You Can Fight Fraud. And Win.

We all know Smokey the Bear’s slogan. “Remember – only you can prevent forest fires.” You can use the same slogan for fraud: only you can prevent fraud in your company.

I couldn’t let National Fraud Awareness Month slip by without mentioning a major contributor to revenue loss for a company. In its 2016 Global Fraud Study, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) reported that a typical organization loses 5% of its revenue in a given year as a result of fraud.

Let that sink in a minute – 5% of your total revenue. Billing schemes and check tampering pose the greatest risk. And here’s another thing to think about, the perpetrator’s level of authority is strongly correlated with the size of the fraud. The higher up the thief, the bigger the theft.

I have written extensively about fraud as it can severely damage a company, and can even cause it to fail. While you can’t prevent fraud 100 percent, you can lessen its effect on your business. Does your company have strong enough fraud prevention measures in place? Here are a few articles to get you started.

Best friends, grandmothers, partners, even church ladies – I’ve seen them all commit fraud. When it comes to protecting your assets, trust no one. Don’t ever think that you know someone well enough to say, “He would never do that.” Maybe not. But don’t find out the hard way.

Sadly, the same goes for family members. Just read about the sad case of Gladys Knight and her son and what he did to her poor chicken and waffles restaurants.

I once worked with a company where the younger brother was running the business and took a salary beyond the limits allowed by the corporate minutes. Unfortunately, the fraud was only discovered after Daddy died and the statute of limitations had run out.

Fraud can occur when you have three elements: pressure, opportunity and rationalization. Knowledge of the fraud triangle is the basis of any successful fraud-deterrence program.

To catch fraud early, you need to know what the red flags are. One of these is when an employee exhibits behavioral changes, undergoes a sudden change in lifestyle or has financial difficulties. Read the article for four other red flags you need to be on the alert for.

According to the ACFE, the most common way internal fraud is detected is by receiving a tip from someone. One of the things your company can do is set up an anonymous hotline for anyone to report suspected theft. Their numbers show that organizations that had one were much more likely to detect fraud than those that didn’t – 45.3% to 28.2%.

My book “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes,” is now available as an ebook.

Funny, But True: When Employees are Naughty, Not Nice

The popular song may claim this as the most wonderful time of the year and the hap-happiest season of all. December is also the least productive, as many workers take time off for the holidays and when they are in the office, they are distracted. And possibly doing their gift shopping online.

Having employees take adequate vacation is important and critical to the well-being of your business. I encourage every company I work with to encourage employees to take time off, and in fact to mandate the CFO take two consecutive weeks off every year. No, I’m not playing Santa Claus here. It’s about uncovering fraud.

In addition to the benefits of having an employee come back refreshed and rested, vacation is the time companies uncover naughty things some employees may have been up to.

Take the example of dear Aunt Tess. She was a payroll clerk at a company I was working with. She was a loyal and dedicated employee of 25 years, who had never missed one single payroll. Not even less than 24 hours after she had her appendix out. See any red flags yet?

I did, and after a bit of investigation, found dear Aunt Tess had been paying fake employees for 25 years, diverting their income to herself, to the tune of $75,000 to $100,000 a year. She had stolen millions of dollars.

So, I may sound a bit Grinch-like, but when your employees take time off during the holidays, make a list of who has access to your books and do a little checking it twice.

Next week, why did Americans leave 658 million vacation days unused last year, and what impact does not taking those vacation days have on your employees?

Why You Should Always Prosecute Fraud

Sometimes people think I’m harsh when I tell them to always prosecute fraud in their companies. My fraud policy is quite simple, “If you steal, you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Instituting a fraud policy is one of the easiest things a company can do. But I am continually dismayed to find out how many companies don’t have one. It seems to be an issue they’d rather avoid. Until it happens to them.

When fraud occurs in a company, many CEOs are reluctant to prosecute it. The main reason I’ve found is that it can be embarrassing to admit it happened in your company. They’d rather other people didn’t find out about it. And they don’t want to get involved with lawyers and filling out paperwork. It can also be hard to prosecute someone you know. They worry about hurting the employees’ families. So they find it easier just to let the thief go and keep the entire incident quiet.

