Category Archives: auditing for fraud

The Conflicted Board

Our last post about cyberfraud and business continuity elicited a comment about the vital role of corporate governance from an old colleague of mine now retired and living in Seattle.  But the wider question our commenter had was, ‘What are we as CFEs to make of a company whose Board willfully withholds for months information about a cyberfraud which negatively impacts it customers and the public? From the ethical point of view, does this render the Board somehow complicit in the public harm done?’

Governance of shareholder-controlled corporations refers to the oversight, monitoring, and controlling of a company’s activities and personnel to ensure support of the shareholders’ interests, in accordance with laws and the expectations of stakeholders. Governance has been more formally defined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as a set of relationships between a company’s management, its Board, its shareholders, and other stakeholders. Corporate governance also provides the structure through which the objectives of the company are set (including about ethical continuity), and the means of attaining those objectives and monitoring performance. Good corporate governance should provide proper incentives for the Board and management to pursue objectives that are in the interests of the company and its shareholders and should facilitate effective monitoring.

The role and mandate of the Board of Directors is of paramount importance in the governance framework. Typically, the directors are elected by the shareholders at their annual meeting, which is held to receive the company’s audited annual financial statements and the audit report thereon, as well as the comments of the chairman of the Board, the senior company officers, and the company auditor.

A Board of Directors often divides itself into subcommittees that concentrate more deeply in specific areas than time would allow the whole Board to pursue. These subcommittees are charged with certain actions and/or reviews on behalf of the whole Board, with the proviso that the whole Board must be briefed on major matters and must vote on major decisions. Usually, at least three subcommittees are created to review matters related to (1) governance, (2) compensation, and (3) audit, and to present their recommendations to the full Board. The Governance Committee deals with codes of conduct and company policy, as well as the allocation of duties among the subcommittees of the Board. The Compensation Committee reviews the performance of senior officers, and makes recommendations on the nature and size of salaries, bonuses, and related remuneration plans. Most important to fraud examiners and assurance professionals, the Audit Committee reviews internal controls and systems that generate financial reports prepared by management; the appropriateness of those financial reports; the effectiveness of the company’s internal and external auditors; its whistle-blowing systems, and their findings; and recommends the re-election or not of the company’s external auditors.

The Board must approve the selection of a Chief Executive Officer (CEO), and many Boards are now approving the appointment of the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) as well because of the important of that position. Generally, the CEO appoints other senior executives, and they, in turn, appoint the executives who report to them. Members of these committees are selected for their expertise, interest, and character, with the expectation that the independent judgment of each director will be exercised in the best interest of the company. For example, the ACFE tells us, members of the Audit Committee must be financially literate, and have sufficient expertise to understand audit and financial matters. They must be of independent mind (i.e., not be part of management or be relying upon management for a significant portion of their annual income), and must be prepared to exercise that independence by voting for the interest of all shareholders, not just those of management or of specific limited shareholder groups.

Several behavioral expectations extend to all directors, i.e., to act in the best interest of the company (shareholders & stakeholders), to demonstrate loyalty by exercising independent judgment, acting in good faith, obedient to the interests of all and to demonstrate due care, diligence, and skill.

All directors are expected to demonstrate certain fiduciary duties. Shareholders are relying on directors to serve shareholders’ interests, not the directors’ own interests, nor those of management or a third party. This means that directors must exercise their own independent judgment in the best interests of the shareholders. The directors must do so in good faith (with true purpose, not deceit) on all occasions. They must exercise appropriate skill, diligence, and an expected level of care in all their actions.

Obviously, there will be times when directors will be able to make significant sums of money by misusing the trust with which they have been bestowed and at the expense of the other stakeholders of the company. At these times a director’s interests may conflict with those of the others. Therefore, care must be taken to ensure that such conflicts are disclosed, and that they are managed so that no harm comes to the other shareholders. For example, if a director has an interest in some property or in a company that is being purchased, s/he should disclose this to the other directors and refrain from voting on the acquisition. These actions should alert other directors to the potential self-dealing of the conflicted director, and thereby avoid the non-conflicted directors from being misled into thinking that the conflicted director was acting only with the corporation’s interests in mind.

From time to time, directors may be sued’ by shareholders or third parties who believe that the directors have failed to live up to appropriate expectations. However, courts will not second-guess reasonable decisions by non-conflicted directors that have been taken prudently and on a reasonably informed basis. This is known as the business judgment ru1e and it protects directors charged with breach of their duty of care if they have acted honestly and reasonably. Even if no breach of legal rights has occurred, shareholders may charge that their interests have been ‘oppressed’ (i.e., prejudiced unfairly, or unfairly disregarded) by a corporation or a director’s actions, and courts may grant what is referred to as an oppression remedy of financial compensation or other sanctions against the corporation or the director personally. If, however, the director has not been self-dealing or misappropriating the company’s opportunities, s/he will likely be protected from personal liability by the business judgment rule.

Some shareholders or third parties have chosen to sue directors ‘personally in tort’ for their conduct as directors, even when they have acted in good faith and within the scope of their duties, and when they believed they were acting in the best interests of the corporations they serve.  Recently, courts have held that directors cannot escape such personal liability by simply claiming that they did the action when performing their corporate responsibilities. Consequently, directors or officers must take care when making all decisions that they meet normal standards of behavior.

Consequently, when management and the Board of a company who has been the victim of a cyber-attack decides to withhold information about the attack (sometimes for weeks or months), fundamental questions about compliance with fiduciary standards and ethical duty toward other stakeholders and the public can quickly emerge.   The impact of recent corporate cyber-attack scandals on the public has the potential to change future governance expectations dramatically. Recognition that some of these situations appear to have resulted from management inattention or neglect (the failure to timely patch known software vulnerabilities, for example) has focused attention on just how well a corporation can expect to remediate its public face and ensure ongoing business continuity following such revelations to the public.

My colleague points out that so damaging were the apparently self-protective actions taken by the Boards of some of these victim companies in the wake of several recent attacks to protect their share price, (thereby shielding the interests of existing executives, directors, and investors in the short term) that the credibility of their entire corporate governance and accountability processes has been jeopardized, thus endangering, in some cases, even their ability to continue as viable going concerns.

