Category Archives for "Asset Misappropriation"

fictitious vendor fraud
Oct 13

Fictitious Vendor Fraud: How to Prevent It

By Charles Hall | Asset Misappropriation , Fraud , Local Governments

Twenty-four percent of governmental frauds are billing schemes such as fictitious vendor theft, so says the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. Fictitious vendor fraud is usually committed by a person with the ability to establish new vendors in the accounting system (often the accounts payable clerk). If you are going to prevent this fraud, you need to know how it works. 

fictitious vendor fraud

Fictitious Vendor Fraud

First, the clerk creates the fictitious vendor in the accounts payable system using his own address (or that of an accomplice). Alternatively, he may use a personal P.O. box (which is more common). Second, the clerk creates fictitious vendor invoices to support the payments; often, these invoices are for services rather than for a physical product. Since no shipped asset will be received by the government, it’s easier to conceal the fraud. Finally, the accounts payable clerk issues the vendor checks: since the fictitious vendor check address is that of the accounting clerk, the check is mailed directly to the fraudster (or his accomplice).

Here’s an example of how this fraud might happen.

Accounts Payable Clerk Fraud

John, the accounts payable clerk, sets up the fictitious vendor, Rutland Consulting, and keys his (John’s) address (P.O. Box 798, Atlanta, Georgia, 99890) into the vendor master file. To save time, the city has elected to have all checks signed electronically by the computerized system, so printed checks have signatures on them, and it just so happens that John prints all checks. John records an accounts payable amount of $53,322 to Rutland Consulting. 

To conceal the fraud, John creates a fictitious consulting services invoice from Rutland Consulting (especially designed for the auditors), and he codes the expense to an account which has plenty of remaining budgetary appropriation. Now John prints and mails the checks (including the fictitious vendor check).

Two days later John picks up his check at his P.O. box. John has opened a bank account for—you guessed it—Rutland Consulting; he is the only authorized check signer for the account. After depositing the city-issued check to the Rutland Consulting checking account, he writes checks to himself. Soon John’s friends are impressed with his shiny new bass boat.

Other Fraudulent Disbursement Schemes

While reading about John’s fraud, you may be thinking, “Not a problem in my government. Our checks are physically signed.” Consider, however, that signed checks can be created by:

  • Forging signatures on manual checks
  • Signing checks with signature stamps

The fraudster might also, in another twist to this scheme, just wire the money electronically and record the transaction with a journal entry. If the fraudster can get a fake vendor added to the payables system and create a signed check or wire funds, then the fictitious vendor scheme becomes a possibility.

Banks generally do not visually inspect checks as they clear (how could they, given the volume of daily checks?), so a forged signature will usually suffice. John’s theft described above becomes easier if he also reconciles the related bank statement—no second pair of eyes will inspect the cleared checks.

Department Head Fraud 

City or county department heads can also use a fictitious vendor scheme if they can submit believable new-vendor documentation. Many governments do not verify the existence of new vendors; therefore, a department head can merely send a fake invoice to the payables clerk and receive payment.

Oftentimes when an accounts payable clerk receives an invoice, he will add the new vendor to the accounts payable master file without verifying that the vendor is real. Since department heads often code and approve invoices (by writing the expense account number on the invoice and initialing the same), the payment will be recorded in an account of the department head’s choice.

Again, such invoices are usually for services (e.g., electrical repair)—that way, the accounts payable department is not waiting for receiving documents (e.g., packing slips) before payment is made.

