Category Archives: Engagement Planning

Finding the Words

I had lunch with a long-time colleague the other day and the topic of conversation having turned to our May training event next week, he commented that when conducting a fraud examination, he had always found it helpful to come up with a list of words specifically associated with the type of fraud scenario on which he was working.  He found the exercise useful when scanning through the piles of textual material he frequently had to plow through during complex examinations.

Data analysis in the traditional sense involves running rule-based queries on structured data, such as that contained in transactional databases or financial accounting systems. This type of analysis can yield valuable insight into potential frauds. But, a more complete analysis requires that fraud examiners (like my friend) also consider unstructured textual data. Data are either structured or unstructured. Structured data is the type of data found in a database, consisting of recognizable and predictable structures. Examples of structured data include sales records, payment or expense details, and financial reports. Unstructured data, by contrast, is data that would not be found in a traditional spreadsheet or database. It is typically text based.

Our client’s employees are sending and receiving more email messages each year, retaining ever more electronic source documents, and using more social media tools. Today, we can anticipate unstructured data to come from numerous sources, including:

• Social media posts
• Instant messages
• Videos
• Voice files
• User documents
• Mobile phone software applications
• News feeds
• Sales and marketing material
• Presentations

Textual analytics is a method of using software to extract usable information from unstructured text data. Through the application of linguistic technologies and statistical techniques, including weighted fraud indicators (e.g., my friend’s fraud keywords) and scoring algorithms, textual analytics software can categorize data to reveal patterns, sentiments, and relationships indicative of fraud. For example, an analysis of email communications might help a fraud examiner gauge the pressures/incentives, opportunities, and rationalizations to commit fraud that exist in a client organization.

According to my colleague, as a prelude to textual analytics (depending on the type of fraud risk present in a fraud examiner’s investigation), the examiner  will frequently profit by coming up with a list of fraud keywords that are likely to point to suspicious activity. This list will depend on the industry of the client, suspected fraud schemes, and the data set the fraud examiner has available. In other words, if s/he is running a search through journal entry detail, s/he will likely search for different fraud keywords than if s/he were running a search of emails. It might be helpful to look at the ACFE’s fraud triangle when coming up with a keyword list. The factors identified in the triangle are helpful when coming up with a fraud keyword list. Consider how someone in the entity under investigation might have the opportunity to commit fraud, be under pressure to commit fraud, or be able to rationalize the commission of fraud.

Many people commit fraud because of something that has happened in their life that motivates them to steal. Maybe they find themselves in debt, or perhaps they must meet a certain goal to qualify for a performance-based bonus. Keywords that might indicate pressure include deadline, quota, trouble, short, problem, and concern. Think of words that would indicate that someone has the opportunity or ability to commit fraud. Examples include override, write-off, recognize revenue, adjust, discount, and reserve/provision.

Since most fraudsters do not have a criminal background, justifying their actions is a key part of committing fraud. Some keywords that might indicate a fraudster is rationalizing his actions include reasonable, deserve, and temporary.

So, even though the concepts embodied in the fraud triangle are a good place to start when developing a keyword list, it’s also important to consider the nature of the client entity’s industry and the types of payments it makes or is suspected of making. Think about the fraud scenarios that are likely to have occurred. Does the entity do a significant amount of work overseas or have many contractors? If so, there might be an elevated risk of bribery. Focus on the payment text descriptions in journal entries or in work delated documentation, since no one calls it “bribe expense.” Some examples of word combinations in payment descriptions that might merit special attention include:

• Goodwill payment
• Consulting fee
• Processing fee
• Incentive payment
• Donation
• Special commission
• One-time payment
• Special payment
• Friend fee
• Volume contract incentive

Any payment descriptions bearing these, or similar terms warrant extra scrutiny to check for reasonableness. Also, examiners should always be wary of large cash disbursements that have a blank journal payment description.

Beyond key word lists, the ACFE tells us that another way to discover fraud clues hidden in text is to consider the emotional tone of employee correspondence. In emails and instant messages, for instance, a fraud examiner should identify derogatory, surprised, secretive, or worried communications. In one example, former Enron CEO Ken Lay’s emails were analyzed, revealing that as the company came closer to filing bankruptcy, his email correspondence grew increasingly derogatory, confused, and angry. This type of analysis provided powerful evidence that he knew something was wrong at the company.

While advanced textual analytics can be extremely revealing and can provide clues for potential frauds that might otherwise go unnoticed, the successful application of such analytics requires the use of sophisticated software, as well as a thorough understanding of the legal environment of employee rights and workplace searches. Consequently, fraud examiners who are considering adding textual analytics to their fraud detection arsenal should consult with technological and legal experts before undertaking such techniques.

Even with sophisticated data analysis techniques, some data are so vast or complex that they remain difficult to analyze using traditional means. Visually representing data via graphs,  link diagrams, time-series charts, and other illustrative representations can bring clarity to a fraud examination. The utility of visual representations is enhanced as data grow in volume and complexity. Visual analytics build on humans’ natural ability to absorb a greater volume of information in visual rather than numeric form and to perceive certain patterns, shapes, and shades more easily than others.

Link analysis software is used by fraud examiners to create visual representations (e.g., charts with lines showing connections) of data from multiple data sources to track the movement of money; demonstrate complex networks; and discover communications, patterns, trends, and relationships. Link analysis is very effective for identifying indirect relationships and relationships with several degrees of separation. For this reason, link analysis is particularly useful when conducting a money laundering investigation because it can track the placement, layering, and integration of money as it moves around unexpected sources. It could also be used to detect a fictitious vendor (shell company) scheme. For instance, the investigator could map visual connections between a variety of entities that share an address and bank account number to reveal a fictitious vendor created to embezzle funds from a company.  The following are some other examples of the analyses and actions fraud examiners can perform using link analysis software:

• Associate communications, such as email, instant messages, and internal phone records, with events and individuals to reveal connections.
• Uncover indirect relationships, including those that are connected through several intermediaries.
• Show connections between entities that share an address, bank account number, government identification number (e.g., Social Security number), or other characteristics.
• Demonstrate complex networks (including social networks).

Imagine a listing of vendors, customers, employees, or financial transactions of a global company. Most of the time, these records will contain a reference to a location, including country, state, city, and possibly specific street address. By visually analyzing the site or frequency of events in different geographical areas, a fraud investigator has yet another variable with which s/he can make inferences.

Finally, timeline analysis software aids fraud examiners in transforming their data into visual timelines. These visual timelines enable fraud examiners to:

• Highlight key times, dates, and facts.
• More readily determine a sequence of events.
• Analyze multiple or concurrent sequences of events.
• Track unaccounted for time.
• Identify inconsistencies or impossibilities in data.

Confidential Sources & Informants

There has been much in the news recently concerning the confidential sources and informants involved in current Federal on-going criminal and non-criminal investigations.  During the more complex of our examinations, we, as practicing fraud examiners and forensic accountants, can also expect to encounter the same types of sources and informants. Both sources and informants serve the same purpose, to provide information helpful in the development of a case. However, there are notable differences between confidential sources and confidential informants; the two terms should not be used interchangeably.

A confidential source furnishes information simply consequent on being a member of an occupation or profession and has no culpability in the alleged offense. For example, confidential sources might include barbers, attorneys, accountants, and law enforcement personnel. A confidential informant on the other hand has a direct or indirect involvement in the matter under investigation, and s/he might (incidentally) also be culpable. The distinction between the two sources is their involvement or noninvolvement in the offense. As every CFE knows, informants can pose treacherous legal issues for the fraud examiner.

There is no question that information provided by a well-placed informant can be invaluable to any case; secretly photographed or recorded conversations provided by an informant are the most convincing type of evidence. This information is generally viewed as something the use of which is sure to be successful for a criminal prosecutor, because there is little that a white-collar criminal can dispute when caught red-handed in the fraudulent act.

The ACFE identifies several types of informants with which a CFE might expect to become directly or indirectly involved: the basic lead, the participant, the covert, and the accomplice/witness.