In summary, in the United States, the Board of Directors sits at the apex of a company’s governing structure. A typical Board’s duties include reviewing the company’s overall business strategy, selecting and compensating the company’s senior executives; evaluating the company’s outside auditor, overseeing the company’s financial statements; and monitoring overall company performance. According to the Business Roundtable, the Board’s ‘paramount duty’ is to safeguard the interests of the company’s shareholders.  It’s fair to ask if a Board that chooses not to reveal to its stakeholders or to the general investor public a potentially devastating cyber-fraud for many months can be said to have meet either the letter or the spirit of its paramount duty.

Governance and Fraud Detection

Originally, the business owner had the most say in decisions regarding the enterprise. Then, corporate structures were put in place to facilitate decision making, as ownership was spread over millions of shareholders. Boards of directors took over many responsibilities. But with time, the chief executive officer (CEO) ended up having a large say in the composition of the board and, in many instances, ruled and controlled the company and its strategy. The only option for shareholders appeared to be to sell their shares if they were not happy with the performance of a specific organization. Many anti-fraud professionals think that this situation contributed significantly to business demises such as that of Enron and to the horrors consequent to the mortgage meltdown and accompanying fiscal crisis.

Proposals were made to re-equilibrate the power structure by giving more power and responsibilities to the board and to specific committees, such as the audit committee, to better deal with internal control and fair financial reporting or the remuneration committee to better deal with the basis for the type and the level of remuneration of the CEO. New legislation was put into place, such as the US Sarbanes-Oxley Act and Basel II. Compliance with these pieces of legislation consumed a lot of attention, energy and cost.

Enterprises exist to deliver value to their stakeholders. This is accomplished by handling risk advantageously and using resources responsibly. Speedy direction setting and quick reaction to change are essential in such a situation so decision making must be shared among many. Therefore, governance comes into play. Successful enterprises implement an over-arching system of governance that facilitates the achievement of their desired outcomes, both at the enterprise level and at each level within the enterprise; this is especially true with regard to the problem of fraud detection.  In this context, a holistic definition of enterprise governance is in order: Governance is the framework, principles, structure, processes and practices to set direction and monitor compliance and performance aligned with the overall purpose and objectives of an enterprise.

This definition is initially implemented by the answers to and actions on the following governance related questions:

Who is accountable and responsible for enterprise governance? Stakeholders, owners, governing bodies and management are responsible and accountable for governance.

What do they do, and how and where do they do it? They engage in activities (set direction, monitor compliance and performance) in relationship with others and use enablers (frameworks, principles, structures, processes, practices) within the governance view appropriate to them (governance of the enterprise; of an organizational entity within the enterprise such as a business unit, division or function; and of a strategic asset within the enterprise or within an organizational entity).

Why do they do it? They institute governance to create value for their enterprise, determine its risk appetite, optimize its resources and use them responsibly.

In summary, accountability and stewardship are delegated to a governance body by the owner/stakeholder, expecting it to assume accountability for the activities necessary to meet expectations. In alignment with the overall direction of the enterprise, management executes the appropriate activities within the context of a control framework, balancing performance and compliance in achieving the governance objectives of value creation, risk management and resource optimization.

Fraud detection (within the context of a fully defined fraud prevention program) is a vital business process of the over-hanging governance function and can be implemented by numerous generally accepted procedures.  But a few examples …

One way to increase the likelihood of the detection by the governance function of fraud abuses is the conduct of periodic external and internal audits, as well as the implementation of special network security audits. Auditors should regularly test system controls and periodically “browse” data files looking for suspicious activities. However, care must be exercised to make sure employees’ privacy rights are not violated. Informing employees that auditors will conduct a random surveillance not only helps resolve the privacy issue, but also has a significant deterrent effect on computer assisted fraud exploits.

Employees witnessing fraudulent behavior are often torn between two conflicting feelings. They feel an obligation to protect company assets and turn in fraud perpetrators, yet they are uncomfortable in a whistleblower role and find it easier to remain silent. This reluctance is even stronger if they are aware of public cases of whistleblowers who have been ostracized or persecuted by their coworkers or superiors, or have had their careers damaged. An effective way to resolve this conflict is to provide employees with hotlines so they can anonymously report fraud. The downside of hotlines is that many of the calls are not worthy of investigation. Some calls come from those seeking revenge, others are vague reports of wrongdoing, and others simply have no merit. A potential problem with a hotline is that those who operate the hotline may report to people who are involved in a management fraud. This threat can be overcome by using a fraud hotline set up by a trade organization or commercial company. Reports of management fraud can be passed from this company directly to the board of directors.

Many private and public organizations use outside computer consultants or in-house teams to test and evaluate their security procedures and computer systems through the performance of system penetration testing.  The consultants are paid to try everything possible to compromise an enterprise’s system(s). To get into offices so they can look for passwords or get on computers, they masquerade as janitors, temporary workers, or confused delivery personnel. They also employ software based hacker tools (readily available on the Internet) and social engineering techniques.  Using such methods, some outside consultants claim that they can penetrate 90% or more of the companies they “attack” to a greater or lesser degree.

All financial transactions and activities should be recorded in a log. The log should indicate who accessed what data, when, and from which location. These logs should be reviewed frequently to monitor system activity and trace any problems to their source. There are numerous risk analysis and management software packages that can review computer systems and networks and the financial transactions they contain. These packages evaluate security measures already in place and test for weaknesses and vulnerabilities. A series of reports are then generated to explain any weaknesses found and suggest improvements. Cost parameters can be entered so that a company can balance acceptable levels of vulnerability and cost effectiveness. There are also intrusion-detection programs and software utilities that can detect illegal entry into systems along with software that monitors system activity and helps companies recover from fraud and malicious actions.

People who commit fraud tend to follow certain patterns and leave tell-tale clues, often things that do not make sense. Software is readily available to search for these fraud symptoms. For example, a health insurance company could use fraud detection software to look at how often procedures are performed, whether a diagnosis and the procedures performed fit a patient’s profile, how long a procedure takes, and how far patients live from the doctor’s office.

