The Western District of North Carolina U.S. Attorney’s Office issued a press release on June 17, 2013, detailing how James Shepherd, an investment company owner, defrauded over 100 investors of approximately $6 million. How? By misusing funds and tricking his company’s external auditors with fake bank confirmation responses.
The press release states, “Documents indicate that Shepherd built a $2 million residence in Vass, North Carolina, and used investor money to make mortgage payments on the residence.” The U.S. Attorney’s Office said, “For seven years Shepherd used his investment fund as his personal piggy bank and repeatedly lied to his investors who trusted him with their savings.” The release goes on to say the fraud was concealed as “Shepherd sent to investors certified financial statements…accompanied by an Independent Auditor’s Report.” The fraudulent December 31, 2012, financial statement reflected a $6,041,850 cash balance when in reality the fund had less than $100,000. So, how was Shepherd able to get an independent auditor’s report based on fraudulent numbers?
The auditor sent bank confirmations to a P.O. Box address provided by Shepherd. Additionally, the confirmations were sent to the attention of a “Charles Fisher”–a fictitious bank employee.
And who controlled the P.O. Box? Mr. Shepherd.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Shepherd would receive the bank confirmations, “forge the name Fisher on a fake bank letter” and “send forged bank statements with fake balances” to the auditor. The responses came in the form of both letters and faxes.
So, how were the forged bank statements created? The press release stated that “Shepherd generated the fraudulent bank statements using a version of Adobe Acrobat that enabled him to type false numbers over true bank statements.”
Given the false bank confirmations, how was Mr. Shepherd ever caught? In March 2013 the auditors “insisted on verifying the cash balance of funds’ bank account electronically through the audit confirmation website www.confirmation.com.” Shepherd then refused to give the accountant authority to utilize the site to verify the cash balance. After that, the auditor notified the National Futures Association that his audit opinion could no longer be relied upon.
Given this cautionary tale, how can auditors combat the threat of false bank contact information?
A while back, my friend James Ulvog brought to my attention the following clarified auditing section about confirmations.
AU-C Section 505.A7 states:
Determining that requests are properly addressed includes verifying the accuracy of the addresses, including testing the validity of some or all of the addresses on the confirmation requests before they are sent out, regardless of the confirmation method used. When a confirmation request is sent by e-mail, the auditor’s determination that the request is being properly directed to the appropriate confirming party may include performing procedures to test the validity of some or all of the e-mail addresses supplied by management.
Auditors confirm bank accounts using:
Regardless of how an account is confirmed, auditors need to verify the contact information provided by the auditee–at least for some of the confirmations.
Audit standards require that steps be taken to ensure that confirmations are sent to the appropriate persons.
Using Confirmation.com reduces risk related to faulty confirmations. If you don’t use Confirmation.com, then consider checking street addresses by Googling them, or you might call the confirming party–especially for high-risk accounts.
The procedures used to verify mailing addresses, fax numbers, and email addresses should be documented in the auditor’s work papers.
On February 11, 2015, Mr. Shepherd was sentenced to 84 months in prison and three years of supervised release. Shepherd pleaded guilty to one count of securities fraud in June 2013.
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Charles Hall is a practicing CPA and Certified Fraud Examiner. For the last thirty years, he has primarily audited governments, nonprofits, and small businesses. He is the author of The Little Book of Local Government Fraud Prevention and Preparation of Financial Statements & Compilation Engagements. He frequently speaks at continuing education events. Charles is the quality control partner for McNair, McLemore, Middlebrooks & Co. where he provides daily audit and accounting assistance to over 65 CPAs. In addition, he consults with other CPA firms, assisting them with auditing and accounting issues.
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