity to develop and grow undetected? According to Gerry, there is no single answer, but several audit committee inadequacies are candidates. One inadequacy potentially stems from the fact that the members of the audit committee are not always genuinely independent. To be sure, they’re required by the rules to attain some level of technical independence, but the subtleties of human interaction cannot always be effectively governed by rules. Even where technical independence exists, it may be that one or more members in substance, if not in form, have ties to the CEO or others that make any meaningful degree of independence awkward if not impossible.

Another inadequacy is that audit committee members are not always terribly knowledgeable, particularly in the ways that modern (often on-line, cloud based) financial reporting systems can be corrupted. Sometimes, companies that are most susceptible to the demands of analyst earnings expectations are new, entrepreneurial companies that have recently gone public and that have engaged in an epic struggle to get outside analysts just to notice them in the first place. Such a newly hatched public company may not have exceedingly sophisticated or experienced fiscal management, let alone the luxury of sophisticated and mature outside directors on its audit committee. Rather, the audit committee members may have been added to the board in the first place because of industry expertise, because they were friends or even relatives of management, or simply because they were available.

A third inadequacy is that audit committee members are not always clear on exactly what they’re supposed to do. Although modern audit committees seem to have a general understanding that their focus should be oversight of the financial reporting system, for many committee members that “oversight” can translate into listening to the outside auditor several times a year. A complicating problem is a trend in corporate governance involving the placement of additional responsibilities (enterprise risk management is a timely example) upon the shoulders of the audit committee even though those responsibilities may be only tangentially related, or not at all related, to the process of financial reporting.

Again, according to Gerry, some or all the previously mentioned audit committee inadequacies may be found in companies that have experienced financial fraud. Almost always there will be an additional one. That is that the audit committee, no matter how independent, sophisticated, or active, will have functioned largely in ignorance. It will not have had a clue as to what was happening within the organization. The reason is that a typical audit committee (and the problem here is much broader than newly public startups) will get most of its information from management and from the outside auditor. Rarely is management going to voluntarily reveal financial manipulations. And, relying primarily on the outside auditor for the discovery of fraud is chancy at best. Even the most sophisticated and attentive of audit committee members have had the misfortune of accounting irregularities that have unexpectedly surfaced on their watch. This unfortunate lack of access to candid information on the part of the audit committee directs attention to the second in the triumvirate of fraud preventers, the internal audit department.

It may be that the internal audit department has historically been one of the least understood, and most ineffectively used, of all vehicles to combat financial fraud. Theoretically, internal audit is perfectly positioned to nip in the bud an accounting irregularity problem. The internal auditors are trained in financial reporting and accounting. The internal auditors should have a vivid understanding as to how financial fraud begins and grows. Unlike the outside auditor, internal auditors work at the company full time. And, theoretically, the internal auditors should be able to plug themselves into the financial reporting environment and report directly to the audit committee the problems they have seen and heard. The reason these theoretical vehicles for the detection and prevention of financial fraud have not been effective is that, where massive financial frauds have surfaced, the internal audit department has often been somewhere between nonfunctional and nonexistent.. Whatever the explanation, (lack of independence, unfortunate reporting arrangements, under-staffing or under-funding) in many cases where massive financial fraud has surfaced, a viable internal audit function is often nowhere to be found.

That, of course, leaves the outside auditor, which, for most public companies, means some of the largest accounting firms in the world. Indeed, it is frequently the inclination of those learning of an accounting irregularity problem to point to a failure by the outside auditor as the principal explanation. Criticisms made against the accounting profession have included compromised independence, a transformation in the audit function away from data assurance, the use of immature and inexperienced audit staff for important audit functions, and the perceived use by the large accounting firms of audit as a loss leader rather than a viable professional engagement in itself. Each of these reasons is certainly worthy of consideration and inquiry, but the fundamental explanation for the failure of the outside auditor to detect financial fraud lies in the way that fraudulent financial reporting typically begins and grows. Most important is the fact that the fraud almost inevitably starts out very small, well beneath the radar screen of the materiality thresholds of a normal audit, and almost inevitably begins with issues of quarterly reporting. Quarterly reporting has historically been a subject of less intense audit scrutiny, for the auditor has been mainly concerned with financial performance for the entire year. The combined effect of the small size of an accounting irregularity at its origin and the fact that it begins with an allocation of financial results over quarters almost guarantees that, at least at the outset, the fraud will have a good chance of escaping outside auditor detection.

