You may have read that dedicated criminal Barry Minkow has once again been sentenced to […]
Ed. note: Welcome to the first edition of Going Concern’s Guest Blogger series. We’ll be featuring both seasoned and new bloggers to share their views on various accounting topics. If you’re interested in participating, email us your submission to [email protected]. Please include “Guest Blogger Submission” in the subject line.
Imagine being able to take tens of thousands of pages of financial data and get it into a database in a matter of hours. Those mounds of paper are quickly turned into something useful to the forensic accountant, without spending hundreds of hours manually inputting the data. Financial data is suddenly transformed and the forensic accountant can quickly map the flow of fun action patterns, create charts and graphs that show entities and transactions of interest, and create customized reports.
Doing things the old way, such a result is only a fantasy. For decades, forensic accountants have spent their time manually sorting documentation, deciding which transactions are important, and doing data entry.
It sounds painful because it is. It takes a long time, there is a high risk of inaccuracy, and there is a great chance that an important transaction will be overlooked.
So if there is technology out there to change all of this (and yes, there is!), why aren’t forensic accountants using it?
The only real answer is that they’re afraid of changing their business model. Most accounting firms charge their clients hourly fees, so they are invested in a business model that is dependent on forensic accountants taking more time to perform work which results in more revenue.
Technology that nearly eliminates the need for teams to spend hundreds of hours analyzing financial documentation is not a welcome addition to the firm; it just causes them to lose money.
Of course, it’s not really true that such advances really cause forensic accountants to lose money. All that needs to happen is firms have to find different ways to bill their clients, rather than simply adding up the time of staff and multiplying by a big number.
In addition to this paradigm shift related to billing clients, technological advances also fundamentally change the way forensic accountants investigate fraud. That makes lots of them (especially the old timers) uneasy. After all, we’ve always done it this way! How can we rely on technology over our own hands and eyes?
Here’s the thing…. those forensic accountants who resist embracing technological changes are going to be left behind. I currently use a proprietary system to complete large forensic accounting engagements, making it possible for me to single-handedly do more investigative work in a few days than a team of 4 or 5 investigators can do in several weeks or months.
This is not a fantasy; it is my reality. And my clients are getting better results much faster, allowing them to plan their litigation strategy much sooner, and ultimately be more successful in finding fraud, defending regulatory actions, and competing in litigation.
Yet I am currently the only forensic accountant in the private sector using this system, or anything like it. The government has been using a similar system for years, and if a client is being investigated by a federal agency in a financial matter, there’s a good chance the government is using the latest technology to aid in their investigation.
The future is not going to wait just because so many forensic accountants don’t want to change how they investigate fraud or earn their money. Those who are unwilling to change are going to be left behind. Those, like me, who want to be on the cutting edge, will make more money and win more interesting engagements that previously may have been too large or complex for me to handle alone.
Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, CFF is a forensic accountant and fraud investigator with Sequence Inc. in Milwaukee and Chicago. She has conducted hundreds of high-stakes investigations involving financial statement fraud, securities fraud, investment fraud, bankruptcy and receivership, and criminal defense. Tracy is the author of Expert Fraud Investigation: A Step-by-Step Guide and Essentials of Corporate Fraud, and has been qualified as an expert witness in both state and federal courts. She can be reached at [email protected] or 312.498.3661.
Welcome to the christ-is-it-next-Wednesday-yet edition of Accounting Career Couch. In today’s edition, a former business journalist is looking to get into forensic accounting. How on Earth can you do that?
Need help with your next career move? Want some advice on an awkward confrontation? Looking for a loophole in your firm’s dress code so you can show off your fantastic gams/guns? Email us at [email protected] and we’ll recommend what to say/wear.
Back to Mikael Blomkvist:
I’m in my ear r worked in accounting. I have a B.A. in liberal arts and am currently enrolled in a Masters in Accountancy program. I formerly worked 10+ years as a business journalist, during which I learned a fair amount of basic accounting and financial statement analysis. I especially enjoyed investigative business journalism, which led me to get a PI license and a CFE designation and work as a freelance fraud investigator for several years. But I quickly saw that I needed a CPA license and real-world accounting experience to command decent fees.