Fictitious Vendor Fraud Factors

The fictitious vendor fraud hinges on three factors: 

  1. Getting the fictitious vendor added to the accounts payable vendor list (along with the false address)
  2. Getting the payment made (either by controlling the whole payment process or by having the authority to approve disbursements)
  3. Getting the payment posted to an account where its presence goes unnoticed

Lessen Fictitious Vendor Threat

To mitigate the risk of fictitious vendors, do the following:

  • Require vendors to provide a physical address (even if payments are to be mailed to a P.O. box)
  • Require the accounts payable clerk to verify the existence of the new vendor (by calling the vendor or googling the vendor’s address)
  • Have someone outside of accounts payable (e.g., controller) review new vendors added
  • Segregate duties (namely the ability to add new vendors and the power to authorize payments); have at least two persons involved in processing all payables
  • Have someone other than an accounts payable person reconcile the bank statement and require that that person compare the payee on cleared checks to the general ledger; if this suggestion is not viable, periodically review all cleared checks for a month and review the payees on the checks
  • Periodically review the list of vendors in your accounts payable system

While this is not a comprehensive article about fictitious vendor fraud, hopefully it will prompt you to consider whether your internal controls are sufficient in relation to this threat.

Learn More About Fraud

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

Local Government Fraud Prevention

Available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback formats

Expense fraud
Aug 08

Expense Fraud: An Honest Theft

By Charles Hall | Asset Misappropriation

Honest people steal. Nice, innocent looking people take money that’s not theirs. How? One way is expense fraud.

The Honest Person’s Fraud

Expense fraud is one of the most common frauds. While the damage is usually low, this theft is pervasive in most businesses.

Expense fraud

I teach a college Bible study, and in it, I sometimes talk about “acceptable sins,” things like gossip, impatience, anger. My point is they are all issues and not acceptable, but we like to pawn them off as being okay–especially when it’s me that’s angry.

Likewise, expense report fraud is often viewed as acceptable, at least when it’s within bounds. But we all know fraud is fraud. The taking of something that does not belong to us is theft. But, I must say, it is so human to fudge on expense reports. We think things like: If I drove 355 miles, isn’t it okay to round up to 375? After all, I forgot to turn on my distance gauge until I was at least three miles out of town. Such rationalizations are easy to come by.

It always amazes me that executives–making six figures–are willing to jeopardize their positions for a few measly dollars. But C-suite employees commit expense report fraud just like new-hires. You might remember the Health and Human Services Secretary once resigned over questions about travel. While the Secretary was not accused of expense report fraud, it’s an example of how powerful people can abuse the use of travel privileges and, in this case, cost his employer (the federal government) money.

So how do people inflate their expense reports?

  • Inflating mileage
  • Filing the same receipt multiple times
  • Asking for advances and then requesting a second payment after returning from the trip
  • Submitting receipts of a nonemployee (e.g., spouse)
  • Submitting hotel reservation printouts (with projected cost) but not spending the night there

The Control Weakness

Usually, the weakness is that no one is properly reviewing the expense reports. Also, the company may not appropriately communicate the penalties (what happens when fraud is detected) for false reporting.

Correcting the Control Weakness

Create a written expense report policy that all employees sign, acknowledging their agreement to abide by the guidance.

The person reviewing the expense reports should be trained. He needs to know what is acceptable–and what is not. And most importantly, the person reviewing expense reports must be supported by the leadership of the entity–he has to know that the CEO or board chair has his back. (It’s difficult to stand up to high-level employees unless the reviewer knows the leader supports him.)

See a list of my other fraud-related articles.

Rita Crundwell
Jul 19

Rita Crundwell Story: Why Some Ranches Stink

By Charles Hall | Asset Misappropriation

Is it possible for one person to steal over $53 million from a city with an annual budget of less than $10 million? Yes. The Rita Crundwell story provides a cautionary tale for small businesses, governments, and nonprofits.

The Rita Crundwell Theft

Rita Crundwell, comptroller, and treasurer of Dixon, Illinois stole $53 million over a twenty-year period. The city of 16,000 residents held Crundwell in high esteem. One friend described her as “sweet as pie.” Another said: “You could not find a nicer person.”

So why did she steal? It appears Rita just enjoyed the good life. She used the money to fund one of the top quarter horse ranches in the country, and she did it with style: Some of the funds were used to purchase over $300,000 of jewelry and a $2.1 million motor coach vehicle.

