Category Archives for "Asset Misappropriation"

Jun 29

How a Tax Commissioner Walks Away with $800,000

By Charles Hall | Asset Misappropriation

The Theft

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 cash

Picture is courtesy of AdobeStock.com

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.

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 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.

The Weakness

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.

The Fix

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.

How to steal money with altered check payees
May 18

How to Steal Money with Altered Check Payees

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.

How to steal money with 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.

How to prevent payroll fraud
Nov 11

How to Prevent Payroll Fraud

By Charles Hall | Asset Misappropriation

Do you know how to prevent payroll fraud? Today we take a look at how you can protect your business.

Direct deposit of payroll checks can open the door to theft. Also when one person is in control of payroll processes, danger lurks.

how to prevent payroll fraud

Picture is courtesy of DollarPhotoClub.com

I was teaching a fraud prevention class this past Friday, and one of the participants, a school payroll clerk named Dawn, asked me to address how fraud might occur in her department. So I asked her a series of questions.

“Does your school use direct deposit?” She answered yes.

“Do you fully control the issuance of W-2s?” Dawn said yes.

“Who adds the direct deposit information to your payroll software?” She answered, “I do.”

“Can anyone else change the direct deposit file?” Her answer was no.

“Who controls the master pay rate file?” Here again, she was the only one who had rights to this payroll function.

Then I asked Dawn if she reconciles the bank statement. She said that Randy, a gentleman sitting in front of her, reconciles the account. I was also told that they have hundreds of employees.

How Can Dawn Steal?

I told the class that a person in Dawn’s position could steal in multiple ways. Here are a few:

  • She can leave a terminated employee on the payroll and change that person’s bank account number to her own, allowing her to receive all payroll payments for the discontinued staff member. Then, she can also alter the related W-2s to cover her tracks.
  • She can change the master pay rate of any employee, including herself.
  • She can inflate the hours worked for any employee.

How to Lessen Payroll Theft

After pointing out the flaws in internal control, I asked the class how they would reduce these threats. Angela (another student) sang out: “Create transparency by allowing another person to review or see what the payroll clerk is doing.” (This made me smile since I had been preaching this idea all morning.)

To lessen the threat of fraud, always ask, “how can I create transparency?” The answer will almost always involve allowing another individual to monitor the work of the primary persons in the process. And I am not proposing that this observing person be present 24/7—just that she periodically review the activity of the primary person (e.g., payroll clerk). 

The monitoring person can be someone that works with the entity or someone from the outside (e.g., external CPA). Here are sample fraud prevention measures for the above-described threats:

  • Download all the payroll records, including each employee and direct deposit bank account number; sort for identical bank account numbers (a same bank account number may mean that a terminated employee was left on the payroll, and their deposits are being routed to another person such as the payroll clerk)
  • Have someone (other than the payroll clerk) pull the payroll personnel files for twenty employees and then compare the authorized pay rates (in the personnel file) to the payroll master file (in the software); tell the payroll clerk that this procedure will occur with some frequency and will happen without notice
  • For hourly employees, have someone (other than the payroll clerk) pull the reported hours for two departments and review for appropriateness; inquire of the department head regarding any higher-than-normal hours
  • Examine the W-2s of the payroll personnel
  • Print a budget to actual salary report or a current year/prior year comparison of wages; provide the same to the governing body
  • Report findings from these procedures to the governing body; do this at least once per year (regularity makes the payroll personnel think twice about theft)

Take Away

By the way, the payroll clerk was the only person with access to the payroll master file. This is not necessarily a bad thing. You want to limit the number of persons with access to payroll master file, but a second person should monitor the payroll clerk’s inputs into the payroll software.

So what can you do in light of the above recommendations? Think about your own payroll system. Are there any potential threats to your payroll system? Also, be aware of backdoor payroll thefts.

If you’ve seen payroll fraud, please share a comment about how it happened.

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