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Forensic Accounting

By Carol Wiley, Accountingedu contributing writer
Updated April 2013

Thanks to all the popular crime-investigation shows on TV, the public perception of forensics often revolves around the investigation of crime scenes. Forensics actually refers to any investigative technique that produces results that a court of law will accept as evidence.

Forensic accounting has been around for years - the IRS reportedly used a forensic accountant to catch Al Capone for tax evasion when the FBI was unable to convict Capone of other crimes. More recently the fraudulent financial statements that led to the Enron, WorldCom, and other corporate scandals of the early 2000s began to focus the public's attention on what forensic accountants can do in uncovering financial irregularities and tracing illegal financial activities.

In the recent Bernie Madoff scandal, a federal court appointed forensic accountants to reconstruct Madoff's financial records. In recent years forensic accountants have also helped track and disrupt the financial activities of terrorist organizations.

General areas of Forensic Accounting

Forensic accounting has two major components: litigation support and investigative accounting. Forensic accountants can be involved in either one or both of these areas.

In litigation support, forensic accountants act as expert witnesses or consultants for parties involved in a lawsuit. Litigation support often involves determining financial damages or valuing businesses or assets. Both sides in a lawsuit may retain forensic accountants to testify as expert witnesses.

The services that forensic accountants provide during a lawsuit include:

  • Reviewing documentation to evaluate the case and identify areas of financial loss
  • Obtaining documentation necessary to support or refute a claim
  • Helping the lawyer ask questions frame in the appropriate financial context, both before and during a trial
  • Helping with settlement discussions and negotiations

Investigative accounting involves using auditing, quantitative methods, and related skills to reconstruct financial records and determine if fraud or other illegal financial activities have occurred. Investigative accountants are sometimes called fraud auditors or fraud examiners.

For example, an investigative accountant might reconstruct a business's financial records, as in the Madoff case, or a business might call in an investigative accountant if it suspects an employee is embezzling money. Investigative accountants also work for law enforcement during fraud investigations.

Scope of Forensic Accounting

The job of a forensic accountant working on any given case generally consists of the same three parts:

  • Discovery: Identifying the relevant key issues and information
  • Analysis: Interpreting the discovery results
  • Communication: Presenting the information verbally and in writing

Forensic accountants may be involved in either civil disputes or criminal investigations. Civil matters might include:

  • Asset location and recovery
  • Bankruptcy, insolvency, and reorganization
  • Business valuations, including transactions such as acquisitions, mergers, buy-sell agreements, and initial public offerings
  • Contract and other business disputes
  • Calculation of economic damages in lawsuits involving personal injury, medical malpractice, etc
  • Family law, including divorce cases

For example, in divorce cases forensic accountants may value marital assets, calculate and testify to the reasonableness of alimony or child support payments, determine cash flow from a spouse's business operations, or search for a spouse's hidden income or assets.

In criminal investigations, forensic accountants often work closely with law enforcement personnel. Areas that forensic accountants might investigate include:

  • Financial statement fraud
  • Embezzlement or theft by employees
  • Insurance fraud
  • Money laundering or other use of money in non-financial crimes
  • Securities fraud and embezzlement

Common areas of specialization for forensic accountants include:

  • Asset tracing: Forensic accountants may work with law enforcement to locate the financial assets of criminals or may work in a divorce case to find assets one spouse is attempting to hide from the other. This work usually involves a paper or digital trail of financial transactions.
  • Business valuation: The fair market value of a business is important in many business transactions, including acquisitions, mergers, and initial public offerings. By reviewing the assets, liabilities, and other financial metrics, forensic accounts can help arrive at a fair market value.
  • Employee crime: Forensic accountants may work with businesses to find employees who steal property, use accounting records to disguise a misappropriation, or take kickbacks.
  • Fraud investigation and prevention: This large area may include anything from insurance or securities fraud to businesses that produce fraudulant financial statements. Depending in the nature of the case, fraud investigations may involve reviews of financial and business documents, interviews with involved parties, asset tracing and background investigations, evaluation of computer and electronic data, or tracing and reconstructing individual financial transactions.
  • Litigation services and expert witness: Lawyers hire forensic accountants to evaluate the financial aspects of a case and often to testify in courts about their findings.

Prevention and Compliance

Forensic accountants also help to prevent fraud or proactively identify the potential for financial problems. For example, a business may hire a forensic accountant to review financial records and processes so as to identify areas that might permit fraud or financial problems. This practice has become more common as accounting scandals have increased the demand for financial transparency.

Problems that forensic accountants look for include misleading financial reporting, personal gain of corporate insiders, and violations of the law or tax codes. Forensic accountants may serve as advisers to audit committees or assist in investment analyst research.