Rita Crundwell
Her annual salary? $80,000.

The city’s annual budget? $6 to $8 million

Were yearly audits performed? Yes.

Were budgets approved? Yes.

But even with budgets and audits, the Dixon, Illinois scandal happened. 

Too Much Trust

So how did this happen? Rita Crundwell won the trust of those around her—especially that of mayor and council. In April 2011, finance commissioner and veteran council member, Roy Bridgeman, praised Crundwell calling her “a big asset to the city as she looks after every tax dollar as if it were her own.” Too much trust in a bookkeeper can lead to huge problems. 

It was a disturbing moment when Dixon Mayor James Burke presented the FBI with evidence of Crundwell’s fraud. Burke later recalled his emotions and words: “I literally became sick to my stomach, and I told him that I hoped my suspicions were all wrong.” Such a response is understandable given that Crundwell had worked for the city for decades. She had fooled everyone.

Secret Bank Account

According to the mayor, the city’s annual audits raised no red flags, and the city’s primary bank never reported anything suspicious. So how did she steal the money? In 1990, Crundwell opened a secret bank account in the name of the city (titled the RSDCA account: the initials stood for reserve sewer development construction account). Crundwell was the only authorized check signer for the account, and the RSDCA bank account was never set up on the city’s general ledger. The City’s records reflected none of the RSDCA deposits or disbursements.

Crundwell would write and sign manual checks from a legitimate city capital project fund checking account, completing the check payee line with “Treasurer.” (Yes, Crundwell had the authority to issue checks with just her signature—even for legitimate city bank accounts.) She would then deposit the check into her secret account. From the bank’s perspective, a transfer had been made from one city bank account to another (from the capital projects fund to the reserve sewer development construction fund).

Accounting Cover-up

While the capital project fund disbursement was recorded on the city’s books, the RSDCA deposit was not. A capital project fund journal entry was made for each check debiting capital outlay expense and crediting cash. But no entry was made to the city’s records for the deposit to the RSDCA account. Once the money was in the RSDCA account, Crundwell wrote checks for personal expenses—and she did so for over twenty years.

To complete her deceit, Crundwell provided auditors with fictitious invoices from the Illinois Department of Transportation; these invoices included the following notation: Please make checks payable to Treasurer, State of Illinois. (So the canceled checks made out to Treasurer agreed with directions on the invoice, but the words “State of Illinois” were conveniently left off the check payee line.) Remember Crundwell was the treasurer of Dixon. 

Those invoices and the related checks were often for round dollar amounts (e.g., $250,000) and most were for more than $100,000. In one year alone, Crundwell embezzled over $5 million.

Vacation Leads to Arrest

So how was she caught? While Rita was on an extended vacation for horse shows, the city hired a replacement for her. For some reason, Crundwell’s substitute requested all bank account statements from the city’s bank. As the bank statements were reviewed, the secret bank account was discovered. And soon after that, the mayor contacted the FBI.

The Control Weakness

Why was Rita Crundwell able to steal $53 million? Wait for it. A lack of segregation of duties.

Rita could:

  • Write checks
  • Approve payments
  • Create and monitor the budget
  • Enter transactions into the accounting system
  • Reconcile the bank statements

The Accounting Fix

Multiple people should perform accounting duties, not just one.

Moreover, accounting employees should annually take a one-week vacation (or longer). And while they are gone, someone else should perform the vacant person’s duties. The vacation itself is not the key to this control. The performance of the absent accountant’s duties is. Why? Doing so allows the replacement person to understand the work of the vacant employee. But, more importantly, the substitute can note any unusual or fraudulent activity.

Here’s another action to take: Periodically contact your organization’s bank and ask for a list of all bank accounts. Then compare the list to the bank accounts in your general ledger. If a bank account is not on the general ledger, see why. And request a copy of the related signature card from the bank.

What Happened to Rita Crundwell?

So, what happened to Rita? She was sentenced to 19.5 years in prison. Here are pictures from the Chicago Tribune that shed light on the fraud.

