The $5,000 Dollar Magician and the Real Element of Disbelief

Maybe we should be more jaded by now when we see wasteful government spending. Perhaps it was believed that we would shrug off  the scandal over the General Services Administration spending $823,000 on a Las Vegas conference. But I’m not going to. I’m still appalled. I don’t know if it was the clown, the mind reader or the $5,000 motivational magician who sent me over the edge, but at least one of those entertainers didn’t belong at a government conference in the midst of one of the worst recessions our county has ever faced.

While we may be shocked and wonder how these things could possibly happen, the reality is that they happen every day.

I’ve written previously about the necessity of reviewing the expense reports of senior people, which is one of the first things I do when reviewing a company that is losing money. I’ve uncovered a lot of fraud that way, from CFO’s writing themselves checks for thousands of dollars to them depositing large rebate checks into an account only they know about.

But it’s not only theft that should concern you. Overspending on company events or inappropriate business expenses can be costly as well. Putting the morality of infidelity aside, is it appropriate for a married CEO to charge trips with his girlfriend on the company credit card?

I thought of how costly fraudulent and inappropriate business expenses can be not only to a company’s bottom line but also to its reputation when a scandal erupted recently in Atlanta.

This scandal involved a $106.22 wine cooler from Pottery Barn.

Brian Leary headed The Beltline, a non-profit, partially government-funded organization that is developing a multi-use trail on a former railway corridor around Atlanta.

His staff purchased this wine cooler – among other questionable expenses – for his fiancee. I dare say it cost a previously well-respected CEO more than $106.22. It cost him his job.

When a city audit turned up that expense plus payments of parking tickets and dry cleaning bills for Brian, $500 kegs of beer and a $2,100 tab for food for employees at a baseball game, well, people started asking questions. Shortly thereafter Brian was out, unemployed and disgraced.

I find theft and inappropriate expenses by C-level execs much more egregious than many. After all, these people have been trusted with the management, reputation and future of their companies. With their high salaries they should be the people least likely to need the money. Does an exec with a six-figure salary really need his company to pay his $7 dry cleaning bill?

I don’t know what causes senior-level executives to turn dishonest and steal from their companies or exceed the limits on appropriate business expenses (wait, is it as simple as money?) – I just know that they do.

Have you checked expenses at your company lately? Are your employees clear on what can be considered an appropriate business expense?

13 Fraud Prevention Tips

My last 13 posts have been specific tips designed to help you do a better job preventing fraud at your company. My hope is that by calling your attention to the variety of ways that people commit fraud and by sharing these anecdotes you’ll be proactive in putting in place checks and balances and sticking to the kind of no-nonsense fraud prevention policies that keep businesses healthy and safe.

Let this post serve as a reference for each of the 13 Fraud Prevention Tips I’ve offered, and please feel free to add your own.

1. If Someone Commits Fraud, Have Them Thrown in Jail

2. Leverage the Value of an Informal Fraud Policy

3. Fraud Prevention Tip: Keep Your Security Room Locked

4. Always Have Someone Double Check the Payroll

5. Change the Standard by Which You Check Your Transactions

6. Don’t Rehire People Who Steal From You – Seriously

7. Focus on Checks and Balances that are Rechecked and Rebalanced

8. Take All Shortages Seriously

9. Always Poke Around Your Books

10. Regularly Monitor and Review Monetary Trends

11. Match Your Purchase Orders Against Your Invoices Before Putting the Invoices in Your System

12. Think About the Financial Impact of Rare Events on Your Business

13. Trust Your Instincts

Someone asked me why I did so many posts on Fraud Prevention that they ran right out of March – Fraud Prevention Month – and all the way to the end of April. As I mentioned in my very first post about fraud this year, preventing fraud is a year-round process. You need to be vigilant all the time, building a system that is internally monitored – and that monitors the monitors.

Please let me know what your fraud stories are, what tips you’d add to my list and how you prevent fraud.