—Basic Lead Informants. This type of informant supplies information to the investigator about illicit activities that they have encountered. The reasons that the informant decides to supply information are varied; some informants simply want to “do their part” to stop an unscrupulous activity, while others are interested in harming the criminals against whom they are informing. For instance, many informants in drug, prostitution, or illegal gambling endeavors are involved in those activities as well and intend to eliminate some of their competition. Whatever the reason, these informants’ only role in an investigation is to supply useful information.

—Participant informants.  The participant informant is directly involved in gathering preliminary evidence in the investigation. The informant in this instance not only supplies an investigation with information, but the informant is also involved in setting up a “sting” operation, initiating contact with the criminal for arrest purposes. A participant informant is just what the name suggests, a participant in the investigation of criminal activity.

—Covert informants. A covert informant also supplies information on criminal behavior to an investigator or to authorities. The difference between covert informants and other types of informants is that a covert informant is one who has been embedded in a situation or scenario for a period, sometimes for years, and is called upon only sporadically for newly uncovered information (i.e., tip-offs) and leads. These types of informants are often referred to as moles because of the nature of their insulated situation as inside sources. There are two instances in which covert informants are commonly used: in organized crime and in hate-extremist group investigations. Covert informants are often culled to get information about upcoming criminal activities by such groups.

—Accomplice/witness informants. The accomplice/witness informant is often called upon to provide information concerning criminal activity. Unlike other types of informants, the accomplice/witness informant seeks to avoid prosecution for an offense by providing investigators with helpful information. For example, the government might promise leniency if the accomplice/witness informant offers details about a co-conspirator.

There are three essential procedures for the investigator to keep in mind and follow when using sources and informants. First, strive to keep the informant’s identity as confidential as possible. Second, independently verify the information provided by the source or informant. Third, develop witness and documentary evidence from independently verified information. For example, an informant might indicate that an investigative target committed fraud. If the fraud examiner subsequently conducts an interview and gets a confession out of the target, the information is no longer dependent on the informant’s claim.

If the confidential source or informant has provided documents, names of potential witnesses, or other evidence, all reasonable steps must be taken to protect the identity of that source. Care should be taken to ensure that the questioning of other witnesses is done in a manner that does not reveal its origin. This can usually be accomplished by phrasing questions in a certain way. For example, Smith furnished confidential information about Jones, the co-owner of Jones Brothers Construction Company. When the fraud examiner confronts Jones, she does not want him to know that she has talked to Smith.

If necessary, in this example, the fraud examiner would display the evidence from witnesses and documents that would not reveal the source or informant’s identity. The information from the source or informant is basically useless unless the fraud examiner can verify its authenticity and independently corroborate it. Suppose a source furnishes the fraud examiner with copies of documents showing that Jones Brothers Construction Company’s building code violations dropped by 80 percent since a bribery arrangement allegedly began. This kind of evidence would corroborate the source’s story. If a source told the fraud examiner that Jones frequently had drinks with Walters, the city’s chief building inspector, the fraud examiner would want to find out some way to verify this information. Recall that the third objective when using sources is to develop the witness’s information and other evidence so that it makes a cohesive case.

Fraud examiners should make every effort to develop and cultivate a wide range of sources. Business and financial institution executives, law enforcement and other governmental personnel, medical and educational professionals, and internal and external auditors are always good contacts for practicing fraud examiners.

The fraud examiner should strive to make contacts in her community, well in advance of needing the information they can provide; my contacts on LinkedIn and in the Central Virginia ACFE Chapter have proven their investigative value again and again!  If the fraud examiner receives an allegation and needs confidential information, s/he might obtain assistance from a source cultivated earlier.  Additionally, we need sources to feel confident that they can share information with us without being compromised. In theory, the source will never have to testify; s/he has no firsthand knowledge. Firsthand information comes either from a witness or from a document.

The fraud examiner might also encounter new sources when tracking leads during a specific investigation. S/he might interview a stockbroker from whom the target purchased stock but who does not want his identity revealed. The fraud examiner shou1d not encourage a person to provide confidential information, but rather try to get verifying reports on the record. But if the fraud examiner promises confidentiality for a source’s information, she must abide by that promise.

The ACFE advises that active recruitment of informants is generally not desirable because doing so might appear unseemly to a jury. It is better to encourage an informant to come forward. It is also desirable to develop an informant relationship, but such relationships must be handled carefully. The fraud examiner must be careful to clearly document the adequate predication for an informant’s involvement. Generally, the most fundamental questions concerning informants will focus on the degree of their culpability or the lack of it. There have been cases where the informant is guiltier than the target; in such cases the court might rule that the informant’s information cannot be introduced.

Finally, it’s recommended that all contact with informants and-sources be reported on a memorandum, although the confidential source or informant’s identity should not be included in the report. Instead of including the source or informant’s identity, the fraud examiner should use symbols to denote the source’s identity. It is further recommended that sources be preceded with an “S,” followed by a unique identifier (i.e., source #1 would be “S-l”; source #2 would be “S-2”). The symbols for informants would then be “I-1” and “I-2.”

Generally, disclosure of the identities of sources and informants should be on a strict need to-know basis. For that reason, the person’s identity should be maintained in a secure file with limited access, and it should be cross-indexed by the source’s symbol number. The reliability of the source, if known, and whether the person can furnish relevant information should always be documented in writing.

Tailoring Difficult Conversations

We CFE’s and forensic accountants, like other investigative professionals, are often called upon to be the bearers of bad news; it just goes with the territory.  CFE’s and forensic accountants are somewhat unique, however, in that, since fraud is ubiquitous, we’re called upon to communicate negative messages to such a diverse range of client types; today the chairman of an audit committee, tomorrow a corporate counsel, the day after that an estranged wife whose spouse has run off after looting the family business.

If there is anything worse than getting bad news, it may be delivering it. No one relishes the awkward, difficult, anxiety-producing exercise of relaying messages that may hurt, humiliate, or upset someone with whom the deliverer has a professional relationship. And, what’s more,  it often proves a thankless task. This was recognized in a Greek proverb almost 2,500 years ago, “Nobody loves the messenger who brings bad news.”

Physicians, who are sometimes required to deliver worse news than most CFE’s ever will, often engage in many hours of classwork and practical experience studying and role-playing how to have difficult conversations with patients and their families They know that the message itself, may be devastating but how they deliver it can help the patient and his or her family begin to process even the most painful facts.   CFE’s are in the fortunate position of typically not having to deliver news that is quite so shattering.  Nevertheless, there is no question that certain investigative results can be extremely difficult to convey and to receive.  The ACFE tells us that learning how to prepare for and deliver such messages can create not only a a better investigator but facilitate a better investigative outcome.

Preparation to deliver difficult investigative results should begin well in advance, even before there is such a result to deliver. If the first time an investigator has a genuine interaction with the client is to confirm the existence of a fraud, that fact in itself constitutes a problem.  On the other hand, if the investigator has invested time in building a relationship before that difficult meeting takes place, the intent and motivations of both parties to the interaction are much better mutually understood. Continuous communication via weekly updates to clients from the moment irregularities are noted by examination is vital.

However, despite best efforts in building relationships and staying in regular contact with clients, some meetings will involve conveying difficult news. In those cases, preparation is critical to accomplishing objectives while dealing with any resultant fallout.  In such cases, the ACFE recommends focusing on investigative process as well as on content. Process is professionally performing the work, self-preparation for delivering the message, explaining the conclusions in meaningful and realistic ways, and for anticipating the consequences and possible response of the person receiving the message. Content is having the right data and valid conclusions so  the message is correct and complete.

Self-preparation involves considering the type of person who is receiving the difficult message and in determining the best approach for communicating it. Some people want to hear the bottom line first and the supporting information after that; others want to see a methodical building of the case item by item, with the conclusion at the end. Some are best appealed to via logic; others need a more empathetic delivery. Discussions guided by the appropriate approach are more likely to be productive. Put as much effort as possible into getting to know your client since personality tends to drive how he or she wants to receive information, interact with others, and, in turn, values things and people. When there is critical investigative information that has to be understood and accepted, seasoned examiners consider delivery tailored specifically to the client to be paramount.