Neural networks (programs that mimic brain activity and can learn new concepts) are quite accurate in identifying suspected fraud. For example, Visa and MasterCard operations employ neural network software to track hundreds of millions of separate account transactions daily. Neural networks spot the illegal use of a credit card and notify the owner within a few hours of its theft. The software can also spot trends before bank investigators do.

Each enterprise needs to determine its appropriate overall governance system and the fraud detection approaches it decides to implement in support of that system. To help in that determination, mapping governance frameworks, principles, structures, processes and practices, currently in use, is beneficial. CFE’s and forensic accountants are uniquely qualified to assist in this process given their in-depth knowledge of all types of fraud scenarios and the tailoring of the anti-fraud controls most appropriate for the control of each within a specific company environment.

Sock Puppets

The issue of falsely claimed identity in all its myriad forms has shadowed the Internet since the beginning of the medium.  Anyone who has used an on-line dating or auction site is all too familiar with the problem; anyone can claim to be anyone.  Likewise, confidence games, on or off-line, involve a range of fraudulent conduct committed by professional con artists against unsuspecting victims. The victims can be organizations, but more commonly are individuals. Con artists have classically acted alone, but now, especially on the Internet, they usually group together in criminal organizations for increasingly complex criminal endeavors. Con artists are skilled marketers who can develop effective marketing strategies, which include a target audience and an appropriate marketing plan: crafting promotions, product, price, and place to lure their victims. Victimization is achieved when this marketing strategy is successful. And falsely claimed identities are always an integral component of such schemes, especially those carried out on-line.

Such marketing strategies generally involve a specific target market, which is usually made up of affinity groups consisting of individuals grouped around an objective, bond, or association like Facebook or LinkedIn Group users. Affinity groups may, therefore, include those associated through age, gender, religion, social status, geographic location, business or industry, hobbies or activities, or professional status. Perpetrators gain their victims’ trust by affiliating themselves with these groups.  Historically, various mediums of communication have been initially used to lure the victim. In most cases, today’s fraudulent schemes begin with an offer or invitation to connect through the Internet or social network, but the invitation can come by mail, telephone, newspapers and magazines, television, radio, or door-to-door channels.

Once the mark receives and accepts the offer to connect, some sort of response or acceptance is requested. The response will typically include (in the case of Facebook or LinkedIn) clicking on a link included in a fraudulent follow-up post to visit a specified web site or to call a toll-free number.

According to one of Facebook’s own annual reports, up to 11.2 percent of its accounts are fake. Considering the world’s largest social media company has 1.3 billion users, that means up to 140 million Facebook accounts are fraudulent; these users simply don’t exist. With 140 million inhabitants, the fake population of Facebook would be the tenth-largest country in the world. Just as Nielsen ratings on television sets determine different advertising rates for one television program versus another, on-line ad sales are determined by how many eyeballs a Web site or social media service can command.

Let’s say a shyster want 3,000 followers on Twitter to boost the credibility of her scheme? They can be hers for $5. Let’s say she wants 10,000 satisfied customers on Facebook for the same reason? No problem, she can buy them on several websites for around $1,500. A million new friends on Instagram can be had for only $3,700. Whether the con man wants favorites, likes, retweets, up votes, or page views, all are for sale on Web sites like Swenzy, Fiverr, and Craigslist. These fraudulent social media accounts can then be freely used to falsely endorse a product, service, or company, all for just a small fee. Most of the work of fake account set up is carried out in the developing world, in places such as India and Bangladesh, where actual humans may control the accounts. In other locales, such as Russia, Ukraine, and Romania, the entire process has been scripted by computer bots, programs that will carry out pre-encoded automated instructions, such as “click the Like button,” repeatedly, each time using a different fake persona.

Just as horror movie shape-shifters can physically transform themselves from one being into another, these modern screen shifters have their own magical powers, and organizations of men are eager to employ them, studying their techniques and deploying them against easy marks for massive profit. In fact, many of these clicks are done for the purposes of “click fraud.” Businesses pay companies such as Facebook and Google every time a potential customer clicks on one of the ubiquitous banner ads or links online, but organized crime groups have figured out how to game the system to drive profits their way via so-called ad networks, which capitalize on all those extra clicks.

Painfully aware of this, social media companies have attempted to cut back on the number of fake profiles. As a result, thousands and thousands of identities have disappeared over night among the followers of many well know celebrities and popular websites. If Facebook has 140 million fake profiles, there is no way they could have been created manually one by one. The process of creation is called sock puppetry and is a reference to the children’s toy puppet created when a hand is inserted into a sock to bring the sock to life. In the online world, organized crime groups create sock puppets by combining computer scripting, web automation, and social networks to create legions of online personas. This can be done easily and cheaply enough to allow those with deceptive intentions to create hundreds of thousands of fake online citizens. One only needs to consult a readily available on-line directory of the most common names in any country or region. Have a scripted bot merely pick a first name and a last name, then choose a date of birth and let the bot sign up for a free e-mail account. Next, scrape on-line photo sites such as Picasa, Instagram, Facebook, Google, and Flickr to choose an age-appropriate image to represent your new sock puppet.

Armed with an e-mail address, name, date of birth, and photograph, you sign up your fake persona for an account on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Instagram. As a last step, you teach your puppets how to talk by scripting them to reach out and send friend requests, repost other people’s tweets, and randomly like things they see Online. Your bots can even communicate and cross-post with one another. Before the fraudster knows it, s/he has thousands of sock puppets at his disposal for use as he sees fit. It is these armies of sock puppets that criminals use as key constituents in their phishing attacks, to fake on-line reviews, to trick users into downloading spyware, and to commit a wide variety of financial frauds, all based on misplaced and falsely claimed identity.