Let me remind you what one investor said about Bernie Madoff. “Bernie would never do that. He’s my friend.” That investor lost everything. As they say, with friends like that …. For more on that topic, read my blog, “Nice People Commit Fraud.”

There are several reasons you need to prosecute fraud when it occurs in your company.

One is that when people see you following through on the fraud policy, it deters others from committing fraud. And the opposite may be true if you don’t prosecute it and your employees know about it. They may figure, “Well, Susie got caught. She did get fired, but I heard she found another job right away.” So while in the short run it may be a hassle to prosecute the employee, it can pay off in the long run when you don’t have to deal with this issue again.

And another reason is that if you don’t prosecute them, odds are very high they will go and steal from someone else. Susie got another job because her new employer didn’t know she’d embezzled from the previous one.

I recently read an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Thomas Conrad, “Decades after ban from industry, Alpharetta man again accused of fraud.” Seems Thomas is a repeat embezzler. He was banned from the investment industry in a disciplinary action in 1971. He apparently behaved himself for four decades. But then he struck again.

He and his son, Stuart P. Conrad, have been accused by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission of defrauding investors of $10.7 million through a group of hedge funds they managed. While he cut off any payments to investors starting in 2008, the money was still flowing freely to him, his wife, his son, other relatives and a few of their favorite investors.

They also involved another money manager in one investment that turned out to be a Ponzi scheme.

And did he tell those investors that he had been banned from the investment industry decades ago? You can guess the answer to that one. That is also a violation of federal securities law.

In this case a fraud prevention policy wouldn’t have helped as he had been banned from his industry. But this story does illustrate that once a person commits fraud, he is much more likely to do so again.

Don’t pass along your problem to someone else by just letting a thief go. Prosecute the people who steal from you. They may strike again. Even if they wait four decades to do so.

 

Excuses for Fraud: Now We’ve Heard It All

Call it the lighter side of fraud, if there is one. As a follow-up to my columns on fraud prevention, I thought I’d share some of the more entertaining excuses people have given for why they committed some type of fraud.

One guy from Glasgow tried to use the soap opera defense. He claimed the investigators were really seeking his “evil twin brother” who lived in Pakistan about the identity and benefit fraud he was accused of. Wait, it gets better. He had two Pakistani passports with the same children listed on them. Seems his evil twin had children born on the exact same days with the exact same names. Wow, what are the odds?

This one could be called the “50 Shades of Grey” excuse. One man was collecting housing benefit money in Great Britain while working but hadn’t informed authorities. He claimed he owed money to his landlady. Her efforts to collect included wearing high heels, brandishing a prop similar to those in the movie and chasing him down for “payment in kind.”

How about the “I never got that raise” excuse? A bookkeeper was once denied a monthly raise of $100. He was angry and decided to help himself to the company till, stealing exactly $100 a month. For 20 years, until he retired.

Then there’s the CFO of a bank in Tennessee who tried the “It’s the tractors fault” excuse. The case study was reported by the Journal of Accountancy of the CFO who invested a lot of money in a local tractor dealership. He borrowed from his own employer to increase his investment and when the investment soured, didn’t want to admit to his employer that he was no good with his own money. So he began stealing from the bank, and by the end of the year had helped himself to $150,000.

He became so enamored of stealing money that when a customer accidentally paid a note twice, this guy just signed his own name on it and put it into his checking account. That was his downfall. He was caught when the customer noticed the duplicate payment and they tracked it to his account. He spent three years in prison.

And finally, the “My ego was too big to admit failure” excuse. That’s what Russell Wasendorf Sr., who was the owner and CEO of Peregrine Financial Group, said when he admitted he had embezzled an estimated $215 million with forged bank statements over a period of close to 20 years.

Wasendorf received all bank statements from US Bank and was able to make counterfeit statements and deliver those to the accounting department. He also made forgeries of nearly every document that came from US Bank and established a PO box to intercept paperwork sent by regulators.

