All Posts by Charles Hall

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About the Author

Charles Hall is a practicing CPA and Certified Fraud Examiner. For the last thirty-five years, he has primarily audited governments, nonprofits, and small businesses. He is the author of The Little Book of Local Government Fraud Prevention, The Why and How of Auditing, Audit Risk Assessment Made Easy, and Preparation of Financial Statements & Compilation Engagements. He frequently speaks at continuing education events. Charles consults with other CPA firms, assisting them with auditing and accounting issues.

auditor's cell phone
Sep 17

An Auditor’s Cell Phone

By Charles Hall | Accounting and Auditing , Technology

A cell phone is an auditor’s Swiss knife. And with all the options, I am continually looking for another way to use mine. So I’m sharing my ideas with the hope that you will likewise share yours. While I use an iPhone, I realize there are plenty of other nifty cell phones; my comments below are directed not at a particular phone but how I use mine as an auditor.

Below you will see a screenshot of my cell phone home screen and information concerning how I use various apps.

Auditor's Cell Phone

An Auditor’s Cell Phone

 

Camera

I use this iPhone app to capture pictures of documents as I perform internal control walkthroughs. I embed these pictures in my walkthrough documentation. A picture says a thousand words. If the person explaining the accounting system creates pictures on a whiteboard, I take photos of the drawings.

Sometimes I need a copy of a page from a hardback book (e.g., research); rather than using the copy machine, I take a picture of the page and email it.

Keynote

Keynote is Apple’s version of Powerpoint. I build the Keynote slide deck for presentations and use my phone to present. If you use iCloud, the slide deck you create on your iPad will automatically appear on your iPhone (if your settings are right).

You can also present a Keynote slide deck using your iPad as the presentation device and your iPhone as a remote. Your iPhone moves the slides of the iPad slide deck as you stand at a distance. Both devices (iPad and iPhone) must be on the same wifi for the remote feature to work.

Kindle

I buy most of my books using the one-click option in Amazon. Most books are 50% less in price (or more) than physical books. You can highlight books you read and then create a summary of those highlights (which I then place in my searchable Evernote account–see below); you can copy and paste these highlights to Word or other software.

If I am waiting on a plane, taxi, a friend, a doctor, etc., I have all my books handy for reading. You can even purchase my fraud prevention or SSARS 21 books (shameless advertising, yes I’m guilty).

Evernote

I love Evernote! It is my cloud storage, and at $70 per year for the premium version, it provides me with tremendous power. All the research I have performed and stored is available everywhere I go. All the articles I have saved are at my fingertips. (And it is so easy to store information in this application.) At present, I have thousands of screenshots, websites, articles, presentations, conversations, books, pictures, and answered research issues. It’s my knowledge library.

You can use this app to record conversations that are automatically loaded into Evernote.

Dropbox

I also use Dropbox to store some documents. Most apps connect well with Dropbox, and it handles large video or audio files well.

1Password

I save all my passwords in 1Password. No more wondering how I’m going to get into my computer with a password I’ve forgotten–again (I know this never happens to you).

Messages

I text my audit team members to see how things are going. Messaging is much more efficient than calling if the communication is short. (You can also take a picture of anything with Camera and message the picture. If your audit team member needs to see something on your computer screen, take a picture of it and message the shot to them with comments.)

Don’t want to type the message? Just say it out loud, and the app will record your words for sending.

Maps

I use Google maps to get to new audit locations.

Weather

I use the Weather Channel’s app to check the weather before I leave for trips so I can dress appropriately.

Pandora

Mozart or U2 makes my audit day go by much better. If you prefer music without ads, you can pay Pandora for the service. 

Sharefile

Sharefile is my go-to app for sending sensitive client data. With hackers everywhere, I don’t risk sending sensitive client data in emails.

Fantastical

My Fantastical calendar app syncs with my Outlook calendar, so regardless of where I am, I can check my appointments and schedule the same. I can also add reminders in Fantastical, so I don’t forget the milk.

ToDoist

Do I keep a to-do list? Yes, in my ToDoist app. This app integrates with Outlook.

Audible

When I am driving, I listen to books using Audible. If you’re on the road a lot, this is a great way to redeem your time.