The fraudster’s environment has changed and is changing over time, from a face-to-face physical encounter to an anonymous on-line encounter in the comfort of the victim’s own home. While some consumers are unaware that a weapon is virtually right in front of them, others are victims who struggle with the balance of the many wonderful benefits offered by advanced technology and the painful effects of its consequences. The goal of law enforcement has not changed over the years; to block the roads and close the loopholes of perpetrators even as perpetrators continue to strive to find yet another avenue to commit fraud in an environment in which they can thrive. Today, the challenge for CFEs, law enforcement and government officials is to stay on the cutting edge of technology, which requires access to constantly updated resources and communication between organizations; the ability to gather information; and the capacity to identify and analyze trends, institute effective policies, and detect and deter fraud through restitution and prevention measures.

Now is the time for CFEs and other assurance professionals to continuously reevaluate all we for take for granted in the modern technical world and to increasingly question our ever growing dependence on the whole range of ubiquitous machines whose potential to facilitate fraud so few of our clients and the general public understand.

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.

The Who, the What, the When

CFEs and forensic accountants are seekers. We spend our days searching for the most relevant information about our client requested investigations from an ever-growing and increasingly tangled data sphere and trying to make sense of it. Somewhere hidden in our client’s computers, networks, databases, and spreadsheets are signs of the alleged fraud, accompanying control weaknesses and unforeseen risks, as well as possible opportunities for improvement. And the more data the client organization has, the harder all this is to find.  Although most computer-assisted forensic audit tests focus on the numeric data contained within structured sources, such as financial and transactional databases, unstructured or text based data, such as e-mail, documents, and Web-based content, represents an estimated 8o percent of enterprise data within the typical medium to large-sized organization. When assessing written communications or correspondence about fraud related events, CFEs often find themselves limited to reading large volumes of data, with few automated tools to help synthesize, summarize, and cluster key information points to aid the investigation.

Text analytics is a relatively new investigative tool for CFEs in actual practice although some report having used it extensively for at least the last five or more years. According to the ACFE, the software itself stems from a combination of developments in our sister fields of litigation support and electronic discovery, and from counterterrorism and surveillance technology, as well as from customer relationship management, and research into the life sciences, specifically artificial intelligence. So, the application of text analytics in data review and criminal investigations dates to the mid-1990s.

Generally, CFEs increasingly use text analytics to examine three main elements of investigative data: the who, the what, and the when.

The Who: According to many recent studies, substantially more than a half of business people prefer using e-mail to use of the telephone. Most fraud related business transactions or events, then, will likely have at least some e-mail communication associated with them. Unlike telephone messages, e-mail contains rich metadata, information stored about the data, such as its author, origin, version, and date accessed, and can be documented easily. For example, to monitor who is communicating with whom in a targeted sales department, and conceivably to identify whether any alleged relationships therein might signal anomalous activity, a forensic accountant might wish to analyze metadata in the “to,” “from,” “cc,” or “bcc” fields in departmental e-mails. Many technologies for parsing e-mail with text analytics capabilities are available on the market today, some stemming from civil investigations and related electronic discovery software. These technologies are like the social network diagrams used in law enforcement or in counterterrorism efforts.

The What: The ever-present ambiguity inherent in human language presents significant challenges to the forensic investigator trying to understand the circumstances and actions surrounding the text based aspects of a fraud allegation. This difficulty is compounded by the tendency of people within organizations to invent their own words or to communicate in code. Language ambiguity can be illustrated by examining the word “shred”. A simple keyword search on the word might return not only documents that contain text about shredding a document, but also those where two sports fans are having a conversation about “shredding the defense,” or even e-mails between spouses about eating Chinese “shredded pork” for dinner. Hence, e-mail research analytics seeks to group similar documents according to their semantic context so that documents about shredding as concealment or related to covering up an action would be grouped separately from casual e-mails about sports or dinner, thus markedly reducing the volume of e-mail requiring more thorough ocular review. Concept-based analysis goes beyond traditional search technology by enabling users to group documents according to a statistical inference about the co-occurrence of similar words. In effect, text analytics software allows documents to describe themselves and group themselves by context, as in the shred example. Because text analytics examines document sets and identifies relationships between documents according to their context, it can produce far more relevant results than traditional simple keyword searches.

Using text analytics before filtering with keywords can be a powerful strategy for quickly understanding the content of a large corpus of unstructured, text-based data, and for determining what is relevant to the search. After viewing concepts at an elevated level, subsequent keyword selection becomes more effective by enabling users to better understand the possible code words or company-specific jargon. They can develop the keywords based on actual content, instead of guessing relevant terms, words, or phrases up front.

The When: In striving to understand the time frames in which key events took place, CFEs often need to not only identify the chronological order of documents (e.g., sorted by or limited to dates), but also link related communication threads, such as e-mails, so that similar threads and communications can be identified and plotted over time. A thread comprises a set of messages connected by various relationships; each message consists of either a first message or a reply to or forwarding of some other message in the set. Messages within a thread are connected by relationships that identify notable events, such as a reply vs. a forward, or changes in correspondents. Quite often, e-mails accumulate long threads with similar subject headings, authors, and message content over time. These threads ultimately may lead to a decision, such as approval to proceed with a project or to take some other action. The approval may be critical to understanding business events that led up to a particular journal entry. Seeing those threads mapped over time can be a powerful tool when trying to understand the business logic of a complex financial transaction.

In the context of fraud risk, text analytics can be particularly effective when threads and keyword hits are examined with a view to considering the familiar fraud triangle; the premise that all three components (incentive/pressure, opportunity, and rationalization) are present when fraud exists. This fraud triangle based analysis can be applied in a variety of business contexts where increases in the frequency of certain keywords related to incentive/pressure, opportunity, and rationalization, can indicate an increased level of fraud risk.

Some caveats are in order.  Considering the overwhelming amount of text-based data within any modern enterprise, assurance professionals could never hope to analyze all of it; nor should they. The exercise would prove expensive and provide little value. Just as an external auditor would not reprocess or validate every sales transaction in a sales journal, he or she would not need to look at every related e-mail from every employee. Instead, any professional auditor would take a risk-based approach, identifying areas to test based on a sample of data or on an enterprise risk assessment. For text analytics work, the reviewer may choose data from five or ten individuals to sample from a high-risk department or from a newly acquired business unit. And no matter how sophisticated the search and information retrieval tools used, there is no guarantee that all relevant or high-risk documents will be identified in large data collections. Moreover, different search methods may produce differing results, subject to a measure of statistical variation inherent in probability searches of any type. Just as a statistical sample of accounts receivable or accounts payable in the general ledger may not identify fraud, analytics reviews are similarly limited.

