Category Archives for "Asset Misappropriation"

Thefts of cash
Jul 26

Thefts of Cash From Local Governments

By Charles Hall | Asset Misappropriation , Local Governments

Theft 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 2015 through 2016. 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. 

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; click the book below. Also, see my free slide deck titled Finding and Preventing Fraud in Local Governments. Additionally, here’s a post concerning how to audit cash.

Dangers of a Trusted Bookkeeper
Jul 10

The Dangers of a Trusted Bookkeeper

By Charles Hall | Asset Misappropriation

Many small businesses experience great harm because they do not understand the dangers of a trusted bookkeeper. This article explains why.

The Dangers of a Trusted Bookkeeper

So your company has a wonderful bookkeeper, Joan Hardison. Just last week you told your banker, “Joan is so good, I don’t have to even think about my bookkeeping.” But does your trust create potential dangers–some that might be significant?

Dangers of a Trusted Bookkeeper

Bookkeeping Password

Is Joan the only person with the password to your bookkeeping software? If yes, why? Oh, she’s trustworthy. I see. But can she control when she dies?

If Joan is hit by a bus and passes from this earth, can you access your bookkeeping information?

If your company has years of bookkeeping information and Joan is the only person with the password, then you may lose it all. Yes, you have the printed copies of your financial statements, but the details of your financial life may be lost forever. 

Intentional Destruction of Bookkeeping Information

Here’s another threat. Joan becomes angry.

Well, now she intentionally destroys your financial records. In some systems, this is as simple as hitting a delete key. So provide the bookkeeping password to an additional person such as the business owner (if the system does not allow for multiple users). If a bookkeeper leaves, remove that person from the system as soon as possible. Sabotage is an ugly thing. 

Also, consider the potential for harm if your bookkeeper is the administrator in your bookkeeping software. He or she controls who gets in and who can’t. It may be wise to make someone other than the bookkeeper the administrator, or–if the system allows–set up two administrators. Main point: Don’t allow one person (the bookkeeper) to control everything.

Additionally, back up your data, or use a cloud service that does this for you. 

The Threat of Theft

Oh, and here’s one more danger: Theft.

Many small businesses trust their bookkeeper too much, not reviewing what the person does. This is a recipe for fraud.

If your bookkeeper prints your checks, then she can write checks to herself, can she not? And if she alone reconciles the bank statement, then you really have a problem. She may be the only person that sees cleared checks. If you’re the business owner, you may be thinking, “But I’m the only authorized check signer.” Good luck with that. I’ve seen plenty of forged checks.

As I tell my clients, “Trust your mother but cut the deck.”

Too many small business owners fail to review the work of their bookkeepers, and these businesses often are not audited. Since the bookkeeper knows no one is watching (and that no one will), it’s easy to steal. What’s the solution?

While not a silver bullet, have the bank statements mailed to the small business owner (or someone other than the bookkeeper). Have this person open the bank statements and review the cleared checks. Thereafter, provide the bank statement to the bookkeeper. This simple step can save you. Now, the bookkeeper knows someone is paying attention, and your risk of theft is diminished. 

Summary

So, if you have a trusted bookkeeper, great! But you still need to do the following:

  • Provide the bookkeeping password to more than one person
  • Backup your bookkeeping information
  • Have your bank statements mailed to someone other than the bookkeeper

Go ahead. Lessen the dangers of a trusted bookkeeper. You’ll sleep better.

Click here for more articles about white-collar crime.

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 Check Payees: 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.

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