Category Archives for "Fraud"

earnings manipulation
Aug 22

Accounting Tricks Used to Inflate Earnings

By Charles Hall | Financial Statement Fraud

Companies can inflate earnings easily with accounting tricks such as cookie jar reserves.

This article explores how businesses inflate profits and sometimes decrease them, depending on the company’s desires. 

Today, I show you how fraudsters alter financial statements to magically transform a company’s appearance. Then, you will know how to detect these tricks.

earnings manipulation

Inflate Earnings

Companies can inflate earnings by:

  • Accruing fictitious income at year-end with journal entries
  • Recognizing sales for products that have not been shipped
  • Inflating sales to related parties
  • Recognizing revenue in the present year that occurs in the next year (leaving the books open too long)
  • Recognizing shipments to a re-seller that is not financially viable (knowing the products will be returned)
  • Accruing projected sales that have not occurred
  • Intentionally understating receivable allowances

Think about it: A company can significantly inflate earnings with just one journal entry at the end of the year. How easy is that?

You may be thinking, “But no one is stealing anything.” Yes, true, but the purpose of manipulating earnings might be to increase the company’s stock price. Once the price goes up, the company executives sell their stock and make their profits. Then, the company can, in the subsequent period, reverse the prior period’s inflated entries.

Inflate Earnings: Control Weakness

Such chicanery usually flows from unethical owners, board members, or management. The “tone at the top” is not favorable. These types of accounting tricks typically don’t happen in a vacuum. Usually, the top brass demands “higher profits,” often not dictating the particulars. Then, years later, they plead ignorance once the fraud is detected, saying their lieutenants worked alone.

Such possibilities are why the control environment, an entity-level control, is so important. Ethical leadership is foundational to a company’s health. Additionally, controls such as codes of conduct and conflict of interest statements matter. 

So, how can companies lessen the risk of earnings manipulation?

Inflate Earnings: Lower the Risk

Transparency is the remedy to someone inflating earnings. 

This sentence sounds simple, but transparency usually removes the temptation to inflate earnings. When fraudsters believe they’ll get caught, they usually will not act.

A robust internal audit department can put some fear in the heart of fraudsters and provide additional transparency. The board should hire internal auditors who report directly to them. Moreover, the company’s internal auditors should know that the board has their back. 

But what if board members don’t desire transparency such as the WorldCom fraud? Consider removing them, if possible. 

Now, let’s consider whether a company might desire decreased earnings. 

Deflate Earnings (Cookie Jar Reserves)

Though much less likely, some businesses fraudulently decrease their earnings. Why? The company may want to save current year earnings for future periods, especially if highly profitable in the current period.

For example, what if a company bases bonuses on profits and has high current-year earnings? Then management might defer some of the profits to the following period (to increase the possibility of bonuses in the next year).

Deferring earnings is called a cookie jar reserve.

For example, if a company’s allowance for uncollectible receivables is acceptable within a range (say 1% to 2% of receivables), it might use the higher percent in the current year. The higher reserve decreases current-year earnings (the allowance is credited, and bad debt expense is debited, increasing expenses and decreasing net income). Then, the following year, the company might use 1% to increase earnings (even though 1.75% might be more appropriate).

Such actions are called smoothing.

Inflate Earnings Summary

So, as an auditor, know whether your audit client desires higher or lower profits–or whether they want the numbers to fall honestly

And be aware of fraud incentives such as management bonuses. Then, audit accordingly. 

How to Audit Journal Entries

If you want to know how to audit for potential fraudulent journal entries used to inflate earnings, see Get a Grip on Journal Entry Testing.

secret bank accounts
Feb 27

Secret Bank Accounts Cause Fraud Losses

By Charles Hall | Asset Misappropriation

Secret bank accounts lead to havoc. 

Substantial losses can occur when unauthorized bank accounts are opened by company personnel. 

secret bank accounts


Secret Bank Account Leads to $53 in Theft

A finance director opened an unknown bank account in the name of a city, stealing over $53 million

Four things happened:

1. The fraudster opened an unauthorized bank account in the name of the entity (and signed the bank’s signature card).

2. That person did not set up the secret bank account in the general ledger.

3. The fraudster transferred money from a legitimate bank account to a hidden one. (The thief provided fake invoices to support the payments.)

4. The fraudster withdrew money from the hidden account.

Covering Up the Theft

Here’s the journal entry when step 3 occurred:

Debit - Expense    $200,000

Credit - Cash                               $200,000

The payments from the secret bank account (step 4.) are not recorded (since that bank account is not on the entity’s general ledger). 