WSJ

I read the Wall Street Journal to keep abreast of current events. This WSJ app provides me access to one of the best newspapers in America (and there aren’t many these days).

Siri

While not an app, I push the button on my iPhone and Siri asks me what I want to do. This is how I make phone calls by simply saying, “call my wife,” for example. I also send texts (or emails) the same way by saying “send a text to C.S. Lewis”; then I tell Siri what I want to say–works amazingly well; she even understands my southern accent (and that, my friends, is truly amazing).

What About You?

How do you use your cell phone at work? I would love to hear from you.

Reviewing workpapers
Jul 12

Reviewing Workpapers, Keeping Friends

By Charles Hall | Accounting and Auditing

Do you review workpapers? If yes, you’ll relate to the following story. 

Bill calls Janet saying, “You can review the workpapers. We’re two days past the deadline, so we need to turn this one around today. Sorry for the late notice.”

Reviewing workpapers

Janet feels her blood pressure rise. She taps her fingers on the desk. Her response: “I have three other audits queued up for review. Which partners do you want me to disappoint?”

The conversation goes silent. Tension fills the air. Still more silence.

“I’ll see what I can do, but please give me more notice. This is the third time this has happened.”

Janet begins reviewing the workpapers.

She starts with the engagement letter, but it’s nowhere to be found. She makes a review note. The risk assessment documentation looks good. She thinks to herself, “The walkthroughs have improved, analytics are better, and the planning document has a nice summary of risks and responses.”

She reviews the financial statements, seeing only one deficiency. The fair value note needs improvement.

She calls Bill to advise him of the disclosure change. He hears her words, still laced with tension. A pang of guilt washes over him. He wishes he would have completed this job sooner.

As Janet completes Bill’s review, she receives two phone calls concerning the other queued jobs. The caller says, “When will you be done? What’s taking so long?” I am well acquainted with her frustration. I feel her pain.

What can Bill do to make Janet’s life better?

How Bill Can Win Friends and Influence People

Bill needs to provide Janet with adequate time to review workpapers. Granted, timeliness can’t always happen. But give as much advance notice as possible. Bill knows the job is running late. Calling Janet two days earlier would have been a big help.

Bill should also let Janet know that certain documents–such as the engagement letter–are not in the file and why.

Bill may need some assistance in project management. If this is the third time, maybe Bill needs to take some continuing education regarding efficiency and organization.

What can Janet do to make everyone’s life better?

How Janet Can Win Friends and Influence People

Let’s face it. The pressure in public accounting is unrelenting, so finding the better angels of our nature can be challenging. But this we know: Janet will foster greater cooperation with patience. Friction is not your friend.

Few people enjoy having their work reviewed, so critique kindly. We need to be clear regarding suggested corrections, but more than anything, we need to be respectful.

While I understand Janet’s “this is the third time” comment. But for now, these words need to be avoided. Should Janet address the problem with Bill? Yes, but save the conversation for another day when tensions are not so high.

Where possible, emphasize improvements. Janet noticed the risk assessment documentation was better. Including this positive review note goes a long way in winning friends and influencing people.

Workpaper Review Policy

The firm needs a policy that clearly defines the review process. Generally, work should be reviewed on a first-in, first-out basis. There will be exceptions; but if people–like Bill–repeatedly turn work in late, the managing partner may need to provide direction. If there are multiple “Bills,” Janet’s review role can become overwhelming.

Here are some suggested guidelines firms can use:

  • Engagements will be reviewed on a first-in, first-out basis
  • Review comments will be in writing
  • Feedback will be respectful
  • File reviews must be timely (if the reviewer waits a week to complete a review, the audit team may not be available for clearing the comments)
  • Reviewers will accumulate summaries of findings on a firm-wide basis (then the firm can develop continuing education classes to remediate issues noted)
  • Reviewers will have sufficient industry knowledge (for the engagements reviewed)

Action to be Taken

If your firm doesn’t already have written review guidelines, consider developing those. Much confusion can be avoided by having a protocol. That way, everyone knows the drill.

If you do have written review guidelines, consider reviewing them for improvement.

Theft of government property
Jun 29

Theft of Government Property: Stealing Tax Money

By Charles Hall | Asset Misappropriation

Theft of government property happens. Cash. Equipment. Vehicles. Inventory. You name it. Today, we take a look at how one elected governmental official took a substantial amount of cash.

