The forensic accountant, a relatively new breed in the profession, seems to lead a varied and interesting life. Some of them like to call themselves “accountants with guns.” These are the intrepid accountants who work for a government agency and actually train at Quantico. They may work for the DEA where during the day, they pore over piles of numbers, and at night participate in drug busts. Or they follow the money laundering trails of international criminals with the FBI. Then there are those who work for the IRS and spend their days visiting the Kemah boardwalk and Galveston beach to look for signs of illegal wealth (still toting guns, of course).
In the private sector, the accountant could work for a forensic accounting firm and look for evidence against financial giants like Lehman Brothers and Bank of America (both of whom are currently embroiled in fraud cases). Or he could find “dirty postings” in the financial statements – expenses taken to the balance sheet like Richard Scrushy did with HealthSouth. Many giant multi-national companies hire forensic accountants to detect and prevent fraud in their own backyard. There the forensic accountant could set traps for those pesky inventory stealers or for the accounts receivable kiters.
Working for smaller companies can be heartbreaking as well – when evidence shows that the fraud has been committed by a long time employee who looks like everyone’s favorite grandmother or by a father who is unable to pay a sick child’s hospital expenses.
Forensic accountants need to provide evidence that can hold up in court. These days, the accountants have cool toys like data warehouses and data mining software to examine a thousand pages of numbers, video spectral comparators to check for forgery, and electrostatic detection apparatus to look for handwriting indentations. They can participate in honesty testing or lie detector tests, dive in dumpsters to find evidence that may have been thrown away, or use audio/video surveillance techniques to record the activities of an alleged fraudster. Interviews are always fun too – where the accountant observes body language for signs of lying and examines written statements for inconsistencies.
And then there is testifying in court, where the accountant needs to present all the evidence with neat little charts and bar graphs, and where he/she can get “grilled” by the defense attorneys. In the midst of all this excitement, is of course the boring detail of actually reading through reams of papers with columns of numbers, laboriously documenting every little piece of evidence, and writing up long and detailed reports. But that is a small price to pay when you can watch evidence build up to a satisfying closure for a case.
Forensic accountants certainly seem to enjoy their job. Hopefully, they can erase the dreary image of the green eye-shaded accounting, laboring away in a small dark corner, only coming out to ask nitpicky and annoying questions!
Professor of Accounting