Category Archives for "Asset Misappropriation"

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: How to Prevent 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.

receipt fraud test for auditors
May 08

Three Receipt Fraud Tests

By Charles Hall | Asset Misappropriation

Today I provide three receipt-fraud tests for auditors. 

The audit standards require that we introduce elements of unpredictability. Additionally, it’s wise to perform fraud tests. But I find that auditors struggle with brainstorming (required by AU-C 240, Consideration of Fraud in a Financial Statement Audit) and developing fraud tests. That’s why I wrote Five Disbursement Fraud TestsIt’s also why I am providing this post.

So, let’s jump in. Here are three receipt-fraud tests.

receipt-fraud tests for auditors

Three Receipt-Fraud Tests

1. Test adjustments made to receivables

Why test?

Receipt clerks sometimes steal collected monies and write off (or write down) the related receivable. Why does the clerk adjust the receivable? So the customer doesn’t receive a second bill for the funds stolen. 

How to test?

Obtain a download of receivable adjustments for a period (e.g., two weeks) and see if they were duly authorized. Review the activity with someone outside the receivables area (e.g., CFO) who is familiar with procedures but who has no access to cash collections.

If there are multiple persons with the ability to adjust receivable accounts (quite common in hospitals), compare weekly or monthly adjustments made by each employee.

Agree receipts with bank deposits.

2. Confirm rebate (or similar type) checks

Why test?

When rebate checks are not sent to a central location (e.g., receipting department), the risk of theft increases. Rebate checks are often not recorded as a receivable, so the company may not be aware of the amounts to be received. Stealing unaccrued receivable checks is easy.

How to test?

Determine which vendors provide rebate checks (or similar non-sales payments). Send confirmations to the vendors and compare the confirmed amounts with activity in the general ledger.

Theft of rebate checks is more common in larger organizations (e.g., hospitals) where checks are sometimes received by various executives. The executive receives a check in the mail and keeps it for a while (in his desk drawer – in case someone asks for it). Once he sees that no one is paying attention, he steals and converts the check to cash.

3. Search for off-the-book thefts of receipts

Why test?

The fraudster may bill for services through the company accounting system or an alternative set of accounting records and personally collect the payments.

How to test?

Compare revenues with prior years and investigate significant variances. Alternatively, start with source documents and walk a sample of transactions to revenue recognition, billing, and collection.

Here are a few examples of actual off-the-book thefts:

Police Chief Steals Cash

An auditor detected a decrease in police-fine revenue in a small city while performing audit planning analytics. Upon digging deeper, he discovered the police chief had two receipt books, one for checks that were appropriately deposited and a second for cash going into his pocket. Sometimes, even Andy Griffith steals.

Hospital CFO Steals Cash

hospital CFO, while performing reorganization procedures, set up a new bank account specifically for deposit of electronic Medicaid remittances. He established himself as the authorized bank account check-signer.

The CFO never set up the bank account in the general ledger. As the Medicaid money was electronically deposited, the CFO transferred the funds to himself.  What was the money used for? A beautiful home on Mobile Bay, new cars, and gambling trips.

Another Receipt Fraud to Consider

Sometimes it’s not the front-desk receipt clerk that steals. Surprisingly, your receipt supervisor can be on the take. So, consider that receipt theft takes place up-front and in the back-office.

College theft
Feb 05

College Theft of Funds: Official Steals $4.1 Million

By Charles Hall | Asset Misappropriation

College theft happens more than we think. After all, aren’t these guardians tasked with looking after our children? Even in places where we expect unselfishness, sometimes there’s a bad apple. Today, we review a theft of funds involving a college aid official. 

College Theft

When I was a student at the University of Georgia, I needed every dollar I could find. I ate my share of cheap hamburgers and peanut butter sandwiches. In the summers, I scouted peanuts and cotton to make ends meet. So when I see a college aid official stealing student money, I wince. College theft hurts the needy.

College theft

A New York college aid administrator used a simple scheme to steal $4.1 million of student aid funds. How? She made out financial aid checks to nonexistent students and then endorsed them over to the name of an alias. The administrator set up a bank account in the name of the alias and deposited the checks into the bank account, allowing her to convert the checks to cash.

How long did the theft go on? Over ten years. The fraudster stole most of the money in the last two years of the scheme. As is often the case, the thief became bolder over time. 

How many fraudulent checks did she issue? Over 1,000, each to a different student.

How was the fraudster caught? A change in the accounting system required cross-referencing of financial records.

College Theft of Funds Control Weaknesses

No one was comparing the checks written to student admission files. Legitimate students have admission and other information that can be used to verify the students’ existence.

So let’s see how to reduce college theft.

Decreasing College Theft

A person other than the financial aid administrator should compare the student name on the check to student files to verify the existence of the student. If this control can’t be performed for each disbursement, it should be performed on a sample basis, and the persons creating and signing the checks should know their work is being monitored.

This test could be performed by someone in the financial aid office or by an external professional such as a CPA or a Certified Fraud Examiner.

The college can request from the bank the endorsement side of the cleared checks. If the back side of the checks are obtained, then the endorsements can be examined for appropriateness.

Banks Not Providing Cleared Checks

In an effort to save money, some banks don’t provide cleared checks to their clients. And very few banks (if any) provide the copies of the back side of checks. From a fraud prevention perspective, this is not good. Why? Because checks and endorsements can’t be inspected for potentially fraudulent activity. At least periodically, request some endorsements and test those on a sample basis. (The bank may require you to pay for these copies.) Additionally, as I said in another post, someone should be comparing cleared check payees to the general ledger–if not for every check, then at least on a sample basis.

Free Fraud Course

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Nonprofit fraud
Jan 30

Nonprofit Fraud: Selling Donated Goods

By Charles Hall | Asset Misappropriation

Nonprofit fraud is real. Hard to believe? Yes. But it happens.

Sometimes nonprofit embezzlers sell donated goods. Today, we examine how nonprofit employees can steal assets rather than cash and how you can prevent such thefts.

Nonprofit Fraud

Several workers at a California Goodwill pled guilty to taking over $15 million. Their scheme involved the selling of donated goods by the barrelful to private dealers who sometimes wheeled tractor trailers up to the rear of Goodwill stores.

Nonprofit fraud
The dealers sold most of the goods in Mexico. The thefts–involving seven primary culprits, four of whom were sisters–occurred over a twenty-year period that started in the mid-70s.

So how were the fraudsters caught?

One culprit went through a bitter divorce, and the husband disclosed the scheme to authorities.

Nonprofit Fraud Control Weakness

The article describing this case did not provide details of the store operations, but it appears–at the time–inventories of donated goods were not properly documented. When assets, of whatever form, are not inventoried, they are more likely to disappear.

Lessening Nonprofit Fraud

Account for all inventories. Also, clothing that is sold in bulk should be documented. So each time a truck backs up to a store, the activity should be recorded—who received the goods, the sales price, who approved the sale, why the goods were sold in bulk. The store should have a policy that cash is not to be received for such sales.

Consider adding a whistleblower hotline. Nonprofit employees sometimes see signs of theft. Make it easy for them to report fraudulent activity. Doing so creates the camera effect

Also, install a security camera that records all loading dock activity.

Note–This case was adjudicated in the 1990s, and Goodwill has, since that time, made significant improvements to its controls.

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