Weak Segregation of Duties

Such a scheme is possible when the fraudster can:

1. Sign checks for the real bank account (or by other means, transfer money from the legitimate bank account to the unauthorized bank account)

2. Reconciles the real bank account (and no one else sees the cleared checks)

Another Secret Bank Account Fraud

Another twist on this type of fraud:

1. A hospital CFO set up a secret bank account for State Medicaid payments. (CFO had signature authority for the bank account.)

2. The hospital CFO did not set up the unauthorized bank account in the general ledger.

3. The State made electronic payments to the secret bank account.

4. CFO wrote checks to himself (for over $10 million).

Actions to Take: Ask your banks for a list of all bank accounts; compare that list to the bank accounts on your general ledger. Additionally, you should contact other banks in your area, those with which your company does not do business. Finally, you should contact all payors (e.g., Medicaid) and confirm the bank accounts to which they make payments; see if those bank accounts are on the general ledger

Another Bank Account Fraud

In another fraud, a company made frequent payments to vendor bank accounts.

The company’s CFO set up bank accounts in the name of actual vendors and made payments to those accounts

The CFO withdrew funds from the secret vendor bank accounts

When the CFO was about to be caught, he fled and hid on the Appalachian Trail for over five years. 

Action to Take: Confirm bank account numbers with vendors. 

Thefts of cash
Nov 14

Thefts of Cash From Local Governments

By Charles Hall | Asset Misappropriation , Local Governments

Thefts of cash from local governments is common.

How many times have you seen a local newspaper article like the following?

Johnson County’s longtime court clerk admitted today to stealing $120,000 of court funds from 2019 through 2021. Becky Cook, 62, faces up to 10 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to federal tax evasion and theft.

Thefts of cash

Thefts of Cash from Local Governments

Usually, the causes of such cash thefts are (1) decentralized collection points and (2) a lack of accounting controls.

1. Decentralized Collection Points

First, consider that governments commonly have several collection points.

Examples include:

  • Recreation department
  • Police department
  • Development authority
  • Water and sewer department
  • Airport authority
  • Landfill
  • Building and code enforcement
  • Courts

Many governments have over a dozen receipting locations. With cash flowing in so many places, it’s no wonder that thefts of cash are common. Each cash receipt area may have different accounting procedures – some with physical receipt books, some with computerized receipting, and some with no receipting system at all. 

A more centralized receipting system reduces the possibility of theft, but many governments may not be able to centralize the receipting function. Why? Here are three reasons:

  1. Elected officials, such as tax commissioners, often determine how monies are collected without input from the final receiving government (e.g., county commissioners or school). Consequently, each elected official may decide to use a different receipting system.
  2. Customer convenience (e.g., recreation centers and senior citizen centers) may drive the receipting location decision.
  3. Other locations, such as landfills, are purposely placed on the outer boundary of the government’s geographic area.

What’s the result? Widely differing receipting systems. Since these numerous receipting locations have varying controls, the risk of theft is higher. 

Cash theft

2. Lack of Accounting Controls

Second, consider that many governments lack sufficient accounting controls for cash.

It’s more likely cash will be stolen if cash collections are not receipted. If the transaction is recorded, then the receipt record must be altered, destroyed or hidden to cover up the theft. That’s why it’s critical to capture the transaction as early as possible. Doing so makes theft more difficult.

Additional steps that will enhance your cash controls include the following:

  1. If possible, provide the government’s administrative office (e.g., county commissioners’ finance department) with electronic viewing rights for the decentralized receipting locations (e.g., landfill).
  2. Require the transfer of money on a daily basis; the government’s administrative office (e.g., county commissioners’ finance department) should provide a receipt to each transferring location (e.g., landfill).
  3. Limit the number of bank accounts.
  4. Deposit funds daily.
  5. Periodically perform surprise audits of outlying receipting areas.
  6. Use a centralized receipting location (and eliminate the decentralized cash collection points).
  7. Persons creating deposit slips and handling cash should not key those receipts into the accounting system.
  8. The person reconciling the bank statements should not also handle cash collections.
  9. Don’t allow the person billing customers to handle cash collections.

If segregation of duties is not possible (such as 7., 8. and 9. above), consider having a second person review the activity (either an employee of the government or maybe an outside consultant).

Final Thoughts About Fraud Prevention for Cash

When possible, use an experienced fraud prevention specialist to review your cash collection procedures. Can’t afford to? Think again. The average incidence of governmental fraud results in a loss of approximately $100,000.