Text analytics can be a powerful fraud examination tool when integrated with traditional forensic data-gathering and analysis techniques such as interviews, independent research, and existing investigative tests involving structured, transactional data. For example, an anomaly identified in the general ledger related to the purchase of certain capital assets may prompt the examiner to review e-mail communication traffic among the key individuals involved, providing context around the circumstances and timing, of events before the entry date. Furthermore, the forensic accountant may conduct interviews or perform additional independent research that may support or conflict with his or her investigative hypothesis. Integrating all three of these components to gain a complete picture of the fraud event can yield valuable information. While text analytics should never replace the traditional rules-based analysis techniques that focus on the client’s financial accounting systems, it’s always equally important to consider the communications surrounding key events typically found in unstructured data, as opposed to that found in the financial systems.

Not Just the Hotline

Prior to our Chapter’s last scheduled live training event, I was invited as a presenter to an orientation session for a group of employees serving as staff to a local government fraud, waste and abuse hotline. Anonymous communications, often called “tips,” may take various forms, including a posted letter, telephone call, fax, or e-mail. Long gone are the days when any governmental or private organization receiving such a communication would feel comfortable disregarding it. In today’s environment, such communications are almost always taken seriously, and significant efforts are made to resolve every credible allegation. By their very nature, such investigations are triggered suddenly and generally require a prompt and decisive response, even if only to establish that the allegations are unfounded or purely mischievous. The allegations may be in the form of general statements or they may be very specific, identifying names, documents, situations, transactions, or issues. From the CFE’s or forensic investigator’s perspective, no matter what form they take or how they are received, anonymous communications addressed to the client can pose challenging investigative issues in themselves whose complexity is often under-estimated.

The initiators of such tips can be motivated by a variety of factors, which range from the possibility of monetary gain (substantial monetary recovery is available to whistleblowers under the U.S. False Claims Act), to moral outrage, to genuine concern over an issue or simply from the desire of a disgruntled employee to air an issue or undermine a colleague. Adding to the complication, legislation such as Sarbanes-Oxley and the raft of on-going private and governmental scandals, the increased scrutiny of health care providers and of defense contractors have all served to raise public awareness of whistle-blower programs specifically and of the importance of anonymous reporting mechanisms in general.

With hotlines now so ubiquitous, it’s equally important for investigators to be aware that anonymous tips come in not only to formal public hotlines but in a wide variety of forms and through many channels; such communications can come addressed to various individuals and groups within the company or to outside entities, to government agencies, and even via outside news agencies. Typical recipients within the company of non-hotline tips can be expected to be legal counsel, audit committee members, senior management, department supervisors, human resources managers and the compliance or ethics officer. A tip may take the form of a typical business letter addressed to the company, an e-mail (usually from a nontraceable account), or an official internal complaint. It may also duplicate tips submitted to news agencies, competitors, web site postings, chat rooms, or government agencies. It may also be a message to an internal ethics hotline phone number. Whatever form it takes, a tip may contain allegations that, while factually correct at its core, may also include embellishments or inaccurate information, wildly emotional allegations, or poor grammar. Further, the communication structure of the tip may be disorganized, repetitive, display unprioritized thoughts and mix key issues with irrelevant matters and unsupported subjective opinions. In other cases, while the tip’s information about specific issues may not be correct, it may contain a grain of truth or may identify elements of several unrelated but potentially troubling issues.

In some situations, the allegations aired in an anonymous tip may be known within the company and labeled as rumors or gossip. Some whistle-blowers are neither gossip hounds nor disgruntled employees but, rather, frustrated employees who have tried to engage management about a problem and have gone unheard. Only then do they file a complaint by sending a letter or an e-mail or by making a phone call.  While one should never leap to a specific conclusion upon receipt of an anonymous communication, inaction is never a recommended option. One of the dangers of ignoring an anonymous tip that wasn’t initially received via the hotline is that a situation that can be satisfactorily addressed with prompt action at lower levels or locally within the organization may become elevated to higher levels or to third parties and even to regulatory bodies outside the entity because the whistle-blower believes the communication has been side-lined or shunted aside. This can have damaging consequences for an organization’s reputation and brands if the allegations become public or attract media attention and a cover-up appears to have occurred, however well-intentioned the organization may have been. Ignoring an anonymous tip also may negatively impact staff morale and motivation, if suspicions of impropriety are widespread among staff and it appears that the employer is uninterested or doing nothing to rectify the situation. Ultimately, management may leave itself open to criticism or perhaps the danger of regulatory censure or legal action by stakeholders or authorities if it cannot demonstrate that it has given due consideration to the issues raised in an anonymous communication.

Once notified by a client of the receipt of an anonymous tip, the CFE or forensic accounting investigator should obtain an understanding of all the circumstances of that receipt. While the circumstances on the surface may appear unremarkable and trivial, that information is often a key factor in determining the best approach to dealing with a tip and, more broadly, often provides clues that are helpful in other areas. Initial facts and circumstances to be established include:

• How? This refers to how the information was conveyed—for example, whether it was in a letter, phone call, or e-mail and whether the letter was handwritten or typed. Additionally, the forensic accounting investigator seeks to determine whether the message includes copies of corporate documents or references to specific documents and whether the tip is anonymous, refers to individuals, or is signed.
• When? This includes establishing the date on which the message was received by the entity, the date of the tip, and in the case of a letter, the postmark date and postmark location.
• Where? This involves establishing where the tip was sent from, be it a post office, overseas, a private residence, within the office, a sender’s fax number, or an e-mail account.
• Who? To whom was the tip sent? Was it a general reference such as “To whom it may concern”? A specific individual? A department such as the head office or internal audit? The president’s office? The press? A competitor? Sometimes an anonymous notification will indicate that another entity has been copied on the document; this requires verification. Always consider the possibility that the tip may have been sent to the auditor and/or to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
• What? This refers to understanding the allegations and organizing them by issue. Often, a tip will contain many allegations that are variations on the same issue or that link to a common issue. For this reason, it is often helpful to formally summarize in writing the tip by issues and related sub-issues. Does the information in the tip contain information that may be known only to a certain location or department? If so, that may point to a group of individuals or former employees as the source of the tip.
• Why? What is the possible motivation for the tip? Issues with misreporting financial information? Ethical decisions? Disgruntled employee? Former employee airing grievances?

