White-Collar Financial Fraud: Duping The Auditors!

The term “white collar crime,” is not just some crime conducted by people in white-collar jobs; it is a crime of artful lying. White collar criminals use persuasion and deceit to achieve their end.  Not all crime is illegal, a person can be deceitful and unethical while not committing any illegal acts, according to law.

Spinning is the favorite tool of these criminals. Since humans live on hope, they are sold hopes and dreams through lies. It is a common thing for accountants of companies to employ several tricks to dupe auditors, but one trick that was much talked about involves using women.

Sam Antar

As a former CPA and former Chief Financial Officer for Crazy Eddie, Inc.; Sam Antar had become (in)famous in the 1980s for masterminding one of the largest securities frauds of its time, which shaved investors off by hundreds of millions of dollars.  Many lost their life savings, some lost their careers, cost creditors lost hundreds of millions of dollars and overall was responsible for immeasurable suffering of thousands of people, including shareholders, creditors, financial analysts, employees, public accounting firms, Wall Street firms etc.  The fraud hit so many people that Antar was called, “the Darth Vader of Capitalism,” by US Attorney Michael Chertoff.

Compared to today’s frauds which go into billions of dollars, the fraud at Crazy Eddie may seem small; however, it was much more outrageous than most frauds committed during those years because it went on for 18 long years (1969-1987), and it used multiple methods.

Antar used several complicated accounting tricks, but one of the simple methods used by him was to pair hot female employees with young male auditors who were in their 20s. He later said, “These auditors from the Big Four accounting firms are usually single kids just a few years out of school. What do kids in their 20s think about all the time? Sex. In effect, I was a fraudster, matchmaker and pimp.”

In Sam Antar’s words, “We committed crime simply because we could. Criminologists like to analyze white collar crime in terms of the ‘fraud triangle’ — incentive, opportunity, and rationalization. We had no rationalization. Simply put the incentive and opportunity was there, but the morality and excuses were lacking. We never had one conversation about morality during the 18 years that the fraud was going on.”

Eventually Antar took full responsibility for his actions and to avoid jail time, worked with the U.S. government, and now has taken up a position as advisor to the government agencies and other businesses on avoiding accounting fraud.

Accounting Scams of Today

The current financial crisis has seen several such accounting scams, including the Bernard Madoff scheme, which is a multi-billion dollar fraud.  But Bernie Madoff may just be the tip of the iceberg with the unraveling of several such frauds.

Accounting firm, KPMG, another of the Big Four accounting firms (with Ernst, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu being the other three), had its Executive siphon as much as $900,000 of the company funds for personal use.  Ernst & Young had one of its Hong Kong executives detained by police because of evidence of false audit documents came to fore in a court case.

According to a former FBI accounting fraud investigator, “There’s always an uptick in fraud activity when the economy goes down.  It’s like the ocean going out and you can see everything that was hidden under water.”

The Need for Accounting Education

Antar feels that reform has to start with accounting education. He says, “The kids who are out on the front lines of auditing, they know nothing about people like me.  It is easy to fool them.” He wrote in one of his posts, “Accounting students must take separate in-depth courses in criminology, securities laws, internal controls, insurance/risk management, and other ‘real experience’ areas they require for the fieldwork they will encounter on audits.”

Key Elements In Fraud Cases

In spite of there being millions of ways to commit fraud, the key elements in most employee fraud cases are found to be incentive, opportunity and rationalization.

Incentive – A deeper look into the whole thing reveals that while greed is the main incentive, there are other strong incentives, such as gambling debts, drug usage, infidelity or just ego. There have been cases where fraud was conducted just to satisfy the psyche, and not for monetary reasons.

Opportunity – This is when an employee feels that there is a lesser chance of being caught and this happens in private companies where there are less internal checks and controls rather than in public limited companies.

Rationalization – The white-collar criminal consoles their conscience and rationalizes his or her behavior, usually when there exist internal problems such as downsizing or overworking.

Antar says accounting fraud is all about “distraction,” like diverting the auditors’ attention with attractive young females.  He says, “It’s like David Copperfield, it’s an illusion … I want you to look over here so you don’t see what I’m doing over there.”

Another tactic is “delay.” If the auditors have five weeks to do the audit, the fraudster’s goal would be to leave 80% of the work till the last minute, so that the auditors feel rushed.

According to another white-collar fraudster, accounting fraud means understanding the difference between truth and accuracy.  He said that every financial statement he has ever created was completely accurate – but not truthful.

One of the best ways of detecting fraud is said to be by asking questions and if someone gets offended in the process when asked a question about verification, then something is wrong there. Honest people do not get offended when asked to verify something official.The one good thing that came out of the financial crisis was that several people were being trained to detect this fraud. Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, a US based company, trains accountants in fraud investigation, and 10,000 of its 47.000 members joined last year alone. Could this be the beginning to the end of white-collar fraud?

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