Fraud Prevention Tip: Think About the Financial Impact of Rare Events on Your Business

The smoothest kind of scam – and one of the hardest to detect – is what I call an off-book transaction.

Just a For Instance

An off-book transaction most often happens because something rare occurs at your business. Let’s say, for instance and hopefully not, that there’s an extraordinary event like a fire or a theft, and you go to the insurance company claiming $25,000 in damages and loss.

All goes well (at least in this regard), and the check is sent.

The check could have been sent to any number of people’s desks, but as this is a particularly unusual event that involves insurance, the check is sent to the CFO’s desk. Now, the CFO takes the check and deposits it – not into the company’s normal account – but into an account at a different bank under your company’s name. There’s now $25,000 sitting in a bank account in your company’s name, but only the CFO knows its there to control and spend.

How can he get away with this?

These extraordinary non-recurring items are things that an auditor would never know missed the books. Nobody knows to look for what isn’t missing.

And this doesn’t just happen with insurance checks. Off-book fraud happens with rebates, SPIFs (Sale Performance Incentive Plans), or other money that is rare enough that accountants and auditors don’t know to check the books for it.

The Rebate Way

Consider the idea of a pre-purchased rebate. One large printing company I turned around used to buy a lot of paper. In fact, it bought millions of dollars in paper annually (millions is an understatement). So a new paper manufacturer comes along and says that if this printing company signs a contract with them that begins with a $100,000 paper purchase, the manufacturer will give a one million dollar signing bonus.

The details of this contract are only known by one person who also knows that the million dollars should be looked for in the books later. Since he’s the only one who knows and he accepts the check, he’s able to do exactly what the CFO mentioned above could do: deposit and control it. Auditors don’t know to look for it, so they never find it.

I caught this case because I felt compelled to review a contract that represented such a large percentage of expenditures, and I wanted to know more about the deal, but for every huge case that is inevitably caught there are ten other $10,000 deals that get missed.

If I’m around a company long enough for things happening on an annual cycle to recur then I’m more likely to catch these things, but if I’m not then it’s up to people at the top to alert the auditors (and more than one of them, mind you) to be on the lookout for rare, one time or merely annual occurrences that could be slipping the books.

The way I often catch off-book transactions is by noting what I’m told by staff must absolutely be done or absolutely not be done; I always investigate what must or must not happen to see if something unsavory is going on. A good bit of the time, it is.

A Smooth Insurance Scam

For instance, I had a controller who would intentionally overpay insurance premiums. He was writing, periodically, a check for $10,000 or even $20,000 more than he needed to be. When the auditors came in, they would see regular checks to the insurance company and not think a thing of it. At best, they would spot check that this company was owed money, and the short answer was always yes.

The insurance company would later send a refund check to the company and the controller overpaying those checks would deposit the refunds into a dummy account at a different bank under the business’s name. Guess who was the only person who knew about this account and spent from it. Yep, that very same controller.

People will take advantage of what they know will be out of site out of mind, so I encourage you to watch the unusual with your own eyes and always follow it from start to finish.

What kinds of unusual transactions occur in your business? Did you check up on them?

20120325-185308.jpg

Fraud Prevention Tip: Always Poke Around Your Books

When companies start the CEO or business owner is the one signing all of the checks. That’s just the nature of a start up and a small business.

But after a company grows and other people – CFO, controller, auditor, etc. – are put into the position of check signer, the CEO or a majority shareholder should double-check what’s getting paid.

Just look at a ledger, the checkbook or Quickbooks and see where money is going. Ask questions about that money. How often are we paying for X? What does company Y supply us with? Poke around the books and ask questions.

Silly Expenses

Even if you don’t find fraud, you’ll likely discover unnecessary expenses. I would say the latter is in fact more common in these cases. The reason is that people in Accounts Payable aren’t always informed when a piece of leased equipment is sold or returned or when the paper supplier wasn’t just changed but the first supplier was canceled. That’s because a lot of payables and other bills are just put on autopilot. They’re not checked every month or even every year.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone through a company’s expenses line by line, questioning everything with the CEO and the check-signer, and found thousands – if not tens or even hundreds of thousands – worth of expenses being paid that didn’t need to be paid. What a difference that makes to the bottom line of any business, much less one that hasn’t turned a profit in two years.