Theft of Government Property

Some twenty years ago, I was working on an audit of a county tax commissioner’s office. We were noticing differences in the receipts and the cash collections.

Theft of government property
So one day I walk into the Tax Commissioner’s office. As I step in, I see several thousand dollars of cash laying on her desk. So, I remarked to her, “Haven’t made a deposit lately?” She laughed and said, “No, I’ve been too busy lately.”

I thought to myself, “Strange. She knows we’re here for the annual audit, and she has all this undeposited cash in open view. It’s as though she has no fear.”

The next day a gentleman comes into the room where we (the auditors) were working and whispers to me, “The Commissioner has a cocaine habit.” I did not know the fellow, so I wondered if the assertion had any merit. Regardless, this was shaping up to be an interesting audit.

The Damages

Our audit disclosed unaccounted-for funds of over $300,000 in the year one. Year two, the differences continued and exceeded $500,000. After three years, the unaccounted-for amount was in the $800,000 range.

Why was she not removed? Tax Commissioners are elected in Georgia, so the only person that could remove her was the governor. The local county commissioners could not dismiss her.

Finally, the FBI was brought in. But even they could not prove who was stealing the money. Why? The tax office had two cash drawers and eight clerks. All eight worked out of both drawers. So when cash went missing, you could not pin the differences on any one person.

In addition, the books were a disaster, postings were willy-nilly. There was no rhyme or reason–what I call “designed smoke.” The smoke covers up theft of government property.

The tax commissioner eventually went to prison for tax evasion. She made the mistake of depositing some of the stolen cash into her personal bank account, and the Feds were able to prove she had not reported the income.

Control Weakness Allowing Theft of Government Property

The primary weakness was the lack of design in the collection process. Two or more people should never work from one cash drawer. Deposits were not timely made (and in many cases, not made at all). And then the books (mainly the tax digest) was not appropriately posted as collections were received.

So, let’s see how to lessen theft of government property.

Fixing the Control Weakness

The primary fix was to remove the tax commissioner.

Next, each cash drawer should be assigned to only one person at a time.

Cash receipts should be written and the tax digest should be posted as tax payments are received.

Finally, deposits should be made daily.

altered check payees
May 18

Altered Checks: A Fraud Scheme

By Charles Hall | Asset Misappropriation

Some fraudsters steal money with altered check payees.

As a kid I once threw a match in a half-gallon of gasoline—just to see what would happen. I quickly found out. In a panic, I kicked the gas container—a plastic milk jug—several times, thinking this would somehow kill the fire. But just the opposite happened. And when my father found out, something else was on fire.

Some accounting weaknesses create unintended consequences. Show me an accounting clerk who (1) can sign checks (whether by hand, with a signature stamp, or with a computer-generated signature), (2) posts transactions to the accounting system, and (3) reconciles the bank account, and I will show you another combustible situation. Here’s how one city clerk created her own blaze.

Altered Check Example

Using the city’s signature stamp, the clerk signed handwritten checks made out to herself; however, when the payee name was entered into the general ledger (with a journal entry), another name was used—usually that of a legitimate vendor.

altered check payees

 

For example, Susie, the clerk, created manual checks made out to herself and signed them with the signature stamp. But the check payee was entered into the accounting system as Macon Hardware (for example). Also, she allocated the disbursements to accounts with sufficient remaining budgetary balances. The subterfuge worked as the expense accounts reflected appropriate vendor activity and expenses stayed within the budgetary appropriations. No red flags.

The accounting clerk, when confronted with evidence of her deception, responded, “I don’t know why I did it, I didn’t need the money.” We do a disservice to accounting employees when we make it so easy to steal. Given human nature, we should do what we can to limit the temptation.

How?

Controls to Lessen Check Fraud

First, if possible, segregate the disbursement duties so that only one person performs each of the following:

• Creating checks
• Signing checks
• Reconciling bank statements
• Entering checks into the general ledger

If you can’t segregate duties, have someone (the Mayor, a non-accounting employee, or an outside CPA) review cleared checks for appropriateness.

Secondly, have a second person approve all journal entries. False journal entries can used to hide theft. With sleight of hand, the city clerk made improper journal entries such as:

                                                Dr.                 Cr.