For many organizations, whistle-blower communications have become almost daily phenomena. But many of the most serious allegations don’t arrive via a hotline.  This is largely because in the wake of corporate scandals, lawmakers and ethics authorities are responding to public concern by encouraging employee monitoring of corporate ethics and affording some statutory protections for whistle-blowers. Dealing with the unexpected anonymous tip that triggers a CFE conducted investigation can be a challenging matter, even for the most seasoned investigator. Objective analysis and the strategic approach taken by professionals skilled in corporate investigations can assist clients in successfully addressing issues that may have serious legal and financial implications. Protection of employees from retaliatory action and the
company’s need to decide whether and to whom to disclose information are among the many issues created by the receipt of anonymous tips.  For the CFE, the key to resolving cases of anonymous tips usually involves a detailed examination of copious amounts of data obtained from various sources such as interviews, public records searches, data mining, hard-copy document review, and electronic discovery. A careful, experience-based investigative strategy is imperative to address the circumstances surrounding the transmittal and receipt of any anonymous tip and to tackle its allegations prudently and thoroughly.

RVACFES May 2017 Event Sold-Out!

On May 17th and 18th the Central Virginia ACFE Chapter and our partners, the Virginia State Police and the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) were joined by an over-flow crowd of audit and assurance professionals for the ACFE’s training course ‘Conducting Internal Investigations’. The sold-out May 2017 seminar was the ninth that our Chapter has hosted over the years with the Virginia State Police utilizing a distinguished list of certified ACFE instructor-practitioners.

Our internationally acclaimed instructor for the May seminar was Gerard Zack, CFE, CPA, CIA, CCEP. Gerry has provided fraud prevention and investigation, forensic accounting, and internal and external audit services for more than 30 years. He has worked with commercial businesses, not-for-profit organizations, and government agencies throughout North America and Europe. Prior to starting his own practice in 1990, Gerry was an audit manager with a large international public accounting firm. As founder and president of Zack, P.C., he has led numerous fraud investigations and designed customized fraud risk management programs for a diverse client base. Through Zack, P.C., he also provides outsourced internal audit services, compliance and ethics programs, enterprise risk management, fraud risk assessments, and internal control consulting services.

Gerry is a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) and Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and has focused most of his career on audit and fraud-related services. Gerry serves on the faculty of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) and is the 2009 recipient of the ACFE’s James Baker Speaker of the Year Award. He is also a Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) and a Certified Compliance and Ethics Professional (CCEP).

Gerry is the author of Financial Statement Fraud: Strategies for Detection and Investigation (published 2013 by John Wiley & Sons), Fair Value Accounting Fraud: New Global Risks and Detection Techniques (2009 by John Wiley & Sons), and Fraud and Abuse in Nonprofit Organizations: A Guide to Prevention and Detection (2003 by John Wiley & Sons). He is also the author of numerous articles on fraud and teaches seminars on fraud prevention and detection for businesses, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations. He has provided customized internal staff training on specialized auditing issues, including fraud detection in audits, for more than 50 CPA firms.

Gerry is also the founder of the Nonprofit Resource Center, through which he provides antifraud training and consulting and online financial management tools specifically geared toward the unique internal control and financial management needs of nonprofit organizations. Gerry earned his M.B.A at Loyola University in Maryland and his B.S.B.A at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.

To some degree, organizations of every size, in every industry, and in every city, experience internal fraud. No entity is immune. Furthermore, any member of an organization can carry out fraud, whether it is committed by the newest customer service employee or by an experienced and highly respected member of upper management. The fundamental reason for this is that fraud is a human problem, not an accounting problem. As long as organizations are employing individuals to perform business functions, the risk of fraud exists.

While some organizations aggressively adopt strong zero tolerance anti-fraud policies, others simply view fraud as a cost of doing business. Despite varying views on the prevalence of, or susceptibility to, fraud within a given organization, all must be prepared to conduct a thorough internal investigation once fraud is suspected. Our ‘Conducting Internal Investigations’ event was structured around the process of investigating any suspected fraud from inception to final disposition and beyond.

What constitutes an act that warrants an examination can vary from one organization to another and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. It is often resolved based on a definition of fraud adopted by an employer or by a government agency. There are numerous definitions of fraud, but a popular example comes from the joint ACFE-COSO publication, Fraud Risk Management Guide:

Fraud is any intentional act or omission designed to deceive others, resulting in the victim suffering a loss and/or the perpetrator achieving a gain.

However, many law enforcement agencies have developed their own definitions, which might be more appropriate for organizations operating in their jurisdictions. Consequently, fraud examiners should determine the appropriate legal definition in the jurisdiction in which the suspected offense was committed.

Fraud examination is a methodology for resolving fraud allegations from inception to disposition. More specifically, fraud examination involves:

–Assisting in the detection and prevention of fraud;
–Initiating the internal investigation;
–Obtaining evidence and taking statements;
–Writing reports;
–Testifying to findings.

A well run internal investigation can enhance a company’s overall well-being and can help detect the source of lost funds, identify responsible parties and recover losses. It can also provide a defense to legal charges by terminated or disgruntled employees. But perhaps, most importantly, an internal investigation can signal to every company employee that the company will not tolerate fraud.

Our two-day seminar agenda included Gerry’s in depth look at the following topics:

–Assessment of the risk of fraud within an organization and responding when it is identified;
–Detection and investigation of internal frauds with the use of data analytics;
–The collection of documents and electronic evidence needed during an investigation;
–The performance of effective information gathering and admission seeking interviews;
–The wide variety of legal and regulatory concerns related to internal investigations.

