Accountants are often crime solvers

From embezzlement and bribery, to cybercrime and identity theft, white collar crime is synonymous with a wide range of fraudulent acts committed by business and government professionals.

The FBI and other law enforcement agencies quickly come to mind as primary investigative agencies. But another type of professional often holds the key to solving a case – an accountant.

“There are many ways white collar crime is discovered,” said Lisa Massey, instructor of accounting at Henderson State University. “Law enforcement often doesn’t have the skill set to isolate and discover what happened.

“It’s basically following the money. A lot of times they’ll call in an accountant as a consultant to track the money and document exactly what has transpired.”

Massey said multitudes of documentation is required to build a case for an attorney to prosecute.

“It’s a paper and numbers trail,” she said. “Basically, you are looking at what is happening and comparing it to what should happen for that business or entity.”

Investigative accounting is just one of many routes a student can take after earning an accounting degree. But all are greatly enhanced by obtaining a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) license.

“That is the gold standard for any accountant,” Massey said. “That proves you are the best of the best when it comes to accounting.”

For those seeking to pursue the investigative route, Massey recommends additional licenses, such as Certified Internal Auditor (CIA).

“CIAs are hired by a company to go behind their accountants to determine if everything is being done correctly,” she said. “And a certified fraud examiner is an outside person hired to come in specifically to investigate and determine what has already transpired.”

While a keen sense of “professional skepticism” is a major advantage, it’s still the basic accounting knowledge that will ultimately determine success in a case, according to Massey.

“They’re looking at records, so they need to understand what they’re looking at and how it should flow,” she said. “That way, they can see any anomalies that are occurring.

“They need to understand how to think critically, so they can look beyond the numbers and determine ‘should this be like this or not like this.’ Critical thinking is huge.”

Massey defines white collar crime as a non-violent crime for financial gain.

“Given the opportunity, people will lie, cheat, and steal,” she said. And there are preventative and investigative aspects when it comes to white collar crime.

The “fraud triangle” consists of three points, according to Massey.

“There’s opportunity, motive, and rationalization,” she said. “As a business, the only point you can control is opportunity. You want to lessen the opportunities available to people.

“To do that, you set up internal controls. As an auditor, you go in to see if they have all the controls set up that they need. So, sometimes, you may be on the preventative side.”

Accounting students at Henderson will study some of these issues in their coursework.

“We provide students with exposure to how these things happen and how you would document what occurred,” Massey said. “Our auditing and advanced auditing classes go more into the internal controls.”

But the best way to get started in this field is to gain experience.

“If you want to go into this field fresh out of school, you’re going to have to work with someone in that field,” Massey said. “You will not have any credibility on the witness stand unless you have some experience.

“First out of the gate, you’re going to do a lot of grunt work. That’s just the way it is. But it’s exciting. When you do find something, then you’re on the hunt. And it can be very fun.”

To learn more about Henderson’s School of Business and the accounting program, go to hsu.edu/accounting.