Once the ground work has been laid, it’s time to have the discussion. It’s important, regarding the identified fraud, to remember to …

–Seek opportunities to balance the discussion by recognizing the client’s processes that are working well as well as those that have apparently failed;

–Offer to help or ask how you can help to address the specific issues raised in the discussion;

–Make it clear that you understand the client’s challenges. Be precise and factual in describing the causes of the identified irregularity;

–Maintain open body language. Avoid crossing your arms, don’t place your hands over your mouth or on your face, and keep your palms facing each other or slightly upwards instead of downwards. Don’t lean forward as this appears extra aggressive. Breathe deeply and evenly. If possible, mimic the body language of the message recipient, if the recipient is remaining calm. If the recipient begins to show signs of defensiveness or strong aggression, and your efforts to calm
the situation are not successful, you might suggest a follow-up meeting after both of you have digested what was said and to consider mutually acceptable options to move forward.

–Present the bottom-line message three times in different ways so your listener has time to absorb it.

–Let the client vent if he or she wishes. The ACFE warns against a tendency to interrupt the client’s remarks of explanation or sometimes of denial; “we don’t hire people who would do something like that!” Allowing the client time to vent frees him or her to get down to business moving afterward.

–Focus on problems with the process as well as on the actions of the suspect(s) to build context for the fraud scenario.

–Always demonstrate empathy. Take time to think about what’s going through your hearer’s mind and help him or her think through the alleged scenario and how it occurred, what’s going to happen next with the investigation, and how the range of issues raised by the investigation might be resolved.

Delivering difficult information is a minefield, and there are ample opportunities to take a wrong step and see explosive results. Emotional intelligence, understanding how to read people and relate to them, is vital in delivering difficult messages effectively. This is not an innate trait for many people, and it is a difficult one to learn, as are many of the other so-called soft skills. Yet they can be critical to the successful practice of fraud examination. Examiners rarely get in trouble over their technical skills because such skills are generally easier for them to master.  Examiners tend to get in trouble over insufficient soft skills. College degrees and professional certifications are all aimed at the technical skills. Sadly, very little is done on the front end to help examiners with the equally critical soft skills which only arise after the experience of actual practice.  For that reason, watching a mentor deliver difficult messages or deal with emotional people is also an effective way to absorb good practices. ACFE training utilizes the role-playing of potentially troublesome presentations to a friendly group (say, the investigative staff) as another way to exercise one’s skills.

Delivering bad news is largely a matter of practice and experience, and it’s not something CFEs and forensic accountants have the choice to avoid. At the end of the day, examiners need to deliver our news verbally and in writing and to facilitate our clients understanding of it. The underlying objective is to ensure that the fact of the alleged fraud is adequately identified, reported and addressed, and that the associated risk is understood and effectively mitigated.

First Things First

About a decade ago, I attended a training session at the Virginia State Police training center conducted by James D. Ratley, then the training director for the ACFE. The training session contained some valuable advice for CFE’s and forensic accountants on immediate do’s and don’ts if an examiner strongly suspects the presence of employee perpetrated financial fraud within a client’s organization. Mr. Ratley’s counsel is as relevant today as it was then.

Ratley advised that every significant employee matter (whether a theft is involved or not) requires thoughtful examiner deliberation before any action is taken, since hasty moves will likely prove detrimental to both the investigator and to the client company. Consequently, knowing what should not be done if fraud is suspected is often more important to an eventual successful outcome than what should be done.

First, the investigator should not initially confront the employee with his or her suspicions until the investigator has first taken several important preliminary investigative steps.  Even when those steps have been taken, it may prove necessary to use a different method of informing the employee regarding her status, imminent material harm notwithstanding. False (or even valid) accusations can lead to defamation lawsuits or at the very least to an extremely uncomfortable work environment. The hasty investigator or management could offend an innocent person by questioning her integrity; consequently, your client company may never be able to regain that person’s trust or prior level of commitment. That downside is just one example of the collateral damage that can result from a fraud. Even if the employee is ultimately found to be guilty, an investigator’s insinuation gives him or her time to alter records and conceal the theft, and perhaps even siphon off more assets. It takes only a moment for an experienced person to erase a computer’s hard drive and shred documents. Although, virtually all business records can be reconstructed, reconstruction is a costly and time-consuming process that always aggravates an already stressful situation.

Second, as a rule, never terminate or suspend the suspect employee until the preliminary investigative steps referred to above have been taken.  The desire on the part of management to take decisive action is understandable, but hasty actions may be detrimental to the subsequent investigation and to the company. Furthermore, there may be certain advantages to continuing the person’s employment status for a brief period because his or her continued status might compel the suspect to take certain actions to your client’s or to the investigation’s benefit. This doesn’t apply to government employees since, unlike private sector employees, they cannot be compelled to participate in the investigation. There can be occasions, however, where it is necessary to immediately terminate the employee. For example, employees who serve in a position whose continued employment could put others at risk physically, financially, or otherwise may need to be terminated immediately. Such circumstances are rare, but if they do occur, management (and the CFE) should document the entire process and advise corporate counsel immediately.

Third, again, as a rule, the investigator should never share her initial suspicions with other employees unless their assistance is crucial, and then only if they are requested to maintain strict confidentiality.  The CFE places an arduous burden on anyone in whom s/he has confided. Asking an employee to shoulder such responsibilities is uncharted territory for nearly anyone (including for the examiner) and can aggravate an already stressful situation. An examiner may view the confidence placed in an employee as a reflection of his and management’s trust. However, the employee may view the uninvited responsibility as taking sides with management at the expense of his relationship with other employees. Consequently, this step should be taken only if necessary and, again, after consultation with counsel and management.

Regarding the do’s, Ratley recommended that the instant that an employee fraud matter surfaces, the investigator should begin continuous documentation of all pertinent investigation-related actions taken. Such documentation includes a chronological, written narrative composed with as much specificity as time permits. Its form can take many shapes, such as handwritten notes, Microsoft Word files, spreadsheets, emails to yourself or others, and/or relevant data captured in almost any other reproducible medium. This effort will, of course, be time consuming for management but is yet another example of the collateral damage resulting from almost any employee fraud. The documentation should also reference all direct and related costs and expenses incurred by the investigator and by the client company. This documentation will support insurance claims and be vital to a subsequent restitution process.  Other collateral business damages, such as the loss of customers, suppliers, or the negative fiscal impact on other employees may also merit documentation as appropriate.

Meetings with corporate counsel are also an important do.  An employee fraud situation is complex and fraught with risk for the investigator and for the client company. The circumstances can require broad and deep expertise in employment law, criminal law, insurance law, banking law, malpractice law, and various other legal concentrations. Fortunately, most corporate attorneys will acknowledge when they need to seek additional expertise beyond their own experience since a victim company counsel specializing in corporate matters may have little or no background in matters of fraud. Acknowledgment by an attorney that s/he needs additional expertise is a testament to his or her integrity. Furthermore, the client’s attorney may contribute value by participating throughout the duration of the investigation and possible prosecution and by bringing to bear his or her cumulative knowledge of the company to the benefit of the organization.

Next, depending on the nature of the fraud and on the degree of its fiscal impact, CFEs should meet with the client’s CPA firm but exercise caution. The client CPA may be well versed in their involvement with your client through their work on income taxes, audit, review, and compilations, but not in forensic analysis or fraud examination. Larger CPA firms may have departments that they claim specialize in financial forensics; the truth is that actual experience in these matters can vary widely. Furthermore, remember that the situation occurred under your client CPA’s watch, so the firm may not be free of conflict.

Finally, do determine from management as early as possible the range of actions it might want to take with respect to the suspect employee if subsequent investigation confirms the suspicion that fraud has indeed occurred.  Deciding how to handle the matter of what to do with the employee by relying upon advice from management and from the legal team can be quite helpful in shaping what investigative steps are taken subsequently. Ratley pointed out that the level and availability of evidence often drive actions relating to the suspect. For example, the best course of action for management may be to do nothing immediately, to closely monitor and document the employee’s activities, to suspend the employee with pay, or immediately terminate the suspect’s employment. There may be valid reasons to exercise any one of these options.