All the Queens Horses

Kelly Richmond Pope has masterfully captured the Rita Crundwell tale in the movie All the Queen’s Horses, available on Amazon. Think auditing is boring? Then watch the movie. It does a better job of explaining the psychological and financial damage of fraud than any textbook. 

Fraudster’s refuge
Apr 17

Fake Bank Accounts and the Appalachian Trail

By Charles Hall | Asset Misappropriation

Some fraudsters funnel money into fake bank accounts. Today, I show you how one controller did so and walked away with millions—and then hid on the Appalachian Trail.

Fake bank accounts

Fake Bank Account

In May 2015 James Hammes was arrested for the theft of $8.7 million from his former employer, G&P Pepsi-Cola Bottlers. After Mr. Hammes was confronted about the theft in February 2009, he left his home and hid on the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Georgia to Maine. Hammes assumed a hiking name of “Bismarck” and spent several years on the popular trail. Fellow hikers enjoyed Bismarck since he seemed to be one of them.

So how did he steal the money?

How the Funds Were Stolen

The FBI reported the following:

Court documents show that Hammes’ embezzlement began around 1998. As a controller, he was responsible for all financial accounting and internal controls for his division, including supervising accounts payable to several hundred outside vendors. He carried out the fraud by establishing a new bank account for an existing vendor at a different bank. He then deposited hefty payments to that vendor—often $100,000 at a time—in the phantom account that he alone controlled. He then could transfer money from the phantom account to his personal accounts.

“He knew how to cover his tracks by manipulating audits and ledger entries,” Jones said. “He got away with it for so long because he knew how to manipulate his subordinates and how not to raise accounting red flags.”

So, Hammes opened a fraudulent bank account at a bank that the vendor did not use and deposited vendor checks into that account. Then he transferred funds out of the fraudulent bank account to himself. Since he opened the account, he was the authorized check signer. Simple but effective.

You may be wondering how the theft could occur so long without detection.

Vendor Payment Controls Lacking

If extra payments were made to vendors (and it appears that occurred), then the company may not have been reviewing vendor payments. If appropriate controls are not in place, it’s easy for a fraudster to make fraudulent vendor payments without detection, especially if hundreds of monthly checks are processed.

Also, it appears the company may have lacked sufficient segregation of duties since Hammes was able to disburse extra vendor payments without detection.

Vendor Payment Controls

Periodically, review the total payments made to each vendor. For example, generate the total monthly payments made to XYZ Company. Then compare the monthly payments over a two to three year period. If payments increase greatly, then someone within the company may be making additional payments and stealing those checks. Or there may a legitimate reason for the increase. Either way, it’s wise to review vendor payments for anomalies. 

Another test you can perform is to look for multiple addresses for the same vendor. There may be legitimate reasons for more than one address, but you want to create a list of vendor addresses and verify that they are appropriate. The same is true for electronic vendor payments: see if there are multiple bank accounts you are wiring payments to. Then determine if these are appropriate. Additionally, obtain the physical address of each vendor and determine if the company is real. Do not accept P.O. Box addresses for verification purposes; again, you need to know if the company exists. (See my article Fictitious Vendor Fraud: Preventing It.)

If your company pays hundreds of vendors, you may want your internal audit (or external auditors) to periodically test vendor payments for appropriateness. Tell your payables personnel this will be done from time to time on a surprise basis. This will help keep them honest.

Maybe with these controls, you can prevent payments to fake bank accounts and keep your employees off the Appalachian Trail.

For more information about auditing payables, see my article Auditing Accounts Payable and Expenses: A Guide.

$16 million stolen from bakery
Jul 01

Collin Street Bakery Suffers $16 Million Fraud

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 Theft

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

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.

Collin Street Bakery

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. And another article tells other ways employees steal without being on the signature card.)

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.

Forthcoming 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, it appears there will be a new movie about another: Sandy Jenkins. 

1 2 3 6
>