Forensic accountants also conduct compliance audits. A compliance audit reviews how well an organization is complying with legal and regulatory guidelines. Forensic accountants review organizational polices, documentation management, user access controls, compliance and risk management procedures. This type of audit includes interviewing corporate management as a component of the investigation, which is a practice unique to forensic accounting.

Forensic Accounting Education and Degree Options

In the past, public and management accountants often became forensic accountants through their experience working in the area of forensic accounting. As forensic accounting has evolved, so has the education and training that prepares these specialized accountants for the challenges unique to forensic accounting. A growing number of forensic accounting specific educational programs are now available. Options include:

  • A bachelor's degree, although only a few schools offer undergraduate programs in forensic accounting
  • A bachelor's degree in accounting, finance, or economics either combined with or followed by additional classes or a certificate program in forensic accounting
  • A bachelor's degree in accounting or related area followed by a master's degree in forensic accounting

Students enrolled in bachelor's degree programs in general accounting or related areas that intend to ultimately pursue a career in forensic accounting get a head start by taking elective courses in areas such as:

  • Business law
  • Criminology
  • Ethics
  • Psychology
  • Statistics

Forensic Accounting Careers

Forensic accountants work for accounting firms that retain these professionals and contract out their services. The Big Four, Deloitte, KPMG, Ernst and Young, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, all employ forensic accountants. They also are employed by smaller firms that offer forensic accounting services, as well as government agencies such as the FBI, the IRS, the SEC, or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Banks and insurance companies also employ forensic accountants.

A common path to becoming a forensic accountant is to work as a general accountant for a few years, while getting experience and additional training that leads to specialization.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the demand for all accountants and auditors to grow by 22 percent between 2008 and 2018.

Forensic Accounting Certification Credentials

Almost all forensic accountants are CPAs, and becoming a forensic accountant today almost always requires a CPA license. Forensic accountants can also obtain other credentials that enhance their professional status.

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) is a national, professional organization for all CPAs. The AICPA offers a Certified in Financial Forensics (CFF) credential to CPAs who meet the following qualifications:

  • Hold AICPA membership
  • At least five years of in-practice experience as an accountant
  • Meet minimum business experience and continuing education requirements
  • Pass the CFF exam

For accountants who work in business valuation, the AICPA also offers the Accredited in Business Valuation (ABV) credential. The main requirements for securing ABV status are:

  • Holding a current CPA license
  • Passing the ABV exam
  • Meeting a combination of experience and education requirements. The AICPA uses a points system for business experience and lifelong learning, requiring that applicants gain 15-35 points in each area, with a total minimum of 50 points.

Another organization that offers a forensic accounting certification is the American College of Forensic Examiners International (ACFEI). This independent, professional association represents forensic examiners, including forensic accountants, worldwide. The Certified Forensic Accountant (Cr.FA) credential requires a current CPA license, experience in forensic accounting, and passing their certification exam.

Other credentials available to forensic accountants include:

  • Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE), the world's largest anti-fraud organization. Receiving this credential requires meeting minimum education and experiential requirements as well as passing a four-part exam that includes fraud prevention and deterrence, fraudulent financial transactions, fraud investigation, and legal elements of fraud.
  • Certified Valuation Analyst (CVA) or Accredited Valuation Analyst (AVA) from the National Association of Certified Valuation Analysts (NACVA), an organization that supports professionals involved in valuations, financial forensics, and related advisory services.
  • Certification from the National Association of Forensic Accountants (NAFA). This credential requires applicants to hold a current CPA license and complete NAFA specific forensic accountant training.
  • Forensic Certified Public Accountant (FCPA) from the Forensic CPA Society.

Forensic Accounting Skills

Forensic accountants are public accountants first who have an understanding of accounting principals and procedures, and who are able to distinguish accounting mistakes from willful fraud or other illegal activity. However, a white paper from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) states that, "Being an effective accountant does not necessarily translate into being an effective forensic accountant."

Forensic accounting analysis goes beyond audits that look for adherence to standard accounting practices. Forensic accountants must trace transactions from beginning to end and review supporting documentation to identify telltale signs of fraud or theft. Forensic accountants interview and interact with clients as part of forensic reviews, so the ability to read people well is vitally important to the job.

Objectivity and impartiality are paramount to fairly determining the facts in a case and describing the results of the investigation. Other important traits listed in the AICPA's white paper include:

  • Analytical
  • Detail-oriented
  • Ethical
  • Insightful
  • Inquisitive
  • Intuitive
  • Responsive
  • Skeptical

Forensic accountants also need to understand the legal process and have the communication skills (both verbal and written) to explain complex financial information to people who may have little understanding of finance, such as lawyers, judges, and juries.

Computer skills and understanding financial software are also important, given that most accounting systems today are computerized. Forensic accountants need to be able to follow a digital trail just as well as a paper trail.

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