Let’s say the CFE is advised by management to merely monitor and document the employee’s activities since the CFE currently lacks sufficient evidence to suspend or terminate the employee immediately. The CFE and the client’s IT operation could both be integral parts of this option by designing a plan to protect the client from further loss while the investigation continues behind the scenes. The investigation can take place after hours or under the guise of an “efficiency audit,” “business planning,” or other designation. In any case, this option will probably require the investigator to devote substantial time to observe the employee and to concurrently conduct the investigation.  The CFE will either assemble sufficient evidence to proceed or conclude there is inadequate substantiation to support the accusation.

A fraud is a devastating event for any company but Mr. Ratley’s guidance about the first steps in an investigation of employee perpetrated financial fraud can help minimize the damage.  He concluded his remarks by making two additional points; first, few executives are familiar by experience with situations that require CFE or forensic accountant expertise; consequently, their often-well-meaning actions when confronted with the actuality of a fraud can result in costly mistakes regarding time, money and people. Although many such mistakes can be repaired given sufficient money and time, they are sometimes devastating and irrecoverable.  Second, attorneys, accountants and others in the service professions frequently lack sufficient experience to recognize the vast differences between civil and criminal processes.  Consequently, these professionals often can provide the best service to their corporate clients by referring and deferring to more capable fraud examination specialists like certified fraud examiners and experienced forensic accountants.

People, People & People

Our Chapter’s Vice-President Rumbi Petrolozzi’s comment in her last blog post to the effect that one of the most challenging tasks for the forensic accountant or auditor working proactively is defining the most effective and efficient scope of work for a risk-based assurance project. Because resources are always scarce, assurance professionals need to make sure they can meet both quality and scheduling requirements whilst staying within our fixed resource and cost constraints.

An essential step in defining the scope of a project is identifying the critical risks to review and the controls required to manage those risks. An efficient scope focuses on the subset of controls (i.e., the key controls) necessary to provide assurance. Performing tests of controls that are not critical is not efficient. Similarly, failing to test controls that could be the source of major fraud vulnerabilities leads to an ineffective audit.  As Rumbi points out, and too often overlooked, the root cause of most risk and control failures is people. After all, outstanding people are required to make an organization successful, and failing to hire, retain, and train a competent team of employees inevitably leads to business failure.

In an interview, a few decades ago, one of America’s most famous business leaders was asked what his greatest challenges were in turning one of his new companies around from failure to success. He is said to have responded that his three greatest challenges were “people, people, and people.” Certainly, when assurance professionals or management analyze the reasons for data breaches and control failures, people are generally found to be the root cause. For example, weaknesses may include (echoing Rumbi):

Insufficiently trained personnel to perform the work. A common material weakness in compliance with internal control over financial reporting requirements is a lack of experienced financial reporting personnel within a company. In more traditional anti-fraud process reviews, examiners often find that control weaknesses arise because individuals don’t understand the tasks they have to perform.

Insufficient numbers to perform the work. When CPAs find that important reconciliations are not performed timely, inventories are not counted, a backlog in transaction processing exists, or agreed-upon corrective actions to address prior audit findings aren’t completed, managers frequently offer the excuse that their area is understaffed.

Poor management and leadership. Fraud examiners find again and again, that micromanagers and dictators can destroy a solid finance function. At the other end of the spectrum, the absence of leadership, motivation, and communication can cause whole teams to flounder. Both situations generally lead to a failure to perform key controls consistently. For example, poor managers have difficulty retaining experienced professionals to perform account reconciliations on time and with acceptable levels of quality leading directly to an enhanced level of vulnerability to numerous fraud scenarios.

Ineffective human resource practices. In some cases, management may choose to accept a certain level of inefficiency and retain individuals who are not performing up to par. For instance, in an example cited by one of our ACFE training event speakers last year, the financial analysis group of a U.S. manufacturing company was failing to provide management with timely business information. Although the department was sufficiently staffed, the team members were ineffective. Still, management did not have the resolve to terminate poor performers, for fear it would not be possible to hire quality analysts to replace the people who were terminated.

In such examples, people-related weaknesses result in business process key control failures often leading to the facilitation of subsequent frauds. The key control failure was the symptom, and the people-related weakness was the root cause. As a result, the achievement of the business objective of fraud prevention is rendered at risk.

Consider a fraud examiner’s proactive assessment of an organization’s procurement function. If the examiner finds that all key controls are designed adequately and operating effectively, in compliance with company policy, and targeted cost savings are being generated, should s/he conclude the controls are adequate? What if that department has a staff attrition rate of 25 percent and morale is low? Does that change the fraud vulnerability assessment? Clearly, even if the standard set of controls were in place, the function would not be performing at optimal levels.  Just as people problems can lead to risk and control failures, exceptional people can help a company achieve success. In fact, an effective system of internal control considers the adequacy of controls not only to address the risks related to poor people-related management but also to recognize reduction in fraud vulnerability due to excellence in people-related management.

The people issue should be addressed in at least two phases of the assurance professional’s review process: planning and issue analysis (i.e., understanding weaknesses, their root cause, and the appropriate corrective actions).  In the planning phase, the examiner should consider how people-related anti-fraud controls might impact the review and which controls should be included in the scope. The following questions might be considered in relation to anti-fraud controls over staffing, organization, training, management and leadership, performance appraisals, and employee development:

–How significant would a failure of people-related controls be to the achievement of objectives and the management of business risk covered by the examination?
–How critical is excellence in people management to the achievement of operational excellence related to the objectives of the review?

Issue analysis requires a different approach. Reviewers may have to ask the question “why” three or more times before they get to the root cause of a problem. Consider the following little post-fraud dialogue (we’ve all heard variations) …

CFE: “Why weren’t the reconciliations completed on time?”
MANAGER. “Because we were busy closing the books and one staff member was on vacation.”
CFE: “You are still expected to complete the reconciliations, which are critical to closing the books. Even with one person on vacation, why were you too busy?”
MANAGER: “We just don’t have enough people to get everything done, even when we work through weekends and until late at night.”
CFE: “Why don’t you have enough people?”
MANAGER: “Management won’t let me hire anybody else because of cost constraints.”
CFE: “Why won’t management let you hire anybody? Don’t they realize the issue?”
MANAGER: “Well, I think they do, but I have been so busy that I may not have done an effective job of explaining the situation. Now that you are going to write this up as a control weakness, maybe they will.”

The root cause of the problem in this scenario is that the manager responsible for reconciliations failed to provide effective leadership. She did not communicate the problem and ensure she had sufficient resources to perform the work assigned. The root cause is a people problem, and the reviewer should address that directly in his or her final report. If the CFE only reports that the reconciliations weren’t completed on time, senior management might only press the manager to perform better without understanding the post-fraud need for both performance improvement and additional staff.

In many organizations, it’s difficult for a reviewer to discuss people issues with management, even when these issues can be seen to directly and clearly contribute to fraud vulnerably. Assurance professionals may find it tricky, for political reasons to recommend the hiring of additional staff or to explain that the existing staff members do not have the experience or training necessary to perform their assigned tasks. Additionally, we are likely to run into political resistance when reporting management and leadership failure. But, that’s the job assurance professionals are expected to perform; to provide an honest, objective assessment of the condition of critical anti-fraud controls including those related to people.  If the scope of our work does not consider people risks, or if reviewers are unable to report people-related weaknesses, we are not adding the value we should. We’re also failing to report on matters critical to the maintenance and extension of the client’s anti-fraud program.

The Right Question, the Right Way

As every CFE knows, an integral part of the fraud examination process involves obtaining information from people. Regardless of the interview’s objective, all CFEs should embrace the role of interviewer and use the time-tested techniques recommended to us by the ACFE. But asking the right questions does not necessarily ensure key information will be uncovered; an effective interviewer also recognizes the need to separate truth from deception. Consequently, crafting effective questions, understanding the communication dynamics at play, actively participating in the interview process, and remaining alert to signs of deception will help examiners increase the effectiveness and efficiency of our interviews and of our overall engagements.

Some interviewers try to gather as much information using as few questions as possible and end up receiving convoluted or vague responses. Others seek confirmation of every detail, which can quickly turn an interview into an unproductive probing of minutia. Balancing thoroughness and efficiency is imperative to obtaining the necessary and relevant facts without overburdening the interviewee. Because the location of this line varies by interviewee, CFEs can find this balance most effectively by ensuring they ask only clear questions throughout the interview.

