Preventing Accountant Embezzlement

From the Thomson Reuters blog.

Did you happen to see this recent headline on CNN? “Alanis Morissette’s ex-manager headed to prison for stealing millions.”

Unfortunately, headlines like this are all too common on newsfeeds and the SEC’s website these days. While I have a great deal of sympathy for Ms. Morissette, what concerns me most about this particular crime is that the embezzler was an accountant.

When I began my accounting career, I pledged to adhere to a Professional Code of Conduct. I also pledged to adhere to my employer’s Code of Business Conduct and Ethics. I take both pledges seriously, but it appears there are a growing number of accountants who feel that codes of conduct don’t apply to them.

In the past few months, I’ve seen the words “embezzle” and “accountant” paired much too often in articles and news stories, since the alleged embezzlements mentioned are frequently committed by an accountant.

Why is embezzlement happening so often?

According to a survey conducted by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE), instances of fraud are increasing nationwide — both in the number of incidents and the dollar amount of the losses.

It may just be more intensive media coverage that brings this topic to our attention, but it seems to me that embezzlement is more common today than in the past. Or maybe it’s not just embezzlement; perhaps it’s more dishonesty in general.

Embezzlement by Accountants 

The following examples of accountant embezzlement committed in the last two years show that everyone — public companies, governmental entities, nonprofits, small private companies and even CPA firms — is susceptible to this crime.

Strickland Trading Inc.                    $11.2 million in losses                 2017

Agape Family Worship Center        $4 million in losses                     2016

PKF Pacific Hawaii                         $500,000 in losses                      2017

Los Angeles County                       $356,000 in losses                      2017

In each of these cases, the alleged fraud was perpetrated by a trusted accountant — in one instance against his own firm!

How can these crimes be prevented?

Someone once said, “Trust is not an internal control.” Trust is only a feeling, and in all of the examples shown above, management or owners of the business trusted their accountant.

Our inherent desire to believe that all of our employees are trustworthy gives us a false sense of security. Combine a shortage of resources with the lack of desire to implement necessary controls, and you have the recipe for embezzlement.

The solution to this problem is simple to identify, but often difficult to implement. Separation of duties, and implementation or execution of a few internal controls, could have prevented or at least reduced the losses in each of the embezzlements listed above.

If a company doesn’t have the resources to develop and maintain appropriate internal controls, it’s virtually impossible to prevent embezzlement. However, with just a small amount of effort, a company can hold its losses to a minimum.

What do you think?


Want to learn more about embezzlement and other fraud? Enroll in Checkpoint Learning’s online courses “Fraud: Who Commits It and Why Does It Occur” and “Advanced Fraud Techniques” and earn up to 10 CPE credits.