Once I get my M.Acc., I’d like to get a job in forensics at a public accounting or consulting firm and starting working toward the CPA. I know exactly what I want to do: forensics, and even more specifically, fraud investigations. I’d rather not toil in entry-level audit and try to worm my way into forensics if I can avoid it.
My questions are myriad. For starters, am I too old to do this? (Yes, I’m a married parent, have paid dues before, don’t mind paying them again as a career-changer.) Where should I apply? Would the Big 4 even be interested, or should I concentrate only on specialized/regional firms? Would I have more luck going the entrepreneurial/sole proprietor route than trying to get a firm to hire me? Will investigate for food. Anything helps, even a smile.
Let us just start by saying two things as it relates to the age question: 1) it doesn’t mean shit and 2) it’s irrelevant at this point. Judging by your actions you’ve already made up your mind and you’re just looking for a little confirmation.
Now, then. As far as where you should apply – Big 4 is an option but not a great one. They have forensics practices obviously but getting your foot in the door can be tough as the groups are small and positions are hard to come by. That being said, it won’t hurt to get in touch with the experienced-hire recruiters at the major firms in your area to see if there are openings. You’re certainly a better candidate than someone internal that has no investigative experience and wants to get into forensics for the hell of it. A little pavement pounding could turn up a great opportunity.
That being said, it seems to make more sense to seek out opportunities at boutique or small firms in your city. You will likely get the opportunity to meet the owner(s)/partners of the practice who will probably value your experience as an investigative journalist. Someone like Tracy Coenen would be a good example of an expert that could take you under their wing and show you the ropes (assuming they need someone).
As far as starting hanging your own shingle, it’s an option but you’ll eat what you kill. Are you prepared to live that way? Is your family prepared to live that way? Conversations need to be had. You may be able to lend a hand to other forensics specialists to get your feet wet but it will be a tough sell to land your own clients for quite awhile.
You’ve got the investigator’s instinct and presumably the iron-clad balls that Sam Antar insists are a must and that cannot be taught. These intangibles are extremely valuable and should be a major selling point no matter what path you choose. Skål!
Barry Minkow Isn’t Buying Anthony Weiner’s Report That Says Goldline International Is More or Less a Fraud
Last time we saw Congressman Anthony Weiner, he was attempting to discuss the IRS’ role in the enforcement of healthcare with spin-hater Bill O’Reilly. While that particular encounter was quite fun (especially Weiner’s huffing and O’Reilly’s eye-rolling) the video of the Congressman’s recent appearance on Fox Business News is quite good.
But what we’d really like to see him have a conversation with Barry Minkow about how that Barry thinks the Congressman’s report on Goldline International is unmitigated bullshit:
Friend of GC, Tracy Coenen participated in the Minkow’s investigation and she presents the findings over at Fraud Files Blog. Here’s a sample:
• Allegation: Weiner criticizes Goldline because of complaints on the website Ripoff Report lodged by consumers who say Goldline representatives improperly hold themselves out as investment advisors.
• What Weiner didn’t tell you: Ripoff Report says (in response to the consumer complaints) that you can feel completely confident doing business with Goldline. Weiner gave us only half of the story in his report.
Allegation: Goldline grossly overcharges for its products
What Weiner didn’t tell you: Our sampling of coins listed in the Weiner report showed that Goldline’s prices were very comparable to those of six competitors. He also forgot to mention that companies are free to set whatever prices they like for their products.
Allegation: Goldline says they’ll buy back your gold and silver, but doesn’t “guarantee” that
What Weiner didn’t tell you: It is against the law for Goldline to offer a buyback guarantee. If they offered such a guarantee, they would be in violation of securities laws because their salespeople are not licensed broker dealers.
Regardless of how you feel about Glenn Beck, gold coins, or Anthony Weiner’s Fox News-esque ability for interrupting, it kinda sorta sounds like the Congressman’s investigators don’t know a non-fraud when they see one. Besides, we’ll take the word of a convicted-felon-turned-fraud-buster over any report that comes out of Congress. Especially in an election year.
A message left with Congressman Weiner’s spokesperson was not immediately returned.