Supply Expense              $5,234

Cash                                                        $5,234

 

The check was made out to Susie, but the transaction was, in this example, coded as a supply expense paid to Macon Hardware. You can lessen the risk of fraud by preventing improper journal entries.

Thirdly, restrict access to check stock. It’s wise to keep blank check stock locked up until needed.

Finally, limit who can sign checks, and deep-six the signature stamp.

A Fraud Test for Auditors

Here’s a word to external auditors looking for a fraud test idea (or those just looking for check fraud): Consider testing a random sample of cleared checks by agreeing them to related invoices.

Work from the cleared check to the invoice. It is best for the auditor to pull the invoices from the invoice file; if you ask someone in accounting to pull the invoices, that person might create fictitious invoices to support your list (not hard to do these days). If the payee has been altered, you will, in many cases, not find a corresponding invoice. Pay particular attention to checks with company employees on the payee line.

Click here for more white-collar crime examples.

Feb 24

Group Audit Standards Applicability: One Firm

By Charles Hall | Auditing

Do the group audit standards apply when one firm audits all of the entities comprising a consolidated whole?

Yes.

You say, “confusing.” I say, “I agree.”

The confusion–at least for me–lies in the pre-clarity auditing standard, AU 543, Part of Audit Performed by Other Independent Auditors, which focused on who was performing the audit. The clarity standard, AU-C 600 Special Considerations — Audits of Group Financial Statements, focuses on what is being audited. The word group (as applied to the group audit standards) does not mean more than one auditor.

Regarding applicability (of the group audit standards), we look at the entities and business activities being audited rather than how many audit firms are involved. We used to focus on the interaction with other auditors; now we focus on the risks associated with the group financial statements.

Businessman holding a transparent screen with an inscription a auditing. Business, technology, internet and networking concept.

The picture is courtesy of DollarPhotoClub.com.

Group Audit Standards When There is Only One Audit Firm

The AICPA’s Technical Questions and Answers (8800.24) says the following about the applicability of AU-C Section 600 (Audits of Group Financial Statements) when only one engagement team is involved:

Inquiry—Company X consolidates the operations of Entity A. The same group engagement team that audits Company X also audits Entity A. Because only one engagement team is involved, does AU-C section 600 apply? If so, what does AU-C Section 600 require that is not already covered by other auditing standards?

ReplyAU-C section 600 applies to all audits of group financial statements, which are financial statements that contain more than one component. In the circumstances when the same engagement team audits all components of the group, the considerations addressed in AU-C Section 600 that relate to component auditors are not relevant. However, considerations addressed in AU-C section 600, such as understanding the components; identifying components that are significant due to individual financial significance and the significant risk of material misstatement; determining component materiality; understanding the consolidation process; and addressing the risks, including aggregation risk, of material misstatement in the group financial statements; are relevant in all group audits.

What does this mean?

If your firm audits consolidated financial statements, then the group audit standards apply, and you do need to comply with certain provisions (even though your firm audits all entities included in the consolidation). Consequently, you have some additional documentation requirements. Your audit file should contain the following documentation:

  • Your understanding of the components
  • Your identification of significant components (due to financial significance or risk)
  • Component materiality
  • Your understanding of the consolidation process
  • How you plan to address the identified risk of material misstatement (including aggregation risk)

Group Financial Statements

What are group financial statements? They are statements that include the financial information of more than one component.

Here are examples of components:

  • Subsidiaries
  • Geographical locations
  • Divisions
  • Investments (equity method)
  • Products or services
  • Component units of a state or local government

You can see from these examples of components, the concept of group financial statements is broader than that of consolidated or combined financial statements.

The idea behind the group audit standards is to highlight the risk of material misstatement whether at the group level or a lower level. If for example, a component is not financially significant but it has particularly risky assets (e.g., derivatives), then the group audit standards direct our attention here.

Examples of When Group Audit Standards are Applicable

Here are examples of when the group audit standards are in play:

  • Consolidated subsidiary
  • Combined financial statements due to common control
  • Investment accounted for using the equity method
  • Consolidated affiliate (due to variable-interest considerations)

Notice we made no mention of other auditors in these examples. It is possible that another firm may audit a subsidiary (for example), but this factor is not the determinant of when the group audit standards apply.

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