What Accounting Students Need to Know About Fraud
By Joseph T. Wells
In the last issue, we summarized asset misappropriation schemes, which are by far the most common that accounting students will encounter in their work. However, these schemes are also the least expensive, on average. In this final installment, we will outline corruption and fraudulent financial statements.
Corruption schemes average about $500,000 per incident and account for approximately ten percent of occupational fraud schemes. They can be among the most difficult to detect, as they are "off-book" frauds. For example, bribery (discussed below) involves an under-the-table payment to an employee of the victim organization. Since these payments are not recorded as such in the company's books, evidence of them usually surfaces through tips or through noticing excessive spending by the bribe-taker.
Briberies usually occur in two different forms. Kickbacks are normally paid by outside vendors to someone in the victim company, typically in the purchasing department, to influence them to buy overpriced goods or services. Bid rigging is committed by dishonest outsiders to influence contract awards. In both cases, the accounting clues are to be found in paying too much for the product or service in question and favoritism toward a particular vendor.
Conflicts of Interest
Conflicts of interest also occur typically in the purchasing department, but not always. The usual scenario is that an employee of the victim company has an undisclosed economic interest in a vendor's enterprise. Other situations may involve high-level officials who do not disclose their holdings in other companies that do business with the victim. It is important to note that the conflict exists only if those financial interests are not disclosed.
Fraudulent Financial Statement Schemes
Although fraudulent financial statements only occur in about five percent of occupational fraud cases, the losses dwarf asset misappropriations and corruption, averaging over a million dollars per incident. Notwithstanding the fact that public companies get the lion's share of the attention, most fraudulent financial statements occur between lenders and privately held concerns, many of which are not audited. There are five basic schemes that students must be familiar with.
Timing differences are common sources of financial manipulations. By holding open the revenue stream past the end of the reporting period, and/or closing the books early on expenses, a company can materially affect its financial condition. Even though standard cut-off tests should detect these schemes, they still occur with relative frequency and in many instances, are not caught by auditors. Students need to learn the importance of thorough cut-off testing.
Not surprisingly, fictitious revenues account for the largest financial statement frauds on average. Although there are several variations, the most popular scheme involves a debit to accounts receivable and a credit to sales. What is most incredulous is that large, unsupported journal entries are often explained away by management to gullible auditors. Criminals, like electricity, take the path of least resistance; they will only prepare fake records if they believe it is absolutely necessary. Moreover, a number of these frauds can be spotted easily through ratio analysis, such as an imbalance of sales to cost of sales.
Concealed Liabilities and Expenses
One of the most troublesome frauds for auditors to detect is concealed liabilities and expenses. After all, it is much easier to audit something that's there than something that is not. In a typical scenario, unpaid and un-booked expenses are simply stuffed into filing cabinets until the auditors are gone. Paying attention to the date invoices are paid ? as simple as that is ? can go a long way toward detecting the concealment of liabilities and expenses.
Fraudulent Asset Valuations
Any asset can be fraudulently valued. I've seen cases where hard assets have been marked up from cost to market. But the classic schemes involve changing inventory value or quantity: a change from LIFO to FIFO; carrying inventory at market instead of cost; overstating items on hand; counting empty boxes. In the legendary Crazy Eddie case, the bad guys got access to the auditor's test counts and changed the numbers. And in the $500 million Phar-Mor fraud, auditors only tested a handful of stores out of 300. But they advised management months in advance on which stores would be tested. Not surprisingly, the selected stores were squeaky clean.
Let's face it: Footnotes to the financial statements have become so complicated that even CPAs (like me) have a hard time reading them. Some of the recent financial statement frauds like Enron are a case-in-point. Complexity is the killing field of fraud. The harder a transaction is to understand, the easier it is to mask. And of course, the source of most "fraudspeak" is upper management. Typical fraudulent disclosures ? and there is a host of them ? are: undisclosed changes in accounting methods, product obsolescence, litigation, contingent liabilities and management fraud.
If you've been teaching accounting or auditing, you know that the above fraud schemes are not new. You also know that a proper audit can (and frequently does) catch many material frauds. Finally, you're aware that professional skepticism is a vital ingredient in the independent examination of financial information. But your students don't know these things ? not really. They've heard about them, but they don't really know.
My fraud examination class at the University of Texas is one of the highest-rated in the school. I'd like to think the reason is that I am such a brilliant teacher, but the reality is that a concentrated course on fraud exposes the students to a world they didn't know existed; I've been told that countless times. It also presents knowledge of fraud in a structured way with ample and interesting case examples.
The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners provides free assistance to schools wishing to add a course on Fraud Examination. If interested, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. I also encourage you to solicit a copy of a “Model Educational Curriculum for Fraud and Forensic Accounting.” The project was sponsored by the National Institute of Justice and developed by 46 subject matter experts from stakeholder organizations including the ACFE. I served as a member of the planning panel for the group and judge the model to be an excellent resource. Interested persons can obtain a copy of the exposure draft of the model by emailing FFAModel@mail.wvu.edu.
When it comes to learning about fraud, students need to know three things: how it is committed, detected, and prevented. When they leave my class, they have a much better understanding of those fundamentals. But it also covers the human side of greed and dishonesty, committed by people who don't look or act like crooks. Let's face it: Fraud is a war. And to win this battle, we need to know everything we can about the enemy.
Joseph T. Wells, CFE, CPA is founder and chairman of the 34,000-member Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. He is an adjunct professor of fraud examination at the University of Texas and the author of 11 books and scores of articles on fraud. For the last eight years in a row, Mr. Wells has been named to Accounting Today's list of "100 Most Influential People in Accounting." His email address is email@example.com.