Goldline International: An In-Depth Look at Congressman Weiner’s Allegations, And How He Got It Wrong [FDI]
Barry Minkow debunks the Glenn Beck and Goldline International fraud connection [Fraud Files Blog]
Weiner Takes on Goldline and Fox Business — At The Same Time [Weiner.house.gov]
Accounting News Roundup: Would IFRS Prevented Repo 105?; The Crazy Eddie Movie Hits a Snag; JP Morgan May Bolt Tax-Refund Loan Business | 04.29.10
Lehman case “backs” accounting convergence [Reuters]
Philippe Danjou, a board member at the IASB has been quoted as saying that Repo 105 would not have been allowed under IFRS, “From an IFRS perspective I would suspect that most transactions would have stayed on the balance sheet. It makes a case for convergence, it makes a case that we should not have different outcomes under different accounting standards when you have such big amounts.”
The G-20 asked the sages at both the FASB and the IASB to converge their rules by June-ish 2011 but some people don’t se c, as there are too many disparities on treatment of key issues between the two boards.
The Real Reason Behind Danny DeVito’s Crazy Eddie Movie Project Meltdown [White Collar Fraud]
Danny DeVito wants to make a movie based on the Crazy Eddie Fraud, which was perpetrated by, among others, Eddie and Sam Antar. The project has run aground primarily because of Eddie Antar’s life rights and the potential profit he would reap from the making of the movie. Danny D is disappointed by the developments and has sympathy for Eddie, discussing it in s recent Deadline New York article:
“He’s gone through tough times, and he’s not the aggressive tough guy they paint him to be,” De Vito said. “He’s in his 70s and the past has come back to bite us all in the ass. Peter [Steinfeld] and I told him we think there is a terrific story there, but we can’t do it with you involved, in any way. We’ve taken a breather, but we’re figuring out how to jump back in.
Sam Antar is not amused by this and chimed in with his side of the story:
Eddie Antar is plainly still in denial about his cowardice towards his own family and investors. There actually is a “family dynamic” that “explains Antar’s fall” as DeVito claims. However, Eddie Antar and other members of his immediate family are simply unwilling to give a truthful account of what really happened at Crazy Eddie, while Danny Devito is willing to accept Eddie Antar’s bullshit excuses for his vile behavior.
As Chipotle Sizzles, CFO Sells Stock [Barron’s]
Ten thousand shares at $144 and change will buy a bunch of burritos.
Medifast Lawsuit: Anti-SLAPP motions filed [Fraud Files Blog]
Back when we discussed forensic accounting, the aforementioned Sam Antar said that forensic accountants can look forward to “making many enemies in the course of their work and must be unhinged by the retaliation that normally follows uncovering fraud and other misconduct.”
Tracy Coenen, no stranger to this retaliation, is now fighting back against Medifast who has sued her and others for saying not so flattering things about the company:
SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. It’s basically when a big company tries to shut up a little guy with expensive litigation. In my opinion, Medifast sued me and others in an attempt to get us to stop publicly analyzing or criticizing the company and it’s multi-level marketing business model.
In filing an anti-SLAPP motion, we are essentially asking the court to rule in our favor and in favor of free speech. Consumers should have the right to discuss, analyze, and criticize companies without the fear of expensive lawsuits.
JPMorgan May Quit Tax-Refund Loans, Helping H&R Block [Bloomberg BusinessWeek]
Bloomberg reports that JP Morgan may discontinue its financing of 13,000 independent tax preparers, a move that will benefit H&R Block, according to a competitor:
“Block is the biggest winner in this,” said John Hewitt, chief executive officer of Liberty Tax Service, a privately held company in Virginia Beach, Virginia, that also may benefit…
The reason HSBC is exiting this industry, even though they’re making $100 million a year in profit from it, is because of reputation risk,” Hewitt said in an interview. “Bankers don’t like the consumer advocacy groups picketing outside their offices.”
Refund anticipation loans (RALs) are attractive to clients that need cash immediately, based on their anticipated refund. The business is controversial because the high interest rates can drive people further into debt and consumer groups oppose them vehemently.