These two attributes of financial fraud at the outset are compounded by another problem that enables it to escape auditor detection. That problem is that, at root, massive financial fraud stems from a certain type of corporate environment. Thus, detection poses a challenge to the auditor. The typical audit may involve fieldwork at the company once a year. That once-a-year period may last for only a month or two. During the fieldwork, the individual accountants are typically sequestered in a conference room. In dealing with these accountants, moreover, employees are frequently on their guard. There exists, accordingly, limited opportunity for the outside auditor to get plugged into the all-important corporate environment and culture, which is where financial fraud has its origins.

As the fraud inevitably grows, of course, its materiality increases as does the number of individuals involved. Correspondingly, also increasing is the susceptibility of the fraud to outside auditor detection. However, at the point where the fraud approaches the thresholds at which outside auditor detection becomes a realistic possibility, deception of the auditor becomes one of the preoccupations of the perpetrators. False schedules, forged documents, manipulated accounting entries, fabrications and lies at all levels, each of these becomes a vehicle for perpetrating the fraud during the annual interlude of audit testing. Ultimately, the fraud almost inevitably becomes too large to continue to escape discovery, and auditor detection at some point is by no means unusual. The problem is that, by the time the fraud is sufficiently large, it has probably gone on for years. That is not to exonerate the audit profession, and commendable reforms have been put in place over the last decade. These include a greater emphasis on fraud, involvement of the outside auditor in quarterly data, the reduction of materiality thresholds, and a greater effort on the part of the profession to assess the corporate culture and environment. Nonetheless, compared to, say, the potential for early fraud detection possessed by the internal audit department, the outside auditor is at a noticeable disadvantage.

Having been missed for so long by so many, how does the fraud typically surface? There are several ways. Sometimes there’s a change in personnel, from either a corporate acquisition or a change in management, and the new hires stumble onto the problem. Sometimes the fraud, which quarter to quarter is mathematically incapable of staying the same, grows to the point where it can no longer be hidden from the outside auditor. Sometimes detection results when the conscience of one of the accounting department people gets the better of him or her. All along s/he wanted to tell somebody, and it gets to the point where s/he can’t stand it anymore and s/he does. Then you have a whistleblower. There are exceptions to all of this. But in almost any large financial fraud, as Gerry told us, one will see some or all these elements. We need only change the names of the companies and of the industry.

Inside and Out

I had quite a good time a little over a month ago, addressing a senior auditing class at the University of Richmond on the topic of how fraud examiners and forensic accountants can work jointly together, primarily with a client’s internal auditors and, secondarily with its external auditors, to substantially strengthen any fraud investigation assignment.

Internal and external auditors each play an important role in the governance structure of their client organizations. Like CFEs, both groups have mutual interests regarding the effectiveness of internal financial controls, and both adhere to ethical codes and professional standards set by their respective professional bodies. Additionally, as I told the very lively class, both types of auditors operate independently of the activities they audit, and they’re expected to have extensive knowledge about the business, industry, and strategic risks faced by the organizations they serve. Yet, with all their similarities, internal auditing and external auditing are two distinct functions that have numerous differences. The Institute of Internal Auditors (IAA) defines internal auditing as “an independent, objective assurance and consulting activity designed to add value and improve an organization’s operations. It helps an organization accomplish its objectives by bringing a systematic, disciplined approach to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of risk management, control, and governance processes.” Internal auditors in the public sector (where I spent most of my audit career as a CIA) place an additional emphasis on providing assurance on performance and compliance with policies and procedures. Concerned with all aspects of the organization – both financial and non-financial – the internal auditors focus on future events because of their continuous review and evaluation of controls and processes.

In contrast, external auditing provides an independent opinion of a company’s financial statements and fair presentation. This type of auditing encompasses whether the statements conform with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, whether they fairly present the financial position of the organization, whether the results of operations for a given period are represented accurately, and whether the financial statements have been affected materially (i.e., whether they include a misstatement that is likely to influence the economic decisions of financial statement users). External auditing’s approach is mainly historical in nature, although some forward-looking improvements may be suggested in the auditors’ recommendations to management based on the analysis of controls during a financial statement audit.

I emphasized to the students that these definitions alone pinpoint the key distinctions that separate the two audit approaches. However, internal auditing is much broader and more encompassing than external auditing. Its value resides in the function’s ability to look at the underlying operations that drive the financial numbers before those numbers hit the books. For instance, when considering “sales” as a line item in a set of financial statements, the external audit focuses primarily on the existence, completeness, accuracy, classification, timing, posting and summarization of sales numbers. The internal audit goes beyond these assertions and looks at sales operations in a much broader context by asking questions regarding the target market, sales plan, organizational structure of the sales department, qualifications of sales personnel, effectiveness of sales operations, measurement of sales performance, and compliance with sales policies.

