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?


Fraud Prevention Tip: Always Have Someone Double Check the Payroll

There are a number of good payroll services out there that will handle all of your payroll needs. All you do is enter employee hours or salaries into the system and – poof! – everybody gets paid on Friday.

Many businesses opt not to engage a service like this; perhaps they don’t like the technological integration, perhaps they like to keep things in house, or maybe they just don’t know such services exist. Whatever the reason for not contracting out one’s payroll, if you do payroll in house, make sure someone is double checking the work.

And that brings me to Aunt Tess.

Aunt Tess was a payroll clerk I once had the pleasure of encountering. She’d been working at the same company doing the payroll for over 25 years, and everybody loved Aunt Tess. After all, that’s why they all called her Aunt Tess.

Well, I suspected something fishy was going on when Aunt Tess came into work the day after an appendectomy to do the payroll. There she was, just handing out pay checks as if 18 hours earlier she hadn’t been split open unconscious on an operating table.

Really, Aunt Tess? Not even a day of recuperation?

I inquired and learned that in 25 years Aunt Tess had not missed one single payroll day. Not one. Does that strike you as bizarrely as it struck me?

At a big company, no one knows all the hourly people’s names, and this was a fact that Aunt Tess had been methodically exploiting for a quarter of a century.

As it turned out, she’d created a handful of specious hourly employees, whose concocted existence allowed her to steal between $75,000 and $100,000 a year. She’d just hand out checks, hold on to her unknown friends’, and deposit them into bank accounts that she controlled.

It was both elaborate and simple. Considering the love for Aunt Tess both from management above and employees all around, everyone was quite shocked to learn of this betrayal, and their inclination to forgive her is something we’ll explore in future tips.

But for now, I’ll leave you with a reminder of this tip: Always Have Someone Else Double Check the Payroll. You never want just one person doing your payroll.

Do you have just one person doing your payroll? What kind of check will you put in place now? Let us know in the comments below or ask questions if you need some suggestions.


5 New Years Resolutions for Your Business in 2012, Part 2

When was the last time you looked at your business plan? You remember, that thing you made so many years ago to ensure that you knew what you were doing and that everything was thought through? Wait, you did make one didn’t you?

If so, great – pull it out. If not, I’m not going to ask you to spend your time on that now, but I am going to ask you to think about a contingency plan in case of an emergency.

That’s right, the New Year is a great time to review your contingency plan.

We’re in the middle of a horrible economy. If things are going well for you and your business, I commend you and say, Keep up the good work. But even if things couldn’t be better, you should always have a contingency plan in place that you update at least every two years. At the cusp of 2012, this is a great time to review and update yours since I’d be willing to bet that you haven’t since before 2009 (pardon my assumptions if you review yours bi-annually).

So what should one think about with a contingency plan?

The first and most obvious thing is money. Capital is, after all, the life-blood of any business. Without proper cash flow you won’t be able to buy inventory, make payroll or pay your bills. So, do you have a line of credit? If so, is it currently in use? Could you stand to ask for it to be expanded?

Do you have good relationships with multiple banks? There are hundreds of banks across the country that are failing but can’t even be taken over by the FDIC because they lack the resources to do so. That should make you nervous if you’re banking at any of them, and it should also make you ask whether or not you can find multiple banks with whom to do business.

What assets could you liquidate in case of an emergency? Is there anything non-essential that would fetch a fair value? I’m not suggesting you sell it. I’m only suggesting that you know what you would liquidate and how if you had to.

Do you own your business? Are you it’s president? Is there a board? All of this is to say, think about a succession plan. If something terrible happened to you (God forbid, but you never know), can your business survive without you for one month, three months, a year? Is there someone who will take the reins? These questions are especially important to answer if you are going to ask banks for money any time soon.

What about your other key positions? Who is indispensable to your operations? What would you do if something happened to him or her? How would you replace that person?

Think about your industry and the kinds of emergencies that usually face it. Is it a highly regulated industry? Is it a litigious industry? Are your products safety related? What could go horribly wrong in your industry and business? Think about these things and use your core team to brainstorm potential solutions in case any emergency hits.

You never want to be left wondering what you’re going to do in the event of an emergency. As a turnaround manager, I assure you that having a contingency plan in place is essential and a great way to proceed into 2012.

Resolve to create or update your contingency plan this month.

Consider answering any of the questions I asked above in the comments below and share some of your creative solutions to help others.

Giving Back During Tough Economic Times, Part 6

We’ve discussed a lot of different ways over the past few weeks that you can give back during tough economic times. This one happens to be a little trickier, because its effects are – hopefully – not immediate. However, at some point it’s sure to have a big impact.

Write a bequest in your Will to one or multiple charitable organizations or institutions that you value.

You can designate a specific amount or a percentage of your net estate, which, after taxes, probably won’t drastically affect your family’s inheritance. A particularly good idea is to get your children and spouse involved in the decision, so they can learn from your generosity and support your wishes.

The last thing anyone wants while grieving for a loved one – in this case, you – is to have a struggle over where money is going, particularly if that struggle is with a charitable organization.

If you or your children are concerned that an organization may not be what it once was when you pass and leave it money, you could set parameters. For instance, the organization may currently return 90% of all donations directly to those it’s helping (that is, less than 10% of donations are used for administrative purposes). However, you might stipulate that if the organization has gotten sloppy at the time of the bequest – say, using 25% or more of donations for administration – then the donation is canceled. I’m not saying you should do these things (who knows why the circumstances might be what they are), but there may be ways to temper your family’s concerns and potential objections.

One of the most valuable lessons and immediate impacts in the “giving back during tough economic times” sense is the lessons this will teach your family. If your family members see and understand your desires and decisions and the generosity with which you lived your life, they are that much more likely to become charitable people themselves.

I remember once as the CFO of a non-profit business, we were having cash flow issues and couldn’t even make payroll that week. A bequest suddenly appeared that allowed me to make payroll, and it made the biggest difference to the business and every one of its employees because some anonymous donor who had recently passed – at some point in his life – changed his will to add a donation to this organization that he considered worthy. You never know how the timing will help, but in this case the impact was tremendous and integral to the survival of this non-profit.

Have you written charitable organizations into your will? Do you have a comparable way of achieving these ends?