In one notable case, this routine check uncovered some major fraud.

Un-Silly Fraud

We discovered the fraud while doing a sort in an Excel spreadsheet on all of our vendors’ addresses; we were just trying to figure out freight costs and where we could save money. What we stumbled upon were two vendor companies: one in California and one in Indiana. Each was doing business with a stationary store in Chattanooga, which is where our home office was.

It would have made sense that there were vendors in California and Indiana to attend to our subsidiaries, but what didn’t make sense is that we were sending checks to these companies at a PO Box in Chattanooga – which, I reiterate, is where our headquarters was.

It turns out that the controller had created dummy vendors, theoretically for our subsidiaries in California and Indiana, and he was cutting checks to these dummy vendors for random amounts between $50 and $100 to a PO Box in Chattanooga. He would then go collect all of these checks and cash them in the name of these dummy vendors.

That’s a series of very small transactions that an auditor would never find even if he regularly dipped 20% below his “check everything” number. As a result, over the course of ten years this controller stole over a million dollars.

And again, we only discovered this because the CEO and I were poking around in the books trying to come up with useful ways of extracting unique, money-saving information. What hit us was something suspicious, and that’s why I always encourage you to look into the suspicious.

Slightly Silly Fraud

Another time I was working on a book store that had switched who it was banking with and who held its credit cards. But one of the credit cards wasn’t canceled – a Discover Card – and because it was so routine to pay off this Discover Card, the controllers just kept paying it. No one asked and no one thought about it. As it happens, the guy whose card it was just paid off his entire mortgage on the company (until I got there).

Just do a routine check through all of your transactions and payments. You’re bound to find some juicy things in there.

How often do you poke around your books?

20120325-172804.jpg

Fraud Prevention Tip: Change the Standard by Which You Check Your Transactions

My last tip concerned reviewing the payroll, but anybody running a business knows that’s far from the only expense that fraudsters can tamper with.

Many companies have expense reports. Sometimes they come from traveling consultants or a sales force. Other times they’re the domain of local managers who take associates and leads out for meals and entertainment. Whatever it is, expense reports get handed into the appropriate department, reviewed by the person in charge, checked off and paid out.

However, what I’ve seen is that for every salesman and consultant who has his expense reports checked, there is someone whose expense reports are getting glossed over: C-level and other senior employees.

There are rarely checks and balances on these people. Sometimes the CFO is even writing his own checks – and that’s a problem. All systems require checks and balances – a theme you’re about to see resurface again and again over the course of these coming posts – and when it’s assumed that senior managers’ and officers’ expenses don’t require review you’re going to run into problems.

The CFO at a manufacturing company in Suwannee, GA knew that the golden audit number for an automatically reviewed expense was $5,000. Thus, he was writing himself tens of thousands of dollars in expense-related checks, each in the mid $4,000 range.

The mistake the company made was that these checks took two signatures but the senior person who was acting as the co-signor on these checks wasn’t double checking what he was signing. We found $180,000 worth of recent fraud. Lord knows what had been buried for ages.

The reason I suspected this was happening is because the CFO dragged his feet about getting us some of the information we wanted during our review process. That raised my concern about other issues he was and wasn’t sharing with me.

When I go into a company that’s losing money I always look at the expense reports of senior people, and when these two issues crossed I easily discovered what was happening.

Make sure that any check co-signor or anyone whose job it is to sign off on checks and expense reports understands the seriousness of what he or she is doing and doesn’t make the action a perfunctory one. You want people in those positions who ask questions, are naturally suspicious and who are willing to bring larger issues straight to the CEO.

Change the standard by which you check your transactions.