In a signed statement, he said he began stealing when his business was on the verge of failing if it didn’t receive additional capital. “I was forced into a difficult decision: Should I go out of business or cheat? I guess my ego was too big to admit failure. So I cheated.”

In 2013, Wasendorf was sentenced to 50 years in prison and was ordered to pay $215.5 million in restitution.

Don’t set yourself up to hear any of these excuses. Make sure you have adequate fraud prevention policies and measures in place. Check my previous columns on the topic and the chapter in my book, How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned From CEOs’ Mistakes. These excuses may be comical, but fraud is not.

7 Fraud Prevention Tips for Small Businesses

Last week’s post, More Red Flags of Fraud, discussed how management should be trained to always be on the lookout for behavioral changes in employees that may be red flags for fraud. As the column pointed out, 92 percent of the people who committed fraud exhibited certain behavioral traits. Recognizing those can be the key to detecting and preventing fraud.

Being aware of and dealing with fraud is crucial for any size business, but particularly for small businesses for three reasons:

  • They are disproportionately victimized by fraud
  • They are less likely to have fraud protection measures in place
  • There tends to be a greater level of trust in small offices

That’s according to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (AFCE). Small businesses, defined as those with fewer than 100 employees, suffered 28.8 percent of all fraud cases, with an average median loss of $154,000.

The average median loss was higher for the largest entities, defined as more than 10,000 employees, at $160,000. But obviously that is a much smaller fraction of overall revenue than for smaller companies.

So you’re a small business and can’t afford the most expensive fraud detection systems. But there are plenty of measures you can enact to cut down potential for fraud in your company. Here are a few suggestions.

  • Select the right employees. Always check references and criminal records. You may want to conduct credit checks to make sure your potential employee is not in dire financial straits, which can set the stage for him to consider committing fraud.
  • Separate accounting duties. Many small businesses delegate all the financial dealings to one person, who opens the mail, writes checks, reconciles the accounts and generates invoices. This makes a business vulnerable. If you don’t have the staff to completely separate duties, then have some of the responsibility rotate around the office if possible.
  • Always prosecute theft and fraud. Make it clear that you have a no-tolerance policy towards any type of theft or fraud and you will prosecute any and all people involved. This is easy to include in an employee manual. “If you steal, you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” If the policy is equally applied to all employees, no one, even in a small office, should feel mistrusted.
  • Conduct surprise audits. Ask to see the books and review invoices and accounts payable. Call a few of the businesses to make sure they are legit and that your company is doing business with them. Or call your CPA in for an unannounced mini audit to uncover any problems.
  • Have your controller, bookkeeper or CFO take off two consecutive weeks each year. I recommend this measure to all my clients as a way to prevent and detect fraud. In their absence, do their jobs. Open the mail, review deposits, correspond with vendors.
  • Purchase the ACFE’s Small Business Fraud Prevention Manual. At $59, it’s money well spent. The manual goes into detail on how employees steal. It also gives prevention tips and how to deal with dishonest employees.

And as long as you are buying books, add my book to the list. How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes contains a chapter called “Stop Fraud Before It Starts” and includes ways to create an office fraud as well as tips on preventing fraud in all size companies.

You’ve worked hard to create revenue for your business. Don’t let anyone steal any of it from you.

Lessons from the Fraud Triangle

Fraud can occur when three elements are present: pressure, opportunity and rationalization. That’s the premise of the Fraud Triangle that I wrote about in last week’s column, “Why Fraud Occurs: The Fraud Triangle.”

So what lessons can we learn from these three elements of the Fraud Triangle? With a better understanding of why fraud occurs, what can we do in our businesses to prevent it?

The Fraud Triangle needs to be the basis of any effective fraud-deterrence program and should address its three elements.

1. Pressure

While some employees steal due to financial pressure, they may also be stressed due to difficult circumstances at home or addiction issues. Remember the example of Amy that I wrote about last week, the office manager who embezzled $345,000 from her company over a four-year period. She began stealing because her son had been arrested and she used the money to hire a lawyer to defend him.