Some individuals might respond to a question in a way that doesn’t provide a direct answer or that veers off topic. Sometimes these responses are innocent; sometimes they are not. To make the most of an interview, examiners must remain in control of the situation, regardless of how the interviewee responds.  Being assertive does not require being impolite, however. In some instances, wording questions as a subtle command (e.g., “Tell me about…. or “Please describe….) can help establish the interview relationship. Additionally, remaining in control does not mean dissuading the interviewee from exploring pertinent topics that are outside the planned discussion points.  Interview questions can be structured in several ways, each with its own strengths, weaknesses, and ideal usage. Open questions ask the interviewee to describe or explain something. Most examination interviews should rely heavily on open questions, as these provide the best view of how things operate and the perspective of the staff member involved in a particular area. They also enable the reviewer to observe the interviewee’s demeanor and attitude, which can provide additional information about specific issues. However, if the CFE believes an individual might not stay on topic or may avoid providing certain information, open questions should be used cautiously.  In contrast, closed questions can be answered with a specific, definitive response, most often “yes” or “no.” They are not meant to provide the big picture but can be useful in gathering details such as amounts and dates. Examiners should use closed questions sparingly in an informational interview, as they do not encourage the flow of information as effectively as open questions.

Occasionally, the questioner might want to direct the interviewee toward a specific point or evoke a certain reply. Leading questions can be useful in such circumstances by exploring an assumption, a fact or piece of information, that the interviewee did not provide previously. When used appropriately, such questions can help the interviewer confirm facts that the interviewee might be hesitant to discuss. Examples of leading questions include: “So there have been no changes in the process since last year?” and “You sign off on these exception reports, correct?” If the interviewee does not deny the assumption, then the fact is confirmed. However,  before using leading questions, the interviewer should raise the topic with open questions and allow the interviewee the chance to volunteer information.

The examiner should establish and maintain an appropriate level of eye contact with the interviewee throughout the interview to personalize the interaction and build rapport. However, the appropriate level of eye contact varies by culture and even by person; consequently, the examiner should pay attention to the interviewee to determine the level of eye contact that makes him or her comfortable.

People tend to mirror each other’s body language subconsciously as a way of bonding and creating rapport. CFEs can help put interviewees at ease by subtly reflecting their body language. Further, the skilled interviewer can assess the level of rapport established by changing posture and by watching the interviewee’s response. This information can help CFEs determine whether to move into sensitive areas of questioning or to continue establishing a connection with the individual.

Confirming periodically that the examiner is listening can encourage interviewees to continue talking. For example, the interviewer can provide auditory confirmation with a simple “mmm hmmm” and nonverbal confirmation by nodding or leaning toward the interviewee during his or her response.

When the interviewee finishes a narrative response, the examiner can encourage additional information by echoing back the last point the person made. This confirms that the interviewer is actively listening and absorbing the information, and it provides a starting point for the person to continue the response.

Occasionally, the examiner might summarize the information provided to that point so that the interviewee can affirm, clarify, or correct the interviewer’s understanding.

Most often, the greatest impediment to an effective interview is the interviewer him or herself.  While it is clearly important for the interviewer to observe, to listen, and to assess the subject in a variety of ways, the role of the interviewer, and the effect he or she has on the interview process, cannot be minimized.

The interviewer typically focuses on the subject as the person who will provide the information he or she seeks. The interviewer concentrates on establishing rapport, listening effectively, analyzing the subject’s verbal and nonverbal communication, and gauging how much or how little the subject is telling her. These are valid areas of concentration for the interviewer. One significant risk is that the interviewer may pay too little attention to the negative influences s/he can bring to the interview, process. The terms interview and communication are interchangeable, and effective communication is a two-way street. What makes the interviewer an effective communicator and effective interviewer is not just the signals he or she picks up from the subject but also the signals, the information, the tone, and the body language he or she sends to the subject. It is highly presumptuous of the interviewer to think he or she has little or no effect on the subject and that the subject is not evaluating, assessing, and analyzing the interviewer.

The interviewer’s style of dress, jewelry, and grooming may tell the subject as much about the interviewer as does the interviewer’s demeanor. If the interviewer is overdressed for the occasion, does it make the subject feel inferior or intimidated? If too casual, does the interviewer send a signal of the lack of importance of the interview and, as a result, does the subject become too relaxed or not as attentive? Attire should have a desired effect. For example, when interviewing an enforcement officer or other professional who is familiar with uniforms and clothing as indicators of status, it may be appropriate to wear a coat and tie. In general, it is best to always to err on the side of conservative dress for the circumstances.

The examiner should not attempt to interview two or more persons at one time unless there is no other option. It is more difficult to control an interview with two or more subjects. One subject may be more dominant than the other. The subjects will influence each other’s memories. Some subjects will not want to embarrass themselves in front of a peer or supervisor. The environment for confidential communications will be adversely affected.

When the interviewer responds to the subject’s responses, he sends signals. At times, it might be advisable to not write notes down at the time the individual tells the interviewer something sensitive. Rather, the interviewer might consider devoting his attention to the subject and writing down the sensitive information after the conversation has moved away from the sensitive area.  The interviewer should never become argumentative, antagonistic, or belligerent. The use of the  “Good Cop, Bad Cop” routine can have unwanted results, especially long term. The CFE interviewer should use tact, speak clearly and with authority but without use of threatening language. The interviewer should consistently set a professional tone.

Finally, all individuals want to be shown respect. Maintaining the personal dignity of the subject is critical for the success of the interview and follow-up efforts. Everyone wants respect, from homeless persons to top executives. To be shown respect, especially if the subject is not accustomed to it, is disarming and contributes to that essential, professional tone.

Structure & Scope

T.J. Jones presented himself as a turnaround specialist to the Chairman of the Board of Central State Corporation, a medium sized, public company, a mid-western manufacturer of computer equipment, who hired him to take over a large, but under-performing division of the company.  Jones immediately set out lofty goals for sales and profits and very quickly replaced all the existing senior staff of the division with new hires loyal to himself. To meet his inflated goals, two of Jones’s managers, in addition to legitimate equipment sales, shipped bricks to distributors and recorded some as sales of equipment to retail distributors and some as inventory out on consignment. No real products left the plant for these “special sales.” The theory was that actual sales would inevitably grow, and the bricks could be replaced later with real products. In the meantime, the unwitting distributors thought they were holding consignment inventory in the unopened cartons.

The result was that overstated sales and accounts receivable quickly caused overstated net income, retained earnings, current assets, working capital, and total assets. Prior to the manipulation, annual sales of the division were $135 million. During the two falsification years of the fraud, sales were $185 million and $362 million. Net income went up from a loss of $20 million to $23 million (income), then to $31 million (income); and the gross margin percent went from 6 percent to 28 percent. The revenue and profit figures outpaced the performance of Central State’s industry category. The accounts receivable collection period grew to 94 days, while it was 70 days elsewhere in the industry.

All the paperwork was in order because the two hand-picked managers had falsified the sales and consignment invoices, even though they did not have customer purchase orders for all the false sales. Shipping papers were in order, and several co-operating shipping employees knew that not every box shipped contained disk drives. Company accounting and control procedures required customer purchase orders or contracts evidencing real orders. A sales invoice was supposed to indicate the products and their prices, and shipping documents were supposed to indicate actual shipment. Sales were always charged to a customer’s account receivable.  During the actual operation of the fraud there were no glaring control omissions that would have pointed to financial fraud. Alert auditors might have noticed the high tension created by concentration on meeting profit goals. Normal selection of sales transactions with vouching to customer orders and shipping documents might have turned up a missing customer order. Otherwise, the paperwork would have seemed to be in order. The problem lay in Jones’ and his managers’ power to override controls and to instruct some shipping staff to send dummy boxes.  Confirmations of distributors’ accounts receivable may have elicited exception responses. The problem was to have a large enough confirmation sample to pick up some of these distributors or to be skeptical enough to send a special sample of confirmations to distributors who took the “sales” near the end of the accounting period. Observation of inventory could have included some routine inspection of goods not on the company’s premises.