Funding for smaller shops that offer these loans will likely lose the business altogether as large banks like JP Morgan discontinue the financing, thus driving the business to franchise tax prep shops like H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt, and Liberty.
Despite Past Investigations and Borderline Childish Behavior, McGladrey & Pullen Takes Medifast Audit
McGladrey & Pullen/RSM McGladrey has been named the new audit/tax firm of Medifast, the company announced in a filing last Friday. The Company dropped Bagell, Josephs, Levine and Company LLP of New Jersey who was purchased by Friedman LLP, citing/blaming Sarbanes-Oxley for reducing the number of accounting firms that have the “extensive resources and experience with public companies on a national and regional basis to better serve Medifast.”
For those of you not familiar, Medifast is “an amazing weight loss program” whose products “are formulated with a
Forensic accounting is about as sexy as it gets these days for boutique accounting services. For starters, there’s no shortage of work. And even if you’re too inexperienced to start up your own firm, you might be able to cut your teeth at a Big 4 forensic practice or since the SEC seems to getting serious about doing its job, you could go that route.
Hell, even if you’re currently on the other side of this equation (i.e. the perp) it seems to have worked out for at least a couple people, namely Barry Minkow and Sam A e–>
The AICPA sees the potential and is on the offensive, offering a “Certified in Financial Forensics” credential starting in 2008 after demand for such a cred came from its members.
The Institute recently published Characteristics and Skills of the Forensic Accountant, a survey of attorneys, forensic CPAs and academics that presents their “views on the qualities they believed were essential in a forensic accountant.”
Surprisingly, the three groups managed to agree on the most important trait, “All three groups surveyed overwhelmingly cited analytical ability as the most essential characteristic of a forensic accountant: 78 percent of attorneys, 86 percent of CPAs and 90 percent of academics.”
And that’s where the agreement ends:
Attorneys believed oral communications to be the most important skill, reflecting the need to express an opinion effectively in a court of law. CPAs, on the other hand, identified critical and strategic thinking as most important, with written and oral communications as second and third, respectively. The academics agreed with the CPAs that critical and strategic thinking was the prime skill, but, interestingly, rated auditing skills and investigative ability as second and third.
Hard to believe this differing opinions here. Lawyers prefer blabbing? Accountants prefer keeping their heads down and academics take it to an even brainier level? Shock.
We shot a message over to Tracy Coenen, friend of GC, forensic accountant for her thoughts and she notes that all these people surveyed are missing something important – intuition:
I think what they’re missing is investigative intuition. It’s common for people to think that a good auditor makes a good forensic accountant, and that’s simply not the case. Some people have a gift for thinking outside the box and can get a gut feel for what’s wrong. Others only have a gift for reconciling numbers and using checklists. The survey addressed investigative intuition, but it didn’t even make it into the top five of core skills. I think that’s wrong on many levels.
We’d have to agree that there is something to be said for raw talent. You can try and teach someone the necessary skills but if they don’t have that sleuth mentality, forensics probably won’t be a natural fit. Sam Antar agrees, and he laid out his own crucial characteristics for us:
The AICPA likes to talk about the skills of an effective forensic accountant, but it ignores the important personality traits required for them to be successful:
• An effective forensic accountant must have a pair of double iron clad balls and a triple thick skin. Prospective forensic accountants can count on making many enemies in the course of their work and must be unhinged by the retaliation that normally follows uncovering fraud and other misconduct.
• The saying, “It takes one to know one” applies to being an effective forensic accountant. If a forensic accountant is not a convicted felon (like me), there must be at least some degree of larceny wired into their personalities. Effective forensic accountants must at least think like a scumbag to understand criminal behavior, techniques, and countermeasures.
• “Critical and strategic thinking” are relatively ineffective unless the forensic accountant exercises “professional paranoia” in the conduct of their work. Effective forensic accountants must be born cynics and skeptics and never accept any information at face value. A healthy degree of paranoia helps.
Without the personality traits enumerated above, no amount of education can help a person be an effective forensic accountant.
Regardless of the differing opinions, the AICPA wants more people getting into forensics and we think that’s a good thing. However, since the chances of a CSI: Bean Counter are nil, more traditional recruitment measures have to be employed.