Other than paying employees fairly, there is not a lot a company can due to relieve many sources of pressure, financial or otherwise. But it can train managers to recognize employees that seem to be under unusual stress. In some cases the HR department can point them to resources to get help.

fraudhandcuffs2. Opportunity

This is the area where a business can be most effective and should focus its efforts. Every company needs to have an effective fraud prevention program with strong internal controls and management oversight.

Most employees steal only when they perceive no chance they will get caught. Remember, it’s only the people you trust that will steal from you. If you don’t trust them, you’ll make sure they don’t have the opportunity to steal. Trust no one implicitly.

For tips on preventing fraud, please see my previous columns, including “The High Cost of Fraud and How to Prevent It,” “My Number One Tip for Fraud Prevention” and “13 Fraud Prevention Tips.”

3. Rationalization

Like pressure, this element is harder for an employer to deal with as it is done internally and no one may know that the employee feels it’s okay to “borrow” the money from the company or is owed it because he is feeling overworked. Amy the office manager began working harder and longer hours to justify the money she was stealing from the company, telling herself that she was really earning it.

Rationalization lets a person continue to commit a crime while telling himself that he is really not a criminal; he is still an honest person. Make sure every employee knows that fraud will not be tolerated in your business and it will be prosecuted.

I also recommend you follow Lee’s Fraud Policy and post it in the employee manual and reinforce it verbally: If you steal, I’ll put your butt in jail!

Because it is more difficult for a company to deal with an employee feeling pressured and his ability to rationalize crime, the majority of efforts should be focused on the most effective way to prevent it in the first place — by not providing any opportunity for thieves to steal. That way, all your employees truly can remain honest.

Employee Tips Key to Fraud Prevention

The simple slogan, “If You See Something, Say Something ™” was first used by The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority to raise public awareness about terrorism, and later licensed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for a national campaign.

You may have seen some of their public service announcements that urge people to report suspicious activities to local law enforcement or in the case of an emergency, call 911.

I urge companies to institute a similar campaign to help them fight fraud. According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE), the most common way internal fraud is detected is receiving a tip from someone. While many of these are received from employees, some come from customers, an anonymous person or even outside vendors who notice something not quite right. Just over half of internal frauds are detected with tips, according to the ACFE’s 2012 Report to the Nation on Occupational Fraud and Abuse.

if-you-see-something1In my career as the Turnaround Authority, I’ve uncovered fraud in all types of ways — through audits, following up on suspicions I had, or in one memorable case, installing fake cameras (until the company could afford real ones) to stem the problem of inventory walking out the door. But employee tips have also helped me uncover millions of dollars of fraud.

When I am working with an out-of-town company, I assure the employees that no one will lose their jobs for sharing information with me. Later I will drop into casual conversation the name of hotel where I’m staying. Then I ask them for restaurant recommendations around that hotel. I do this so they know where they can find me outside of the office if they wish to share sensitive information.

Once, in the middle of the night someone pushed a bunch of USB drives under my floor. The drives detailed where the company’s money had gone. I’ve also had file folders with documents with valuable inside information pushed under my door. Some people in hotels just wake up to a USA Today and a bill. I never know what surprises I may get!

Companies should have fraud awareness training for managers and employees. The ACFE recommends these programs include what actions constitute fraud, how fraud hurts everyone in the company and how to report any suspicious activity.

Frequent communication is critical to letting employees understand that the company is dedicated to fraud prevention. This can be done at meetings, in newsletters and on the company website. It is also important to let them know, as I always make a point of doing, that employees will not lose their jobs if they report something suspicious. They must feel protected from retaliation.

Many companies successfully use hotlines where employees can make anonymous calls. They can also set up an online reporting system.

Early detection is crucial to cutting the cost of fraud. The ACFE reports that the average fraud scheme lasts about 18 months before discovery and that U.S. businesses lose more than 6 percent or revenues each year due to fraud.

In my next column, I’ll talk about the behavioral red flags that are often associated with fraudulent conduct. What should you be looking out for?