The overstatements were not detected. The auditor’s annual confirmation sample was typically small and did not contain any of the false shipments. Tests of detail transactions did not turn up any missing customer orders. The inventory out on consignment was audited by obtaining a written confirmation from the holders, who apparently over the entire period of the fraud had not opened even one of the affected boxes. The remarkable financial performance was attributed to good management.

The fraud was revealed by one of Jones’ subordinate managers who was arrested on an unrelated drug charge and volunteered as a cooperating witness in exchange for the dropping of the drug charge.

This hypothetical case is a good example of the initial situation confronting management when a fraud affecting the financial statements comes to light, often with little or no warning. Everyone involved with company management will have a strong intuitive sense that an investigation is necessary; but the fact is that the company has now lost faith in the validity of its own public disclosures of financial performance.

That will need to be fixed. And it is not enough to simply alert markets that previously issued financial results are wrong; outsiders will want to know what the correct numbers should have been. The only way to find out is to dig into the numbers and distinguish the falsified results from the real ones. Beyond the need to set the numbers straight, the company will need to identify those complicit in the fraud and deal with them. This is not only a quest for justice but the need to restore credibility, and the company will be unable to do so until outsiders are satisfied that the wrongdoing executives and staff have been identified and removed.  Thus, the company needs an audit report on its financial statements. The need for a new audit report arises from the likelihood that, once a company’s financial statements have been found to be unreliable, the company’s external auditor will want to pull its existing, inaccurate,  report.

As a practical matter, pulling its report involves the external auditor’s recommendation that the company issue a press release that previously issued financial statements are not to be relied upon. Once the company issues such a press release, it will be out of compliance with any number of SEC regulations. It will no longer satisfy the threshold prerequisites for trading on the company’s securities exchange. It will be viewed by many, and certainly the plaintiff class action bar, as coming close to having admitted wrongdoing. And everyone on the outside, not to mention its own board of directors, will want answers fast. A critical step in the restoration of important business relationships and a return to compliance with regulatory requirements is the new auditor’s report. And, where fraudulent financial reporting has been discovered, an in-depth and comprehensive investigation is often the only way to get one.

A critical issue at the outset of a financial fraud investigation is its structure and scope. A key attribute for which the external auditor, as well as the SEC, will be on the lookout is that the investigation is overseen by the audit committee. In public companies, it is the audit committee that has explicit legal responsibility for oversight of financial reporting, and accounting fraud falls squarely within the orbit of financial reporting.  In addition, the audit committee, as a matter of statutory design, is structured to be independent and possessed of a level of financial sophistication that makes it the most viable subset of the board of directors to oversee the investigative efforts in this case. It’s also the audit committee that has the statutory power to engage and pay outside advisers even without the consent of management, a statutory power that can be vital if management, or part of management, as in our hypothetical case above, is a participant in the fraud.

The audit committee’s role is to oversee the investigation, not actually conduct it. For that it needs to look to outside professionals, and there are two types. The one is the outside counsel to the audit committee. If the audit committee has not already engaged outside counsel, it needs to do so. It’s audit committee counsel who will conduct the interviews, comb through the financial records, and present factual findings for audit committee consideration. Individual audit committee members may choose to sit in on interviews, and that is their choice. But it’s audit committee counsel who will conduct the investigation. The other group of professionals is the forensic accountants and/or CFEs.  Audit committee counsel, while knowledgeable of financial reporting obligations and investigative techniques, will probably not possess a sufficiently detailed knowledge of accounting systems, generally accepted accounting principles
(GAAP), or computerized ledgers. For that, audit committee counsel is well advised look for help to the category of accountants and fraud examiners specifically trained in digging into financial records for evidence of fraud.

What exactly is the audit committee looking for in such an investigation? There are primarily two things. The first, obviously enough, is what the actual numbers should have been. Often fraudulent entries involve judgment calls where the operative question is not whether the number matches the underlying financial records but whether the judgment behind the number was exercised in good faith.  The operative question for the investigators is whether the executive exercised his judgment in good faith to make the best estimate allowed by reasonably available information. Sometimes it’s not so easy to tell.

Beyond the correct numbers, the second thing for which the investigators are looking is executive complicity. In other words: who did it? Again, the good faith of those potentially involved comes into play. The investigators are not seeking simply whether executives reported financial results that turned out to be wrong. The issue rather is whether the executives tried to get them right. If they did and made an honest mistake or estimated incorrectly, that does not sound like fraud and may not even be a violation of GAAP to begin with. The main point here is that, when it comes to executive complicity, the investigators are ordinarily looking for evidence of wrongful intent (scienter). In other words, they are looking for an intentional misapplication of GAAP or an approach to GAAP that is so reckless as to constitute the equivalent of an intentional misapplication.

The scope of the investigation, then, should not pose too difficult an issue at the outset.  Initially, the scope will be largely defined by the potential improprieties that have been uncovered. The tricky question becomes: how far should the investigators go beyond the suspicious entries? The judgment calls here are formidable. One of the key issues involves the expectations of the external auditor and, beyond that, the SEC. If the scope is not sufficiently broad, the investigation may not be satisfactory to either one. Indeed, an insufficient scope can place the external auditor in a particularly awkward spot insofar as the SEC may subsequently fault not only the audit committee for inadequate scope but the external auditor’s acceptance of the audit committee’s investigative report.

An additional complicating factor involves the way fraud starts and grows. A critical issue to consider is that, overtime, as the Central State example illustrates, the manipulations will often get increasingly aggressive as the perpetrators spread the fraud throughout many line items so that no single account stands out as unusual but a substantial number are affected. For example, to prevent the distortion of accounts receivable from getting too large, Jones and his accomplices spread the fraud into inventory, then asset capitalization, then net income. The spread of the fraud is analogous to pouring a glass of water on a tabletop. It can spread everywhere without getting too deep in any one place.

So, once fraudulent financial reporting has been identified, even in just a few entries, the investigators will want to consider the possibility that it’s a symptom of a broader problem. If the investigators have been lucky enough to nip it in the bud, that may be the end of it.  Unfortunately, if the fraud has gotten big enough to be detected in the first place, such a limited size cannot be assumed. Even where the fraud ostensibly starts out small the need for a broader scope has got to be considered.

The scope of the investigation, therefore, can start out with its parameters guided by the suspicious entries revealed at the outset. In most cases, though, it will need to broaden to ensure that additional areas are not affected as well. Throughout the investigation, moreover, the scope will have to remain flexible. The investigators will have to stay on the lookout for additional clues, and will have to follow where they lead. Faced with an ostensibly ever-widening scope, initial audit committee frustration is both to be expected and understandable. But there is just no practical alternative.

Asked and Answered

Some months ago, I was involved as a member of an out-of-town fraud examination team during which the question of note taking during an investigative interview arose. A younger member of the team (a junior internal auditor) wanted to know about approaches to the documentation of not just one, but possibly of the several prospective interview sessions it initially appeared might be necessary regarding the examination.

As the ACFE tells us, notes, whether handwritten or recorded, always send an unambiguous signal to the subject that the interviewer is memorializing his or her comments. Interviews without notes are significantly limited in their value and may even signal to the interview subject that it may later be just a question of her word against the interviewer’s. If the interviewer takes only cryptic or shorthand notes and later reviews those notes with the subject to confirm what was said, the interviewer should recognize that the notes, while confirmed and edited to a certain extent, will still be less than complete.

On the other hand, tape recording an interview is a significant obstacle to full cooperation. People are reluctant to be recorded. For the most part, the use of tape recorders to take notes is not recommended in situations involving a potential fraud. Most subjects will resist the use of recorders and, even in circumstances where the subject may have agreed to their use, their responses will be more guarded than if a recorder was not used. If a recorder is used, be sure to begin the taping by recording the date, time, names of the individuals present, and an acknowledgment by the subject that they know the interview is being recorded and they have agreed to be recorded.