Gerry did his usual tremendous job in preparing the professionals in attendance to deal with every step in an internal fraud investigation, from receiving the initial allegation to testifying as a witness. The participants learned to lead an internal investigation with accuracy and confidence by gaining knowledge about topics such as the relevant legal aspects impacting internal investigations, the use of computers and analytics during the investigation, collecting and analyzing internal and external information, and interviewing witnesses and the writing of effective reports.

Industrialized Theft

In at least one way you have to hand it to Ethically Challenged, Inc.;  it sure knows how to innovate, and the recent spate of ransomware attacks proves they also know how to make what’s old new again. Although society’s criminal opponents engage in constant business process improvement, they’ve proven again and again that they’re not just limited to committing new crimes from scratch every time. In the age of Moore’s law, these tasks have been readily automated and can run in the background at scale without the need for significant human intervention. Crime automations like the WannaCry virus allow transnational organized crime groups to gain the same efficiencies and cost savings that multinational corporations obtained by leveraging technology to carry out their core business functions. That’s why today it’s possible for hackers to rob not just one person at a time but 100 million or more, as the world saw with the Sony PlayStation and Target data breaches and now with the WannaCry worm.

As covered in our Chapter’s training event of last year, ‘Investigating on the Internet’, exploit tool kits like Blackhole and SpyEye commit crime “automagically” by minimizing the need for human labor, thereby dramatically reducing criminal costs. They also allow hackers to pursue the “long tail” of opportunity, committing millions of thefts in small amounts so that (in many cases) victims don’t report them and law enforcement has no way to track them. While high-value targets (companies, nations, celebrities, high-net-worth individuals) are specifically and individually targeted, the way the majority of the public is hacked is by automated scripted computer malware, one large digital fishing net that scoops up anything and everything online with a vulnerability that can be exploited. Given these obvious advantages, as of 2016 an estimated 61 percent of all online attacks were launched by fully automated crime tool kits, returning phenomenal profits for the Dark Web overlords who expertly orchestrated them. Modern crime has become reduced and distilled to a software program that anybody can run at tremendous profit.

Not only can botnets and other tools be used over and over to attack and offend, but they’re now enabling the commission of much more sophisticated crimes such as extortion, blackmail, and shakedown rackets. In an updated version of the old $500 million Ukrainian Innovative Marketing solutions “virus detected” scam, fraudsters have unleashed a new torrent of malware that hold the victim’s computer hostage until a ransom is paid and an unlock code is provided by the scammer to regain access to the victim’s own files. Ransomware attack tools are included in a variety of Dark Net tool kits, such as WannaCry and Gameover Zeus. According to the ACFE, there are several varieties of this scam, including one that purports to come from law enforcement. Around the world, users who become infected with the Reveton Trojan suddenly have their computers lock up and their full screens covered with a notice, allegedly from the FBI. The message, bearing an official-looking large, full-color FBI logo, states that the user’s computer has been locked for reasons such as “violation of the federal copyright law against illegally downloaded material” or because “you have been viewing or distributing prohibited pornographic content.”

In the case of the Reveton Trojan, to unlock their computers, users are informed that they must pay a fine ranging from $200 to $400, only accepted using a prepaid voucher from Green Dot’s MoneyPak, which victims are instructed they can buy at their local Walmart or CVS; victims of WannaCry are required to pay in BitCoin. To further intimidate victims and drive home the fact that this is a serious police matter, the Reveton scammers prominently display the alleged violator’s IP address on their screen as well as snippets of video footage previously captured from the victim’s Webcam. As with the current WannaCry exploit, the Reveton scam has successfully targeted tens of thousands of victims around the world, with the attack localized by country, language, and police agency. Thus, users in the U.K. see a notice from Scotland Yard, other Europeans get a warning from Europol, and victims in the United Arab Emirates see the threat, translated into Arabic, purportedly from the Abu Dhabi Police HQ.

WannaCry is even more pernicious than Reveton though in that it actually encrypts all the files on a victim’s computer so that they can no longer be read or accessed. Alarmingly, variants of this type of malware often present a ticking-bomb-type countdown clock advising users that they only have forty-eight hours to pay $300 or all of their files will be permanently destroyed. Akin to threatening “if you ever want to see your files alive again,” these ransomware programs gladly accept payment in Bitcoin. The message to these victims is no idle threat. Whereas previous ransomware might trick users by temporarily hiding their files, newer variants use strong 256-bit Advanced Encryption Standard cryptography to lock user files so that they become irrecoverable. These types of exploits earn scores of millions of dollars for the criminal programmers who develop and sell them on-line to other criminals.

Automated ransomware tools have even migrated to mobile phones, affecting Android handset users in certain countries. Not only have individuals been harmed by the ransomware scourge, so too have companies, nonprofits, and even government agencies, the most infamous of which was the Swansea Police Department in Massachusetts some years back, which became infected when an employee opened a malicious e-mail attachment. Rather than losing its irreplaceable police case files to the scammers, the agency was forced to open a Bitcoin account and pay a $750 ransom to get its files back. The police lieutenant told the press he had no idea what a Bitcoin was or how the malware functioned until his department was struck in the attack.

As the ACFE and other professional organizations have told us, within its world, cybercrime has evolved highly sophisticated methods of operation to sell everything from methamphetamine to child sexual abuse live streamed online. It has rapidly adopted existing tools of anonymity such as the Tor browser to establish Dark Net shopping malls, and criminal consulting services such as hacking and murder for hire are all available at the click of a mouse. Untraceable and anonymous digital currencies, such as Bitcoin, are breathing new life into the underground economy and allowing for the rapid exchange of goods and services. With these additional revenues, cyber criminals are becoming more disciplined and organized, significantly increasing the sophistication of their operations. Business models are being automated wherever possible to maximize profits and botnets can threaten legitimate global commerce, easily trained on any target of the scammer’s choosing. Fundamentally, it’s been done. As WannaCry demonstrates, the computing and Internet based crime machine has been built. With these systems in place, the depth and global reach of cybercrime, mean that crime now scales, and it scales exponentially. Yet, as bad as this threat is today, it is about to become much worse, as we hand such scammers billions of more targets for them to attack as we enter the age of ubiquitous computing and the Internet of Things.

