Keep asking questions
How auditors can detect material misstatements caused by financial statement fraud: If things don't look right, keep asking questions. You don't have to accept a less-than-satisfactory answer. While it is ultimately a legal concept, the genesis of financial statement fraud is intentional misstatement, and when someone intentionally misstates something, they usually try to cover their tracks. That contrasts with financial statement errors, where by carelessness or human nature someone makes a mistake and there's usually no cover-up.
It's essential to understand fraud risk factors: People may manipulate results to make them look better, but sometimes they try to make them look worse, for instance, if a company has a commitment tied to how well it does. Some companies may try to make things look worse this year so next year's results look extra-impressive. Sometimes there's theft of assets, and the books are misstated to cover this up. In one case I dealt with, a senior employee set up a phony court-reporter company, claiming huge court-reporting bills needed to be paid. But there was no significant litigation, and the checking account of the "court-reporter company" was in the name of this employee. Often misappropriation starts off as a loan. "I'm just going to borrow this money from my company, and I intend to pay it back." But that usually doesn't work.
Explain things simply as an expert witness: I testify in a deposition four or five times a year and in court one or two times a year. Most cases are settled before they get to court. Over the years I have testified in over 50 court cases. It takes fortitude to testify when so much is at stake. A court reporter is taking all your words down, and you're in front of the judge and a jury, so there is a heightened degree of stress. I like testifying; for me that's the ultimate. You're really an effective expert if, when you get in front of a jury, you can explain things simply and clearly. I view my role as a teacher. Many people are suspicious of something that sounds overly complicated. They may think someone's trying to put something over on them.
Career path for CPAs who want to do forensic accounting: I recommend they start in a public accounting firm within an audit or business valuation department, where they can get exposed to auditing, tax, and how books are put together. Or they can work in a company's internal audit or accounting group. I know that's somewhat disappointing to some people because they want to start right away uncovering fraud and doing forensic investigations.
How to offer successful forensic accounting services: Number one is be prepared. Also be thorough and only undertake engagements you are qualified to do. Maintain your objectivity, and be candid with your client.
—As told to Sheon Ladson Wilson (firstname.lastname@example.org), a freelance writer in Durham, N.C.