Once the interviewer has determined how s/he will document the interview, s/he should ask the subject if it is okay to take notes or record the session. It is the polite and professional thing to do and it serves two purposes:

–It is part of the process by which the subject is encouraged to be a participant;
–If the subject balks or tells the interviewer she does mind that the interviewer takes notes, it can open a line of questioning by the interviewer to determine the exact cause of the subject’s objections;

The subject should always be advised that note taking is critical to the integrity of the process and that notes ensure that what the subject says is documented properly. Failure to take notes limits the information to the memory and interpretation of the interviewer.  In a professional setting, most subjects will understand the critical nature of notes. Very few people will say it is not all right to take notes, regardless of how they feel about it. If they are absolutely opposed to the taking of notes, find out why and concentrate on what the subject says and reduce the interview to notes as quickly as possible after the interview. With a hostile subject who opposes note taking, the interviewer can ask if it is okay for her to make selected notes regarding dates or things the interviewer might not remember later. The interviewer can explain that it is important that s/he understand the subject’s position or communication correctly. If the subject is still adamant about the interviewer not taking notes, it should be documented in the interviewer’s report.

As the fraud interviewer develops his or her interviewing skill set, s/he should concentrate on taking verbatim notes which, among other things, include, at a minimum, nouns, pronouns, and verbs. Some practitioners recommend that the interviewer not attempt to write everything down. The argument is that, in doing so, the interviewer will not have an opportunity to observe the subject’s nonverbal communications.

The generally accepted recommendation is, therefore, where feasible, that the interviewer take down verbatim as much of what the subject says as is possible. This includes repeated words and parenthetical comments. This practice allows the interviewer to later review what the subject said as opposed to what the interviewer thought the subject said. Note taking also provides additional documentation of what the subject is communicating and (when reviewed after the fact in the light of additional knowledge) of what the subject has excluded.

During the act of taking notes, the interviewer should exercise caution. Taking notes intermittently can signal to the subject that the interviewer takes notes only when the information is important. Conversely, if, during the interview, a very sensitive area is broached, or if the subject indicates that s/he is uncomfortable with an area or issue, the interviewer can put her pencil down, lean forward, establish good eye contact, and listen to the subject. The simple suspension of note taking may place the subject at ease. As soon as the interview moves to a less sensitive area, the interviewer should try to reduce the previously mentioned sensitive area to notes. If the subject associates note taking with core interview information, the subject may interpret continued note taking as encouragement to continue talking.

The interviewer should not write down interpretive comments while taking notes. The interviewer should however make notes, where appropriate, in cases where verbal and
nonverbal indications of both resistance or cooperation are found.

The interviewer should always take notes with the possibility in mind that the notes may be subjected to third party scrutiny. This scrutiny may extend to opposing counsel in the event of litigation. The interviewer’s notes may or may not be privileged materials. With this in
mind, the interviewer should consider the following:

–Begin each separate set of interview notes on a clean page;
–Identify the date, time, and place of the interview and all the individuals present at the interview;
–Obtain as much background data on the subject as possible, including telephone numbers, and identify means of contacting him or her, including alternate numbers for family and friends;
–Initial and date the notes;
–Document the interviewer’s questions;
–Take verbatim notes if possible. Concentrate, but do not limit notes of the subject’s responses to:
• Nouns
• Pronouns
• Verb tense
• Qualifiers
• Indicators of responsibility, innocence, or guilt
–Do not document conclusions or interpretations;
–Report any unusual change in body language in an objective manner. Document the changes in body language and tone, if applicable, in conjunction with notes of what the subject or interviewer said at the time the body language or tone changed;
–At the conclusion of the interview, review the notes with the subject to confirm what the subject has said.

Finally, following the interview, your notes should be reproduced in printed form as quickly as possible.  Enough cannot be said for the value of a well-documented set of interview notes for every aspect of a subsequent investigation; their presence or absence can make or break your entire case.

In Plain Sight

By Rumbi Petrozzello, CPA/CFF, CFE
2017 Vice-President – Central Virginia Chapter ACFE

Recently, I was listening to one my favorite podcasts, Radiolab, and they were discussing a series on Audible called “Ponzi Supernova”. Reporter Steve Fishman hounded infamous Ponzi schemer, Bernie Madoff, for several years. One day, Bernie called Steve, collect, and thus began the conversations between Madoff and Fishman that makes this telling of the Madoff Ponzi scheme like none other.

The tale is certainly compelling (how can a story of the largest known Ponzi scheme not be fascinating) and hearing Bernie Madoff talking about what he did and hearing what he says motivated him makes this series something I listened to from beginning to end, almost without taking a break. Through it all, as had happened just about every time I read or heard about Madoff, I was amazed that he was able to perpetrate his fraud for as long as he did, which, depending on who you believe, started somewhere between the early 1960s and 1992 (even Madoff gives different dates for when he started). This is no surprise. All too often, when fraudsters are caught, they try to minimize the extent of their wrongdoing. If they know that you’ve found $1,000, they’ll tell you that $1,000 was all they took. If you go on to find more, then the story will change a little to include what you’ve found. It’s very rare that a fraudster will confess to the full extent of her crime at the first go around (or even at the second or third).

As I listened to the series, something became very apparent. Often when people discuss the Madoff Ponzi scheme, one tends to get the feeling that, for decades, he took money from new investors to pay off old investors and carried on his multi-billion-dollar scheme without a single soul blowing the whistle on him. But that’s not the case. In a 477-page report from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Office of Investigations (OIG) entitled “Investigation of Failure of the SEC to Uncover Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme – Public Version”, between June 1992 and December 2008, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) received “six substantive complaints” regarding Madoff’s company and some of these complaints were submitted more than once.

One complaint mentioned in the report was received three times, with versions submitted in 2000, 2001 and 2005; the 2005 version was even entitled “The World’s Largest Hedge Fund is a Fraud”. This complaint series was submitted by Madoff’s most well-known nemesis, the whistleblower, Harry Markopolos. But, there were at least five other individuals who shared their concerns and suspicions about Madoff with the SEC. Three of these specifically used the words “Ponzi scheme”, including the first complaint, in 1992. Based on these complaints, the SEC conducted two investigations and three examinations and, even though the complaints explicitly stated that they suspected that Madoff Investments was a Ponzi scheme, none of the investigations or examinations concluded that Madoff was operating a Ponzi scheme. To add to this, the SEC was aware of two articles that questioned Madoff’s returns. Over the years, several investment companies performed their own due diligence and decided that Madoff’s company did not make sense and they believed that investing with Madoff would be a violation of their fiduciary duty to their clients. Despite all of this, none of these investigations or exams contained a finding of fraud.

Whether you’re a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) or a CPA, Certified in Financial Forensics (CFF), the work that you do is governed by a set of professional standards that help establish a performance baseline. This begins with competence. This means that those taking on an assignment should be able to complete the assignment successfully. This does not necessarily mean that whoever is leading the job needs to know how to do everything. It does mean that they should ensure that there is the right skill set working on the job, even if it means the use of referrals or consultation. Too many times, while reading the OIG report, the reader confronts the mention of a lack of experience. Listening to Ponzi Supernova, I learnt that at least one examiner was only three weeks out of school. The OIG report stated that, for one examination, because the person leading the investigation had no knowledge of how to investigate a suspected Ponzi scheme, they decided to just not investigate that claim; they decided instead to investigate what they knew, and that was front running (though even that investigation was carried out poorly).

Another ACFE professional standard is that of due professional care. Due professional care “requires diligence, critical analysis and professional skepticism”. It also means that any conclusion that a CFE reaches, must be supported by evidence that is relevant, sufficient and competent. Several times during the various investigations and examinations, SEC staff would ask Madoff or his employees questions and then accept any answers they were given without seeking any third-party confirmation. Sometimes, even when third-party confirmation was sought, the questions asked of those third parties were not the correct ones. Madoff himself tells the story of how, in 2006, Madoff testified that he settled trades for his advisory clients through his personal Depository Trust Company (DTC) account and he even gave the SEC his DTC account information. At this point Madoff was sure that, once the SEC checked this out, his fraud would be discovered. Instead, the SEC merely asked the DTC if Madoff had an account, and nothing more. Had they asked about account activity, they would have then discovered that Madoff’s account, even though it existed, did not trade anywhere near the volume purported by his statements. This brings up other aspects of due professional care; adequate planning and supervision. With proper supervision, the less experienced can be trained not just to ask questions, but to ask, and get adequate answers to, the correct questions. The person reviewing their work would be able to ask them, “did the answer that you got from the DTC answer the question that we are asking? Can we now confirm not that Madoff has an account with the DTC but, instead, that he is trading billions of dollars through these accounts?”