Auditors set their own level of what kinds of transactions to review and at what number (in this case, $5,000). Though auditors will occasionally spot check below that number, make sure they’re regularly peeking at any transaction above 80% of that number (in this case $4,000). I’ve found that to be, more or less, the sweet spot of those committing this kind of fraud.

What level do your auditors automatically check? What will you have them do now?

20120325-162646.jpg

What Are You Doing for Fraud Prevention Month?

“Every young man would do well to remember that all successful business stands on the foundation of morality.”

- Henry Ward Beecher

This quote seemed like a good way to address the month of March, which is National Fraud Prevention Month. Last year, I wrote the following post encouraging you to be aware of fraud and to seek it out.

As I’m fond of saying, if you haven’t found anyone at your business committing fraud, you’re just not looking hard enough.

If your controller is required to look at only transactions above $5,000, during the month of March encourage him to look at all transactions over $4,000. Think about it. If someone wanted to steal money and knew that all transactions over $5,000 were routinely reviewed, wouldn’t that person steal money in the amount of, oh, say, $4,999?

If you’re saying, “No way!” you better believe that I have uncovered more than one case of fraud on just this basis.

Here’s something else I would like you to do for the month of March: kick your CFO out. No, not permanently (well, hopefully not permanently). Just ask him to leave for 2 weeks. Perhaps right before taxes are due is not the best plan for some businesses, but perhaps his vacation is coming due just after that. If this is too short notice GOOD! You don’t want him to be aware this is coming. You just want him out for two weeks.

Now you do his job. Sit at his desk. Open his mail. Talk to his secretary or assistant. And don’t let him back in the building for any reason. Just see what comes up – trust me.

If you don’t find anything unusual, wonderful. Be glad you did this and move on. But if you do find something, know that you’re not the only one out there who did. This is one of the number one ways I uncover fraud, and I encourage you to do it annually.

So, over the course of this month, I hope you’ll enjoy some of my many stories of fraud, and when I say enjoy I mean I hope they’ll inspire you to put more strict measures in place at your business to prevent fraud.

Remember, if you haven’t found fraud, you’re not looking hard enough.

If You Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, It May Come Back to Haunt You

Do you remember that book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: And Everything in Life is the Small Stuff?

I can appreciate the life philosophy, I really can, but let me tell you: in business, everything that’s small could become big if you don’t pay attention. If I have a cut on my finger and I ignore it and don’t put Neosporin and a Band-Aid on it, my finger could get infected and need amputating (gross). I’m not saying it’s common, but it could happen.

A leader, especially in hard times, needs to make sure he doesn’t overlook the small stuff.

Once, I was installed as CEO of a company, and I relied quite heavily on the CFO who’d been with the company a long time. I listened to his assumptions and projections. However, I never checked up on his assumptions or double checked the formulas in his spreadsheets. It just all seemed like little stuff.

Unfortunately, midway through the turnaround, the numbers headed south and the bankers got upset. As it turned out, the CFO knew about these mistakes and what was likely to happen.

Making mistakes is not a problem. Not admitting one’s mistakes and sharing this kind of knowledge with me is a problem. When I found out the CFO had known about these mistakes and never raised his hand, I fired him immediately. These were small things whose impact could have been mitigated a few months earlier, but at this point, I had to go crawling to the bank for an extra million dollars. Fortunately, they were pleased with my decision to fire the CFO.

The controller who had actually been prevented from checking the numbers earlier became the new CFO, and we emerged from bankruptcy.

As a CEO you have to rely on people, but you also have to trust your instincts, question assumptions and double check the world around you. It’s hard to rely on one person. I did so because it was the quickest way to move forward, but I learned from my mistake, and now I go through budgets line by line and question all assumptions, projections and spreadsheets. I take care of the small stuff (without sweating it) in order to keep it from turning into big stuff.

Many CEOs blindly listen to others without question because they need answers and they need them fast, but as a CEO it’s your job to ask twice and then thrice. Take care of your business by taking care of everything, big and small.