AICPA Report Educates CPA Firms, Professors on Forensic Accounting [AICPA Press Release]
AICPA Forensic and Valuation Services Center [Website]
If you’re currently engaged in fraudulent activity at your company, eventually you’re going to find yourself in Tracy Coenen’s Fraud Files Blog. She has published two books on the subject, Expert Fraud Investigation: A Step-by-Step Guide and Essentials of Corporate Fraud and more than a 100 articles in industry publications.
When she’s not writing about all things fraud, Tracy runs Sequence, Inc., providing forensic accounting and fraud examination services. The Sue Sachdeva/Koss fiasco happened in her backyard of Milwaukee and she’s been all over it, providing fine quotes on the matter.
Why do you blog?
Somebody has to expose the frauds and scams!
Why should you accountants read your blog?
Because I have interesting insights and I’m not afraid to state my very strong opinions.
Who is your favorite blogger?
Mike Masnick at Techdirt
Best thing about blogging for accountants?
There is a wide open market for accounting bloggers to be thought leaders (and to market themselves) because so few accounting and finance professionals are blogging about their profession.
The biggest issue facing accountants today is…
Truly understanding how fraud happens and how to find and prevent it.
“Michael Koss is a clown. He does not belong on the board of directors of any company. He needs to be minding his own company, and until he can clean things up there, he should not be allowed to go outside and play.”
“They’re never afraid to print rumor and innuendo. They’re keeping accountants and auditors honest, never afraid to write about the idiocy frequently displayed by finance professionals and executives.”
~ Tracy Coenen, of BloggingSuits and Fraud Files Blog on a certain website
“It is self-debasing greed. It is avarice of the corrupted soul.”
~ Professor David Albrecht, Concordia College on those who will profit from a switch to IFRS from U.S. GAAP.
In the spirit of O.J. Simpson, Tracy Coenen explains today, that if Sue Sachdeva stole $31 million and spent most of it on some high-end threads and then sold the crap she didn’t want, it would’ve been a snap.
We’re not talking Enron type stuff here, just making off with cash:
All it takes are three steps to make this fraud nearly undetectable in a company in which the other members of the executive team aren’t paying attention. (And don’t worry, dear readers, that I may be giving away any secrets to committing fraud and covering it up. Any serious fraudster already knows these three things.)
1. Keep the fraud off the balance sheet.
2. Keep all transactions below the scope of testing by the auditors.
3. Don’t commit fraud during the last month of the fiscal year and the first month of the following fiscal year.
Can it really be this simple?
Here’s the quick and dirty:
Point 1 – Tracy notes that 80% of audit procedures focus on the balance sheet so if Suze was slamming all the bogus transactions amongst 4 or 5 income statement expense lines, no one would get wise to it.
Point 2 – If she did it, Suze probably knew what GT’s scope was (it’s supposed to be super-secret). She could plan the amount of her transactions to fall under this scope every time.
Point 3 – Auditors probably spent most of their time looking at bank statements for the last month of the fiscal year and the first month of the subsequent fiscal year. The rest of them don’t get much attention.
So there you have it. Throw in the incestuous management team, auditors that may be trying to get on each other and you’ve got a slam dunk.
UPDATE 7:38 pm: We got to wondering if Tracy’s statement “Any serious fraudster already knows these three things” were true, so we asked one. Crazy Eddie CFO, Sam Antar indulged us:
[Tracy] is correct. The fraudster always has the initiative because they are judgment oriented in their approach to crime, while auditors are process oriented in their approach to audits. In other words, fraudsters know how to think out of the box to solve problems and achieve their goals, while auditors rely too much on process and procedure to accomplish their missions. In the criminal’s world, judgment is more powerful than process.
“Audits are of limited usefulness – the scope of work is so small and is done in such a compressed time, usually at the end of the year. And the work that auditors do is predictable.”
~ Tracy Coenen, of Fraud Files Blog, in regards to the how Sue Sachdeva allegedly pulled off a $31 million embezzlement at Koss under the nose of Grant Thornton (Steve Chipman may need a pair of these to drown out the attorneys). [Milwaukee and Southeastern Wisconsin Business News]