Economic factors are still driving fraud activity at businesses of all sizes Featured

3:19pm EDT September 1, 2012
Economic factors are still driving fraud activity at businesses of all sizes

When times are tough, the temptation for employees to dupe the system and steal cash or assets increases. The economy is a key driver in fraud activity, and over the last several years, organizations of all sizes have been victimized.

So is the fraud environment improving now that there’s news of an uptick in the economy? Not yet, says Jason Buhlinger, a supervisor in financial advisory services at Brown Smith Wallace LLC, St. Louis, Mo.

“While there may be signs of the economy getting a little better, people still feel uncertain — and as long as that feeling is in the back of their minds, there is motivation and a rationalization to steal,” Buhlinger says.

Companies are running leaner, which means there is less management oversight at some firms, and others have eliminated internal audit personnel. One person may be doing the job of two or more employees, so the work force is spread thin. And that may mean that no one is watching should an employee decide to commit fraud.

“Imposing internal controls becomes harder to accomplish with less staff,” Buhlinger says.

Now is not the time to let your guard down as a business owner.

“The longer the economy trickles along, we’ll continue to see people who are looking for easy ways to get cash,” Buhlinger says.

Smart Business spoke with Buhlinger about the types of fraud being committed and how to establish strong internal controls to protect your business.

What specific economic factors drive individuals to commit fraud?

The recession began in December 2007, and at one point, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down as much as 50 percent. People had to become more frugal. Those who planned on retiring early had to re-examine that goal as they watched their investment savings dwindle. And home prices dropped significantly in some areas of the country.

All of a sudden, the asset values that many people counted on were gone and they had to figure out a way to supplement that. This is where the fraud triangle comes into play — opportunity, rationalization and pressure. All three of these stress points have increased in the past several years, and this continues to be the case.

As long as people feel a sense of economic uncertainty, that can evolve into rationalization and pressure to find more money somehow. When the opportunity to commit fraud presents itself, rather than taking the higher moral road, as they might in better times, they justify the act and take that opportunity. Your organization can’t realistically eliminate all rationalizations and pressures, but it can manage the opportunity side of the triangle.

What types of fraud are most common today?

Asset misappropriation remains the most common type of fraud. That includes, but isn’t limited to, cash theft, payroll schemes and inventory theft, to name a few. A worker might file false expense reports and pocket the cash, or take product from a warehouse and sell it for a profit.

Stealing from cash registers $20 at a time can go unnoticed if proper controls aren’t in place. Asset misappropriation tends to involve smaller amounts of money, but those dollars add up over time.

What are the components of an effective fraud awareness program?

Organizations need to take a proactive approach to prevent fraud. Owners need to be involved in the financial aspect of the business rather than passing that role off entirely to a manager. For example, we recently handled a fraud case in which a CFO had complete financial control of the company and could take whatever he wanted. If their company had implemented the critical concept of segregation of duties, it would have been more difficult for him to pull off fraud.

Segregation of duties is critical to prevent fraud, and this can be a challenge in small businesses. That’s why owner involvement is critical at every level of a business, from reviewing financial statements to checking in at the cash registers. It also helps if organizations provide a way for employees to anonymously report fraud through a tip line or even a simple suggestion box.

By keeping fraud at the forefront of your business, you will discourage those who are teetering on the edge of committing fraud. And with internal controls in place, you will be more likely to catch fraud early before it causes significant damage to the business.

How can a business be proactive about creating a culture of honesty?

It’s important to create a fraud prevention program and talk about it regularly with employees. Hold quarterly meetings to discuss fraud and internal controls. Let everyone know your organization has a zero tolerance policy. By making employees aware that fraud is on the radar and no one is going to get away with it, you decrease the rationalization and opportunity for fraud to occur.

Begin a fraud prevention program to learn what areas of your business are susceptible to fraud. A risk assessment will help you zero in on entry points for fraud so you can watch those areas carefully.

A certified fraud examiner (CFE) can help you get that fraud policy on paper, and it’s a good idea to incorporate it into your employee handbook. Secure a commitment in writing from every employee that they understand the policy and the ramifications if fraud is committed.

 

Jason Buhlinger, CFE, AVA, is a supervisor in financial advisory services at Brown Smith Wallace, St. Louis, Mo. Reach him at  (314) 983-1310 or jbuhlinger@bswllc.com.

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