“In a way, fraud in business is no different from infidelity in marriage or plagiarism in scholarly work. Even people committed to high moral standards succumb” (Miroslav Volf, Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture)
Fraud (in this context) is the act wherein an employee or trusted partner makes a financial gain through criminal behaviour or deception within an organisation and it is extremely common. Recent studies suggest that as much as 46% of all companies will succumb at some stage or another. Given this, much thought has been put into how to prevent fraud and lower the impact that it can have on a business. Unsurprisingly, the issue is extremely complex and there is a lot that you as a business owner will need to do if you want to avoid the financial loss and reputation damage that fraud can cause to your business.
What is fraud?
Business fraud has many aspects, and generally comes in three defined categories:
- Asset Misappropriation
This is the most common type of fraud. Some numbers suggest that 90% of all fraud is this kind, in which employees will either steal or exploit their company’s resources. Examples include where employees make false expense claims, help themselves to cash or even non-cash items, the creation of ghost employees, “buddy clocking” systems or under recording of the cash that is received for goods.
- Financial Statement Fraud
Significantly less common than asset misappropriation these schemes are, however, significantly more damaging to the company itself. This is the deliberate manipulation of financial statements to mislead those who would use those statements for legitimate purposes. Usually, this is done to make a company appear more profitable than it is, or to avoid tax payments.
Corruption occurs when employees use their influence or positions in a company to benefit themselves to the cost of the company or agency for whom they work. An example of this would be when someone agrees to hire a less than ideal candidate because they are being paid a kickback to do so.
Tips for detecting and preventing fraud
- Know your employee
According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners the average fraudster will operate their scheme for 18 months before getting caught. The reason for this according to employers’ reports is that quite often it was the employee they least suspected
It is therefore vital to have regular feedback sessions with employees, even those who have been with the company for a long time, to discuss their personal circumstances and be aware of any significant changes in their lives. Someone who has been a model employee for years, may, due to changes in their life’s circumstances, feel they have no choice but to steal to make ends meet.
Look for those employees whose habits have suddenly changed or who exhibit a change in attitude. These habits can point to problems in their personal lives, or potential bitterness at their employer resulting from perceived slights they may have received, such as a poor raise, or lack of promotion.
- Fraud policy
Set up a fraud policy and communicate this to all staff. Staff should be aware that management is fully clued up on all the types of fraud, knows what to look out for, is actively searching for it and that the punishments for being caught will be severe.
In doing this you also trigger honest employees who are not tempted by fraud to become aware of the signs and symptoms of fraud and empower them to report suspicious behaviours to you. Refer also to ‘Be Available’ below.
- Internal Controls
This is potentially the most important step as it is not subjective. It is extremely important to set up systems within your company which safeguard the company’s assets and ensure the integrity of record keeping. The first step is to make it abundantly clear to whom responsibility lies in each situation. Do not, for instance, leave the key to the petty cash in a cupboard, but rather assign one staff member to take full control and sign for all expenses and payments into the cash box.
Use a paper trail and have those responsible for each transaction or sale personally sign for each element of their part of the process. If the preparation of bank deposits is personally signed for in a ledger that is then passed to a manager, then it becomes much harder for either of those parties to deny their role in the process.
Make sure all payments are authorised, that purchase orders and invoices are numbered consecutively and cross referenced to prevent the passing of false invoices. Require new vendors and employees to be personally vetted and authorised by a senior manager to stop ghost accounts from being set up. Require two signatures on any payment above a minimum amount.
Internal controls need to be re-examined regularly and any discrepancies with the procedure followed up with rigorously. Don’t be afraid to bring in an external team to set up these procedures for you should you not have the means to do so yourself.
- Watch those who take no leave
This may sound strange to anyone who has never dealt with fraud, but one of the surest signs that something suspicious is going on is if an employee never goes on holiday. On the surface, these employees may appear to be diligent hard workers, but the truth is much more likely that they are afraid of having their schemes uncovered should they allow someone else to do their jobs when they are on leave.
- Be available
Your best line of defence is your other employees. Being the kind of business owner who has an open door, is approachable and who listens is the best way to ensure that honest employees come to you if they have any suspicions. They should know that you are trustworthy, and that their names will never come up in any discussions you have with the people they have pinpointed. At the end of the day, having everyone looking out for you, is much better than trying to do it all yourself.
- Work with reputable partners
Companies do not operate in a vacuum. Many of the services you use may need to be brought in from the outside and when it comes to your finances it’s vitally important that these companies are reputable. Good bookkeeping services will be at the frontline of defending your company from fraud and will be able to quickly pick up discrepancies in the books. Therefore, when hiring any professional who will have access to your accounts and books it is vital that they be registered with the relevant professional bodies and that they come with a reputation for integrity and providing top-class service. Ask your accountant’s opinion in any doubt.
- Do spot checks
Once a month pick random employees and go through their expense accounts, travel allowances and claims for cell phone usage to make sure that these are on par with what is expected and do not ring any alarm bells. If they have signing powers take a close look at what they are signing and the reasons and flag any unusual signatures for a follow up. Even if you only do this for one employee a month it will be known that you are checking, and that any fraudulent activity will ultimately be caught.
Reconcile your bank accounts at the end of every month. Ideally, this should be done by an independent person who does not have bookkeeping or cheque signing powers within the company. This person should also check invoices and payments (EFT or Credit card) to make sure they are cross referenced.
They should then sign off on the reconciliation personally.
It is impossible to close all the gaps that fraudsters may use to take advantage of your company, but if you implement the above changes and controls you will either deter them from trying or find them quickly once they have started. The best tip is vigilance, both by you and your honest employees. Building an honest and open company culture that fosters communication will ensure your employees are both aware of what needs to be done and open to telling you when it isn’t.
Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.