Rigging the Casino

I attended an evening lecture some weeks ago at the Marshall-Wythe law school of the College of William & Mary, my old alma mater, in Williamsburg, Virginia. One of the topics raised during the lecture was a detailed analysis of the LIBOR scandal of 2012, a fascinating tale of systematic manipulation of a benchmark interest rate, supported by a culture of fraud in the world’s biggest banks, and in an environment where little or no regulation prevailed.

After decades of abuse that enriched the big banks, their shareholders, executives and traders, at the expense of others, investigations and lawsuits were finally initiated, and the subsequent fines and penalties were huge. The London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) rate is a rate of interest, first computed in 1985 by the British Banking Association (BBA), the Bank of England and others, to serve as a readily available reference or benchmark rate for many financial contracts and arrangements. Prior to its creation, contracts utilized many privately negotiated rates, which were difficult to verify, and not necessarily related to the market rate for the security in question. The LIBOR rate, which is the average interest rate estimated by leading banks that they would be charged if they were to borrow from other banks, provided a simple alternative that came to be widely used. For example, in the United States in 2008 when the subprime lending crisis began, around 60 percent of prime adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) and nearly all subprime mortgages were indexed to the US dollar LIBOR. In 2012, around 45 percent of prime adjustable rate mortgages and over 80 percent of subprime mortgages were indexed to the LIBOR. American municipalities also borrowed around 75 percent of their money through financial products that were linked to the LIBOR.

At the time of the LIBOR scandal, 18 of the largest banks in the world provided their estimates of the costs they would have had to pay for a variety of interbank loans (loans from other banks) just prior to 11:00 a.m. on the submission day. These estimates were submitted to Reuters news agency (who acted for the BBA) for calculation of the average and its publication and dissemination. Reuters set aside the four highest and four lowest estimates, and averaged the remaining ten.

So huge were the investments affected that a small manipulation in the LIBOR rate could have a very significant impact on the profit of the banks and of the traders involved in the manipulation. For example, in 2012 the total of derivatives priced relative to the LIBOR rate has been estimated at from $300-$600 trillion, so a manipulation of 0.1% in the LIBOR rate would generate an error of $300-600 million per annum. Consequently, it is not surprising that, once the manipulations came to light, the settlements and fines assessed were huge. By December 31, 2013, 7 of the 18 submitting banks charged with manipulation, had paid fines and settlements of upwards of $ 2 billion. In addition, the European Commission gave immunity for revealing wrongdoing to several the banks thereby allowing them to avoid fines including: Barclays €690 million, UBS €2.5 billion, and Citigroup €55 million.

Some examples of the types of losses caused by LIBOR manipulations are:

Manipulation of home mortgage rates: Many home owners borrow their mortgage loans on a variable- or adjustable-rate basis, rather than a fixed-rate basis. Consequently, many of these borrowers receive a new rate at the first of every month based on the LIBOR rate. A study prepared for a class action lawsuit has shown that on the first of each month for 2007-2009, the LIBOR rate rose more than 7.5 basis points on average. One observer estimated that each LIBOR submitting bank during this period might have been liable for as much as $2.3 billion in overcharges.

Municipalities lost on interest rate swaps: Municipalities raise funds through the issuance of bonds, and many were encouraged to issue variable-rate, rather than fixed-rate, bonds to take advantage of lower interest payments. For example, the saving could be as much as $1 million on a $100 million bond. After issue, the municipalities were encouraged to buy interest rate swaps from their investment banks to hedge their risk of volatility in the variable rates by converting or swapping into a fixed rate arrangement. The seller of the swap agrees to pay the municipality for any requirement to pay interest at more than the fixed rate agreed if interest rates rise, but if interest rates fall the swap seller buys the bonds at the lower variable interest rate. However, the variable rate was linked to the LIBOR rate, which was artificially depressed, thus costing U.S. municipalities as much as $10 billion. Class action suits were launched to recover these losses which cost municipalities, hospitals, and other non-profits as much as $600 million a year; the remaining liability assisted the municipalities in further settlement negotiations.

Freddie Mac Losses: On March 27, 2013, Freddie Mac sued 15 banks for their losses of up to $3 billion due to LIBOR rate manipulations. Freddie Mac accused the banks of fraud, violations of antitrust law and breach of contract, and sought unspecified damages for financial harm, as well as punitive damages and treble damages for violations of the Sherman Act. To the extent that defendants used false and dishonest USD LIBOR submissions to bolster their respective reputations, they artificially increased their ability to charge higher underwriting fees and obtain higher offering prices for financial products to the detriment of Freddie Mac and other consumers.

Liability Claims/Antitrust cases (Commodities-manipulations claims): Other organizations also sued the LIBOR rate submitting banks for anti-competitive behavior, partly because of the possibility of treble damages, but they had to demonstrate related damages to be successful. Nonetheless, credible plaintiffs included the Regents of the University of California who filed a suit claiming fraud, deceit, and unjust enrichment.

All of this can be of little surprise to fraud examiners. The ACFE lists the following features of moral collapse in an organization or business sector:

  1. Pressure to meet goals, especially financial ones, at any cost;
  2. A culture that does not foster open and candid conversation and discussion;
  3. A CEO who is surrounded with people who will agree and flatter the CEO, as well as a CEO whose reputation is beyond criticism;
  4. Weak boards that do not exercise their fiduciary responsibilities with diligence;
  5. An organization that promotes people based on nepotism and favoritism;
  6. Hubris. The arrogant belief that rules are for other people, but not for us;
  7. A flawed cost/benefit attitude that suggests that poor ethical behavior in one area can be offset by good ethical behavior in another area.

Each of the financial institutions involved in the LIBOR scandal struggled, to a greater or lesser degree with one or more of these crippling characteristics and, a distressing few, manifested all of them.

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!