Finally, make sure your government has sufficient fidelity bonding. If all else fails, you can recover your losses through insurance.

For more fraud prevention guidance, check out my book on Amazon: The Little Book of Local Government Fraud Prevention. Additionally, here’s a post telling you how to audit cash.

Segregation of Duties
Sep 30

Segregation of Duties: How to Overcome

By Charles Hall | Auditing , Fraud

Segregation of duties is key to reducing fraud. But smaller entities may not be able to do so. Today, I tell you how overcome this problem, regardless of the entity’s size.

Segregation of duties

The Environment of Fraud

Darkness is the environment of wrongdoing.

Why?

No one sees us. Or so we think.

Fraud occurs in darkness.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit stories, Sméagol, a young man murders another to possess a golden ring, beautiful in appearance but destructive in nature. The possession of the ring transforms Sméagol into a hideous creature–Gollum.

And what does this teach us? That which is alluring in the beginning can be destructive in the end.

Fraud opportunities have those same properties: they are alluring and harmful. And, yes, darkness is the environment where fraud happens.

What’s the solution? Transparency. It protects businesses, governments, and nonprofits.

But while we desire open and understandable processes, our businesses often have just a few employees that perform the accounting duties. And, many times, no one else understands how the system works.

It is desirable to divide accounting duties among various employees, so no one person controls the whole process. This division of responsibility creates transparency. How? By providing multiple eyes to see what’s going on.

But this segregation of duties is not always possible.

Lacking Segregation of Duties

Some people says here are three key duties that must always be separated under a good system of internal controls: (1) custody of assets, (2) record keeping or bookkeeping, and (3) authorization. I add a fourth: reconciliation. The normal recommendation for lack of segregation of duties is to separate these four accounting duties to different personnel. But many organizations are unable to do so, usually due to a limited number of employees.

Some small organizations believe they can’t overcome this problem. But is this true? I don’t think so.

Here’s two easy steps to create greater transparency and safety when the separation of accounting duties is not possible.

1. Bank Account Transparency

First, consider this simple control: Provide all bank statements to someone other than the bookkeeper. Allow this second person to receive the bank statements before the bookkeeper. While no silver bullet, it has power.

Persons who might receive the bank statements first (before the bookkeeper) include the following:

  • A nonprofit board member
  • The mayor of a small city
  • The owner of a small business
  • The library director
  • A church leader

What is the receiver of the bank statements to do? Merely open the bank statements and review the contents for appropriateness (mainly cleared checks).

In many small entities, accounting processes are a mystery to board members or owners. Why? Only one person (the bookkeeper) understands the disbursement process, the recording of journal entries, billing and collections, and payroll.

Relying on a trusted bookkeeper is not a good thing. So how can you shine the light?

Allow a second person to see the bank statements.

Segregation of duties

Fraud decreases when the bookkeeper knows someone is watching. Suppose the bookkeeper desires to write a check to himself but realizes that a board member will see the cleared check. Is this a deterrent? You bet.

Don’t want to send the bank statements to a second person? Request that the bank provide read-only online access to the second person. And let the bookkeeper know.

Even the appearance of transparency creates (at least some) safety. Suppose the second person reviewer opens the bank statements (before providing them to the bookkeeper) and does nothing else. The perception of a review enhances safety. I am not recommending that the review not be performed. But if the bookkeeper even thinks someone is watching, fraud will lessen.

When you audit cash, see if these types of controls are in place.

Now, let’s look at the second step to overcome a lack of segregation of duties. Surprise audits.

2. Surprise Audits

Another way to create small-entity transparency is to perform surprise audits. These reviews are not opinion audits (such as those issued by CPAs). They involve random inspections of various areas such as viewing all checks clearing the May bank statement. Such a review can be contracted out to a CPA. Or they can be performed by someone in the company. For example, a board member.

Additionally, adopt a written policy stating that the surprise inspections will occur once or twice a year.

The policy could be as simple as:

Twice a year a board member (or designee other than the bookkeeper) will inspect the accounting system and related documents. The scope and details of the inspection will be at the judgment of the board member (or designee). An inspection report will be provided to the board.

Why word the policy this way? You want to make the system general enough that the bookkeeper has no idea what will be examined but distinct enough that a regular review occurs. 