These types of questions probe the very core of sales operations and can greatly impact the sales numbers recorded in financial statements. For example, assuming a sales number of $6 million, the external auditor has merely to render an opinion regarding the validity of that number. The internal auditor, however, can ask whether the number could  have really been $12 million, if only the right market had been targeted, and if operations had been effective in the first place. It’s this emersion in detail and the overall knowledge of operations that makes the internal auditor such a strong partner for the fraud examiner in any joint investigation.

Internal auditors represent an integral part of the organization – their primary clients are management and the board. Although historically internal auditors reported to the chief financial officer or other senior management staff, for the last two decades internal auditing has reported directly to the audit committee of the board of directors, which helps strengthen auditor independence and objectivity. Today, internal audit functions, for the most part, follow this reporting relationship, which is consistent with the IIA’s Standard on Organizational Independence.

The chief audit executive’s (CAE’s) appointment is normally meant to be permanent, unless he or she resigns or is dismissed. In some quasi and intergovernmental organizations, CAEs are given tenured positions – five-year appointments, for example – to enhance independence.  Conversely, external auditors are not part of the organization, but are engaged by it. Their objectives are set primarily by statute and by their main client, the board of directors. External auditors are appointed by the board, and they submit an annual report to the company’s shareholders. The appointment is meant to extend for a specified time – external auditors can be re-appointed at the company’s annual general meeting. In some jurisdictions, there are limits on an external auditor’s length of service, often five or seven years.

In general, internal audit functions are not mandatory for organizations. Instead, their installment is left up to individual organizations’ discretion but internal auditing is mandatory in some cases. Companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange must have an internal audit function, whether in-house or outsourced.  An external audit is legally required for many companies, particularly those listed on a public exchange. External audits of some government agencies are also legislated, requiring government auditors to submit the audit report to their respective legislature.

The necessary qualifications for an internal auditor rest solely on the judgment of the employer. Although internal auditors are often qualified as accountants, some are qualified engineers, sales personnel, production engineers, and management personnel who have moved through the ranks of the organization with a sound knowledge of its operations and have garnered experience that makes them abundantly qualified to perform internal auditing. Annually, more and more internal auditors hold the IIA’s Certified Internal Auditor designation, which demonstrates competency and professionalism in the field of internal auditing. Because of their continuous investigation into all the organization’s operating systems, internal auditors who remain in the same organization for many years constitute a unique resource to the CFE of comprehensive and current knowledge of the organization and its operations.

External auditors are required to understand errors and irregularities, assess risk of occurrence, design audits to provide reasonable assurance of material detection, and report on such findings. In most countries, auditors of public companies must be members of a body of professional accountants recognized by law – for example, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, or Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants.  Because external auditors’ scope of work is narrowly focused on financial statement auditing, and they come into the organization only once or twice a year, their knowledge of the organization’s operations is unlikely to be as extensive as that of the internal auditors.

Those entering the CFE profession need to realize that patterns of business growth, globalization, and corporate scandals have changed the thrust of the internal audit profession in recent years. In its early years, internal auditing focused on protection oriented objectives and emphasized compliance with accounting and operational procedures, verification of calculation accuracy, fraud detection and protection of assets. Gradually, new dimensions were added that ranged from an evaluation of financial and compliance risks to an assessment of business risks, ethics and corporate governance. These changes have only increased the gap between the disciplines of internal and external auditing. Yet, despite their differences, internal auditing and external auditing no longer work in competition, as was the case before the U.S. Sarbanes-Oxley Act was enacted, when a company’s external auditors would sometimes compete with in-house audit departments for internal audit work. Regulations like Sarbanes-Oxley prohibited the external auditor from providing both external and internal audit services to the same company. Today all CFEs can benefit from the complementary skills, areas of expertise, and perspectives of both the external and the internal auditors.  The ACFE recommends that to strengthen the fraud prevention program they should meet periodically to discuss common interests (like the fraud prevention program), strive to understand each other’s scope of work and methods, discuss audit coverage and scheduling to minimize redundancies, jointly assess areas of fraud risk, and provide access to each other’s reports, programs, and work papers.

In summary, fulfilling its oversight responsibilities for assurance, the board also should require internal and external auditors to coordinate their audit work to increase the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of the overall audit process. Despite some similarities, a world of difference exists between internal auditing and external auditing. Nonetheless, both audit types, and the respective services they provide, are essential to maintaining an effective governance structure. With a greater understanding of the unique perspective of each, CFEs can maximize the aggregate contribution or each to our joint investigations and thereby ensure organizational success.