August 2, 2016
Chasing down crooks, criminals and fraudsters doesn't have to mean wearing a gun on your belt and a badge on your chest. It can also mean studying the numbers behind the crimes, tracing how money is being moved in potentially illegal ways and proving who's profiting from it.
As a forensic accountant you can combine accounting and investigative skills to assist law enforcement officials and attorneys in a wide range of prosecutions and investigations. Forensic accountants work for attorneys and law enforcement agencies, insurance firms, government agencies and more, according to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. Job responsibilities, according to the group, include:
What is a forensic accountant? As a forensic accountant, you'll be the one to go behind the numbers on bank statements, contracts and balance sheets to sniff out financial malfeasance and illuminate the sometimes twisted trail money can take when someone wants to cheat the system to get ahead. You'll learn the skills you need to prevent, detect and deter financial misdeeds.
That's what Sean Ball '14, currently a student in Southern New Hampshire University's master's in accounting with a concentration in forensic accounting program, does every day as a financial investigator for the Office of the Middlesex County (Mass.) District Attorney. Forensic accounting differs from work other accountants do in that it has legal standing in a court of law, Ball said. "I go one step behind the numbers," he said. "It's kind of like accounting for evidence rather than accounting for numbers."
Ball began working in the financial industry at a TD Bank branch in Maine answering calls from customers who had questions about their accounts, including unauthorized transactions. "I would work through the process of getting the account taken care of to the best of my ability and handing the customer off to a fraud investigator," he said. That experience kindled an interest in the investigative part of the process and a desire to follow that process through to the finish. He reached out to some fraud investigation professional associations in the area and began learning about the job. He started to move up the ranks at TD Bank. "I gradually worked my way into an investigative role," Ball said.
Ball said the master's program has been well worth the investment, adding to his knowledge in areas like horizontal analysis, taxation, S-corps and honing his analytical and writing skills. "A lot of what I've done in the master's program has been the bachelor's degree plus additional material. It's definitely a deeper dive and also a reinforcement of some of the skills I used," he said. "It's given me the ability to be a little more creative with some of the reports that I've done."
A Master of Science in Accounting with a concentration in Forensic Accounting allows you to enhance your already well-rounded accounting fundamentals. The program will help you learn how to apply accounting principles to more complex financial transactions such as mergers and acquisitions, bankruptcies and contract disputes. You'll also learn how accounting can be used in court to prosecute white-collar criminals. The program will prepare you to take professional certification exams, including the CPA, Certified Management Accountant and Certified Fraud Examiner tests. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that accountants and auditors with certifications like those, especially the CPA, should have the best job prospects.*
What is forensic accounting? For Ball, it was a ticket to move from a commercial bank to a private accounting firm and now the Middlesex County DA's office where he helps investigate crimes like embezzlement, larceny, fraud, money laundering and financial exploitation of the elderly. "I'm in a position now where right now if I wanted to go to virtually any state ... I have the educational background to do it," he said. "There's no door I couldn't open."
The amount of money criminals are stealing or attempting to steal every year is mind boggling. In fiscal year 2011, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Financial Crimes Section investigated 726 corporate fraud cases, several of which involved sums topping $1 billion, according to an annual report. That year, the agents made 241 convictions, securing $2.4 billion in restitution orders and more than $16 million in fines, according to the FBI. That doesn't include securities and commodities fraud, healthcare fraud, mortgage fraud, insurance fraud and more.
It's no surprise the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the industry will grow by about 16% by 2020.* "A degree in forensic accounting is one of the most exciting choices in business," said SNHU instructor Deborah Touhey. "One can prepare data for litigation and testimony in court cases, trace hidden assets in divorce cases, assist in proper valuation of the firm in a merger or help the government in money laundering prevention."
Touhey said the fraud and financial crimes are becoming more intricate with the introduction of more sophisticated technology in daily life. "Forensic accounting is always important and provides solid job opportunities. However, with today's increased technology, fraud schemes are becoming more complex in nature," she said. "Firms, including government agencies, need these individuals to uncover crime, find hidden assets and testify in court."
A white paper published by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants surveyed about 800 CPAs, academics and attorneys. All three groups ranked a series of traits it thought were most important in a forensic accountant and "analytical" was cited most often in the responses of the top five most important characteristics. In fact, 90% of the academics who responded put analytical in his or her top five. Other traits most often ranked in the top five by respondents include detail-oriented, ethical, responsive and insightful, according to the paper. But respondents also indicated that the inability to effectively simplify complex information and poor written and oral communication skills were the traits that most often limited a forensic accountant's effectiveness. "This research study and results revealed that analytical characteristics remain the foremost trait that forensic accountants are expected to possess," the paper's authors concluded. "The results also revealed that communication skills, the ability to simplify the complex and the ability to present opinions in a legal setting are critical to the effectiveness of the forensic accountant."
What is forensic accounting? You will focus on learning ways to investigate financial records to find evidence of theft or fraud using accounting principles and analytical skills directly applicable to your career. Touhey, who teaches forensic accounting and fraud examination among other classes, said students in forensic accounting concentrations will learn about:
"Students choosing forensic accounting are likely those that want the credentials and security of accounting, yet want more 'excitement' than a traditional accounting position," Touhey said. "Those that enjoy problem solving, mysteries, court cases and crime stories are drawn to this degree."
As a forensic accountant that career could be in a number of settings from accounting firms and insurance companies to law offices and government agencies. Kristin Orr recently translated her degree in BS in Accounting with a concentration in Forensic Accounting and Fraud Examination into a forensic accounting position. The former tax credit accountant took a job that moved her to a Connecticut firm where her forensic accounting education will help her review internal cases of expense misuse or abuse, teller shortages or overages and fraudulent checks and deposits. She said classes on fraud were what she found most interesting. "I think I have to say everything in my fraud classes because we learned a lot about interviewing techniques," she said. "Those are the classes I enjoyed the most because it was most applicable to what I'm (doing) and what I'm interested in."
The increasing role of technology in many aspects of modern life, of course, include banking, securities, finance and law enforcement. Orr said developments like the proliferation of credit card skimming machines on gas pumps and ATMs is just one example. "It's incredible the number of people across just New England that are dedicated to this," Orr said. "There are numerous fraud groups ... for people in all kinds of industries."
Joe Cote is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Follow him on Twitter @JoeCo2323.
*Job market data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Handbook is intended to provide insight on occupational opportunities and is not to be construed as a guarantee of salary or job title. SNHU cannot guarantee employment.
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