Get two entrepreneurs in a room and chances are one, if not both, have been the victim of accounting fraud. According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners annual report, nearly half of all small businesses experience fraud at some point in their business lifecycle. It will cost these organizations an average of $114,000 per occurrence. Worse, such fraud is usually committed by a “loyal” employee.
As the head of a managerial accounting service, I’ve uncovered hundreds of fraudulent activities affecting prospective clients. The amount can vary greatly, from a few thousand dollars to millions.
Let me share some true stories that highlight four common types of fraud for business owners and ways they can be avoided:
1. Payroll fraud.
Last year, we took on a local construction firm as a new client. Their payroll account had never been reconciled to their time-keeping system, so we made that one of our top priorities. According to company records, two workers and their manager were working massive hours and getting paid a ton of overtime that amounted to more than $80,000 in additional annual pay. Their timesheets revealed they were working on construction projects that were more than 50 miles away from one another simultaneously.
Hmmmm. It took about three seconds to figure that out and fire the employees, but the money was gone.
While it is easy for you and me to say that this could never happen to us, the additional salaries given to these three guys amounted to an increase of only four percent of the total payroll cost — a figure that when unchecked could easily slip through the cracks. Most companies don’t keep clean enough records to notice such an amount, especially when they fund a six-figure weekly payroll.
The best way to prevent payroll fraud is to reconcile all balance sheet accounts and payroll records monthly or, at the very least, quarterly. Look for any discrepancies and investigate them until you have a clear answer.
2. “Double check” fraud.
I know of a restaurant whose former bookkeeper stole $550,000 over five years. She did this by writing two checks each time she paid a bill, one to the vendor and one to herself. For example, if she had to pay $500 to ACME Insurance Company, she would simultaneously write another check to herself for $100 that she coded in the accounting system as “ACME.”
It is very hard for business owners to catch this type of activity. Even if they are looking at the financial statements frequently and the bills look a little high, they can generally seem reasonable. But this can add up quickly. In this case, more than half a million dollars was stolen by writing 20 to 30 “double checks” per month for nominal amounts spread across multiple expense accounts.
This fraud was only detected when the bookkeeper fell ill and another bookkeeper took her place. Very quickly, the new person noticed that the bank account had not been properly reconciled in months. After doing so, it was clear that there were multiple payments in the same month to the same vendor.
As a business owner, it is difficult to find good accounting help, but it is important to have more than just one person signing checks and reconciling the bank account. Also, it is important to have an outsider come and look at the books and reconciliations at least annually, and at random times.
3. Over-ordering fraud.
Another one of our clients had a 12-year part-time office manager who would routinely order and receive all the office supplies. She was paid $10 per hour and given just enough work to get her up to the point (but not over) where she still remained ineligible to receive health benefits. She was a single mother, had a child at home, and became disgruntled.
For at least the last three years of her employment, she began over-ordering office supplies. She would return supplies the company did not need in exchange for a gift card, which she then used to buy something small and take the remainder in cash. It is unclear how much was stolen, but our estimates were that in one year it was over $19,000.
The easiest way for this business to have avoided this type of fraud is to do the right thing from the start. Good employees pay for themselves on average tenfold, and bad employees can ruin companies. In this case, the manager was short-sided in wanting to save $250 per month in health insurance premiums. The result was an unhealthy work environment and a scenario where this lady felt that it was “fair” for her to steal.
4. “Friendship” fraud.
A brilliant engineer friend of mine once hired his best friend’s daughter to be his bookkeeper. He had known her as a kid. She was smart, hard-working and, because she was a single mother, she needed a sound income. As it turns out, she also felt mistreated by her father, felt her previous boss was out to get her, had problems at home, and needed this job to get out of debt. My friend is a great guy and a very trusting person. Within a year, the bookkeeper was the only one writing, signing and authorizing checks. She was running payroll and the only contact for the IRS.
In late 2011, he was astonished to learn that all of his bank accounts were frozen and levied by the IRS. Though he had paid and filed all of his personal income taxes on time, his bookkeeper was stealing the money that was supposed to go to payroll taxes. As the only IRS point-of-contact for the business, she strung this out over a three-year period and stole $439,000. Three days later, the company was forced to shut down, 15 employees lost their jobs, and the shareholders (including her father) lost all of their money.
The moral of the story is to never hire anyone solely based upon friendship, family, obligation, or feelings of sympathy. Build a culture of accountability, measure results, and make sure everyone knows that you are looking at their performance. Then, hire based on talent, and pay for that talent to perform at a high level of accountability and integrity.