Time and time again, in the OIG report, the SEC stated that they did not have experienced and adequate staff for their examinations and investigations of Madoff. This was an excuse that was used to explain why, for instance, they did not send out requests for third-party confirmations, even after drafting them. In one case, staff stated that they did not send out a request to the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) because it would have been too time-consuming to review the data received. Adequate planning would have made sure that there was sufficient, qualified staffing to review the data. Adequate supervision would have ensured that this excuse for not sending out the request was squashed. However, it is not the case that no third-party confirmation requests were sent out. Some were and some of those sent out received responses. Responses were received from the NASD and other financial institutions These entities all claimed that there was no activity with Madoff on the dates that the examiners were asking about. Even with that information, there was no follow-up on the part of the examiners. At every turn, there seemed to be a lot of trust and just about no verification. This is even more surprising when you hear that the examiners would write notes about how Madoff was obviously lying and how many people had reported to the SEC that Madoff was running a dishonest business. Even with so much distrust, and so many whistleblowers, it turned out that those sent to shine a light on Madoff’s operations all seemed to be looking in all the wrong places.

Part of planning an investigation is determining what is being investigated and how the investigation is going to be executed. A very important part of the process is determining, beforehand, what will be done with negative results. When third-party responses were received and they all stated Madoff had not done business with them as claimed, the responses appear to have been filed and no further action taken. When responses were not received, the SEC did not follow up to find out why nothing had been returned. They likely would have found that the institution had not responded to the inquiry because there was nothing to respond about. There does not appear to have been a defined protocol on what to do when the answer to the question, “did this happen” was “No.”

I urge you to, at the very least, read the executive summary of the OIG report. For me at least, what Madoff could get away with, time and time again, with each subsequent SEC examination or investigation, is jaw-dropping. The fact that 1) several whistleblowers shared their concerns and even accompanied them with a great deal of detail and 2) that articles were written and yet, 3) those with access to the information that could prove, with very little effort, that Madoff was not doing what he claimed to be doing, found nothing of concern is something I struggle to comprehend. This whole sad history does underline the importance of referring to, and abiding by, our professional standards, to minimize the risk of missing a fraud like this one. Most importantly, it reduces the risk that someone might get an aneurism trying to wrap their mind around how, even when so many others could see that something was amiss, the watchdog missed it all!

Team Work is Hard Work

From reading posts and comments posted to LinkedIn, it seems that a number of our Chapter members and guests from time to time find themselves involved in internal fraud investigations either as members of internal or external audit units or as sole practitioners.  As CFE’s we know that we can make significant contributions to a financial crime investigation, if we can work effectively, as team members, with the victim company’s internal and external auditors, as well as with other constituents involved in resolving allegations or suspicions of internal fraud. In addition to a thorough knowledge of accounting and auditing, CFE’s bring to bear a variety of skills, including interviewing, data mining and analysis.  We also know that some auditors assume that simply auditing more transactions, with the use of standard procedures, increases the likelihood that fraud will be found. While this can prove to be true in some cases, when there is suspicion of actual fraud, the introduction of competent forensic accounting investigators may be more likely to resolve the issue and bring it to a successful conclusion.

Within the boundaries of an investigation, we CFE’s typically deal with numerous constituencies, each with a different interest and each viewing the situation from a different perspective. These parties to the investigation may well attempt to influence the investigative process, favor their individual concerns, and react to events and findings in terms of personal biases. CFE’s thus often have the task of conveying to all constituencies that the results of the investigation will be more reliable if all participants and interested parties work together as a team and contribute their specific expertise or insight with objectivity. In the highly-charged environment created by a financial crime investigation, the forensic accounting investigator can make a huge contribution just by displaying and encouraging the balance and level headedness which comes from his or her detailed familiarity with the mechanics of the standard types of financial fraud.

The ACFE recommends that all parties with a stake in the process, management, audit committee, auditors, and legal counsel, should always consider including forensic accounting investigators in the front-end process of decision making about an investigation. One of the key initial decisions is, usually, the degree to which the forensic accounting investigators can work with and rely on the work of others, specifically, the internal and external auditors. Another common front-end decision is whether CFE’s—with their knowledge of accounting systems, controls, and typical fraud schemes, may be added to the team that eventually evaluates the organization’s business processes to strengthen the controls that allowed the fraud to occur. Management may at first be inclined to push for a quick result because it feels the company will be further damaged if it continues to operate under a shadow.

Senior executives may be unable or in some cases unwilling to see the full scope of issues and may attempt to limit the investigation, sometimes as a matter of self-protection, or they may seek to persuade the CFE that the issues at hand are immaterial. Whatever happened, it happened on their watch, and they may understandably be very sensitive to the CFE’s intrusion into their domain. Any defensiveness on the part of management should be defused as quickly and as thoroughly as possible, usually through empathy and consideration on the part of the forensic accounting investigator. The party or entity engaging the forensic accounting investigator, for example, the audit committee, management, or counsel, should be committed to a thorough investigation of all issues and is ultimately responsible for the investigation. The committee may engage CFE’s and forensic accounting investigators directly and look to them for guidance, or it may ask outside counsel to engage the CFE, who usually will work at counsel’s direction in fulfilling counsel’s responsibilities to the audit committee.

Every CFE should strive to bring independence and objectivity to the investigation and strive to assist each of the interested parties to achieve their unique but related objectives. As to the CFE’s  objectives, those are determined by the scope of work and the desire to meet the goals of whoever retained their services. Regardless of the differing interests of the various constituencies, forensic accounting investigators must typically answer the following questions:

  • Who is involved?
  • Could there be coconspirators?
  • Was the perpetrator instructed by a higher supervisor not currently a target of the investigation?
  • How much is at issue or what is the total impact on the financial statements?
  • Over what period did this occur?
  • Have we identified all material schemes?
  • How did this happen?
  • How was it identified, and could it have been detected earlier?
  • What can be done to deter a recurrence?

CFE’s should always keep in mind that they are primarily fact finders and not typically engaged to reach or provide conclusions, or, more formally, opinions. This differs from the financial auditor’s role. The financial auditor is presented with the books and records to be audited and determines the nature, extent, and timing of audit procedures. On one hand, the financial statements are management’s responsibility, and an auditor confirms they have been prepared in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles after completing these procedures and assessing the results. The CFE or forensic accounting investigator, on the other hand, commands a different set of skills and works at the direction of an employer that may be management, the audit committee, counsel, or an auditing firm itself.

Teaming with all concerned parties together with the internal and external auditors, the forensic accounting investigator should strive to bring independence and objectivity to the investigation and strive to assist each of the interested parties to achieve each team member’s unique but related objectives; management understandably may be eager to bring the investigation to a quick conclusion. The chief financial officer may be defensive over the fact that his or her organization allowed this to happen;   the board of directors, through the independent members of its audit committee, is likely to focus on conducting a thorough and complete investigation, but its members may lack the experience needed to assess the effort. In addition, they may be concerned about their personal reputations and liability. The board is likely to look to legal counsel and in some cases, to forensic accounting investigators to define the parameters of the project;  as to counsel, in most investigations in which counsel is involved, they are responsible for the overall conduct of the investigation and will assign and allocate resources accordingly; the internal auditor may have a variety of objectives, including not alienating management, staying on schedule to complete the annual audit plan, and not opening the internal audit team to criticism. The internal audit team may also feel embarrassed, angry, and defensive that it did not detect the wrongdoing; the external auditor may have several concerns, including whether the investigative team will conduct an investigation of adequate scope, whether the situation suggests retaining forensic accountants from the auditors’ firm, whether forensic accountants should be added to the audit team, and even whether the investigation will implicate the quality of past audits.

In summary, team work is complex, hard work.  While fraud is not an everyday occurrence at most companies, boards and auditing firms should anticipate the need to conduct a financial fraud investigation at some time in the future.  CFE’s can be an integral part of the planning for such investigations and can be of great help in designing the pre-planned team work protocols that ensure that, if a fraud exists, there is a high probability that it will be identified completely and dealt with in a timely and appropriate manner.