Segregation of duties

Surprise Audit Ideas

Here are some surprise audit ideas:

  • Inspect all cleared checks that clear a particular month for appropriate payees and signatures and endorsements
  • Agree all receipts to the deposit slip for three different time periods
  • Review all journal entries made in a two week period and request an explanation for each
  • Inspect two bank reconciliations for appropriateness
  • Review one monthly budget to actual report (look for unusual variances)
  • Request a report of all new vendors added in the last six months and review for appropriateness

The reviewer may not perform all of the procedures and can perform just one. What is done is not as important as the fact that something is done. In other words, the primary purpose of the surprise audit is to make the bookkeeper think twice about whether he or she can steal and not get caught.

I will say it again. Having multiple people involved reduces the threat of fraud.

Segregation of Duties Summary

In summary, the beauty of these two procedures (bank account transparency and surprise audits) is they are straightforward and cheap to implement. Even so, they are powerful. So shine the light.

What other procedures do you recommend?

For more information about preventing fraud, check out my book: The Little Book of Local Government Fraud Prevention.

$16 million stolen from bakery
Feb 20

Collin Street Bakery Fraud: $16 Million

By Charles Hall | Asset Misappropriation

Sandy Jenkins, a controller, stole $16 million from the Collin Street Bakery. You read that right. A bakery.

Today I show you how large sums of money can be taken from a small business with one simple fraud scheme.

The Collin Street Bakery Fraud

Sandy Jenkins, the controller of Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, made off with more than just fruitcakes. He took over $16 million, so says the FBI. And what did Mr. Jenkins do with the money?

He used the funds in the following ways:

  • $11 million on a Black American Express card
  • $1.2 million at Neiman Marcus in Dallas
  • 532 luxury items, including 41 bracelets, 15 pairs of cufflinks, 21 pairs of earrings, 16 furs, 61 handbags, 45 necklaces, 9 sets of pearls, 55 rings, and 98 watches (having an approximate value of $3.5 million)
  • Wine collection (having an approximate value of $50,000)
  • Steinway electronic piano (having a value of $58,500)
  • 223 trips on private jets (primarily Santa Fe, New Mexico; Aspen, Colorado; and Napa, California, among other places), with a total cost that exceeded $3.3 million
  • 38 vehicles, including many Lexus automobiles, a Mercedes Benz, a Bentley, and a Porsche
  • And more…

How the money was stolen from Collin Street Bakery

You might think that stealing $16 million would require an elaborate scheme. But did it? 

Here’s an example of his method: Jenkins would print a check to his personal credit card company, but he would void the check in the accounting system. (He still had the printed check.) Then, he would generate a second check for the same amount to a legitimate vendor, but the second check was never mailed. Next, Jenkins would send the first check to his credit card company.

The result: Jenkins’ credit card was paid, but the general ledger reflected a payment to an appropriate vendor.

Bakery theft

The Weakness that Led to the Collin Street Bakery Theft

No one was comparing the cleared check payees to the general ledger. (The Collin Street Bakery is not the only business that has suffered from this type of fraud; see my previous article titled Fraudsters Writing Checks to Themselves.)

The Fix that Will Detect the Theft

Someone other than those who create checks should reconcile the bank statements to the general ledger. As they do, they should compare the cleared check payees to the vendor name in the accounting system. Some businesses have hundreds (or even thousands of checks) clearing monthly. Therefore, they may not desire to examine every cleared check. 

Alternatively, the business could periodically sample the cleared checks, comparing the cleared checks to the vendor payments in the general ledger. The persons creating checks should know that this test work will be performed. Doing so creates the camera effect. When people know their actions (in this case, the creation of checks) will be examined, they act differently–they are much less likely to steal.

If you desire a preventive control, require a second-person review of canceled checks.

Additionally, someone should be reviewing the profit margins of the company, comparing the ratios with prior periods.

Lastly, when segregation of duties is not possible, have the bank statements mailed to someone outside the accounting department such as an owner. That person should review the cleared checks before providing them to the accounting department. Alternatively, provide online access to the reviewing person. The reviewer should examine the cleared checks and provide documentation of his or her examination to the accounting department.

What Happened to Sandy Jenkins?

Sandy Jenkins was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Ed Kinkeade to serve a total of 120 months in federal prison. His wife, Kay Jenkins also pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Ms. Jenkins was sentenced to five years of probation.

In March 2019, Sandy Jenkins passed away in a federal prison.

Fruitcake Movie

You may be familiar with the movie Catch Me If You Can which chronicled the exploits of Frank Abagnale, one of the most brilliant cons of all time. Now, there is a new movie about another: Sandy Jenkins. 

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