What’s the most costly type of white collar crime? On average, a company is likely to lose more money from a scheme in which the financial statements are falsified or manipulated than from any other type of occupational fraud incident. The costs frequently include more than just the loss of assets — victimized companies also may suffer lost shareholder value, lower employee morale, premature tax liabilities and reputational damage. Let’s take a closer look at what’s at stake when employees “cook the books.”
Low Frequency, High Cost
The Report to the Nations on Occupational Fraud and Abuse published in 2016 by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) found that less than 10% of the fraud schemes in its survey involved financial statement fraud. However, those cases clocked the greatest financial effect, with a median loss of $975,000. Compare that amount to the median losses for asset misappropriation ($125,000) and corruption ($200,000).
What makes financial statement fraud especially problematic is that the costs can quickly snowball out of control. For example, when an executive fudges the numbers to make a company appear more profitable, the company will likely incur greater liability for taxes or dividends.
Plus, it might be necessary to take on debt to make those payments, leading to higher interest costs. Or an acquisition of a healthy company might be pursued to hide the actual underperformance. In the end, more fraud may be necessary to pay for the original scam.
The ACFE defines financial statement fraud as “a scheme in which an employee intentionally causes a misstatement or omission of material information in the organization’s financial reports.” Common ploys include:
- Concealed liabilities,
- Fictitious revenues,
- Inflated asset valuations,
- Misleading disclosures, and
- Timing differences.
Revenue recognition is a particularly ripe area for financial statement fraud, especially as companies start to implement the new revenue recognition guidance for long-term contracts. Early revenue recognition can be accomplished through several avenues, including 1) keeping books open past the end of the accounting period, 2) delivering products early, 3) recording revenue before full performance of a contract, and 4) backdating sales agreements.
Victims of financial statement fraud often find their long-term survival severely threatened in a relatively short period of time. Hiring an outside forensic accounting specialist to evaluate internal controls can help identify red flags, ferret out ongoing schemes and deter would-be fraudsters. Also, an awareness of the actual reasons and methods for manipulating financial statements would likely be important. Contact Mike Rosten, CPA, CFE for more information on how to evaluate your internal controls to help prevent employee fraud.