Risk & Compliance

How to Fight Fraud: Know Thyself

From statistical models to buying different pens, companies need new tools to combat costly fraud.
Alan RappeportOctober 11, 2007

Facing down fraud within a company is inherently tricky. Insiders know a firm’s weak spots and blind spots, making them well placed to skim some extra earnings.

Less than 10 percent of corporate embezzlements are reported, according to Frank Abagnale, whose life was portrayed in the hit film “Catch Me If You Can” and now fights fraud for the FBI. He estimated that such fraud pilfers more than $660 billion in revenue from companies every year, in effect costing every man, woman and child in the country $500 per year. Most companies just chalk this up to the cost of doing business, he said, and only 2 percent of embezzlers do jail time.

In this month’s Journal of Accountancy, Joseph Wells, chairman of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, and John Gill, research director for the same association, recommend that companies ask themselves tougher questions in order to catch corrupt employees.

“If control is centered in the hands of a few key employees, those individuals should be under heightened scrutiny,” say Wells and Gill.

Conflicts of interest should also be monitored. Companies should watch out for workers who have close ties to vendors and make sure they do not have final approval for transactions. Also, employees should provide annual financial disclosures listing outside business interests to see if any conflict with their job, say Wells and Gill.

Along with background checks and ethics training, the authors also suggest that firms rotate assignments for employees who handle receipts and other accounting positions. Meanwhile, employers should ensure an anonymous way to report possible fraudsters as a way to encourage whistleblowers.

“Organizations should check the employee payroll list periodically for duplicate or missing Social Security numbers that may indicate a ghost employee or overlapping payments to current employees,” say Wells and Gill.

Companies must also regularly take stock. Knowing inventory is a key way to know what might be missing. But fraud takes place at all corporate levels. Wells and Gill recommend that executives keep financial goals realistic, as a desire to obtain bonuses linked to goals or frustration with objectives that were unachievable through normal means are common reasons for financial statement fraud.

Others suggest taking a more statistical approach. Bruce Zaccanti, national practice director for insurance and risk services at Ernst and Young, encourages firms to measure their vulnerability to certain types of fraud and measure the costs of plugging those holes. Using tools such as a “scaling index” to determine the company’s most likely weak spots and the spillover damage that fraud can impose, firms can pick the fraud battles that cost them the most.

The advice of Abagnale, however, might be the most simple and practical. He suggested that companies use micro-cut paper-shredders that chop up financial statements and voided checks into confetti, buy uni-ball 207 gel pens that make marks that cannot be altered, and staff departments that handle money or vital personal information with more people, making it harder to collude.