University City

Professor sees fraud climb in down economy

Robert Guinn has seen the shady side of humanity.

Sometimes it lurks in people who seem unlikely suspects: the trusted bookkeeper, the devout churchgoer or the businessman with the upstanding reputation in the community.

Guinn, an associate professor at UNC Charlotte who specializes in fraud and forensic accounting, said he is seeing that shady side more and more these days.

"It's the environment we're living in," said Guinn, who teaches an elective course on fraud examination at Belk College of Business.

"We find there's a lot of people lying, cheating and stealing out there."

Incidents of fraud, no matter what kind, have risen in the United States in the past several decades, and according to a survey of certified fraud examiners it has worsened since the recession began.

The increase in fraud has led to a need for specialized auditors, or forensic accountants, who hold the credentials necessary to testify in court during a fraud case.

Forensic accountants are tasked with determining what has occurred, how much has been affected and who is responsible.

Among 500 CFEs polled through the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, 55 percent reported an increase over previous years in fraud investigations they've performed.

Nearly half those surveyed said the main catalyst was increased financial pressure on the person who committed the crime.

Massive layoffs by companies - a common occurrence during a recession - often help mask the fraudulent activity for a longer period because they tend to weaken the internal controls that monitor a company's financial dealings.

"People really don't check on what others are doing," said Guinn of unsuspecting colleagues and supervisors.

Unless swiftly detected, a fraudulent incident can quickly amount to big losses.

"If it's not discovered in a relatively short period ... it can result in millions of dollars," said Guinn. "Greed takes over."

A decade ago, big cases of fraud regularly saturated headlines. One of the most widely known scandals of accounting fraud occurred at the Texas-based Enron Corp. That crime cost thousands of jobs and drained the life savings of many Enron employees.

In spite of the publicity from big corporate cases, small businesses typically suffer more when fraud occurs. The median loss - $200,000 - represents a bigger wound for companies with fewer than 100 employees than the median loss of larger businesses.

Embezzlement, according to the survey of CFEs, continues to rise among companies.

"If you do have a bookkeeper, too much trust is often put in that bookkeeper," said Guinn.

"I've seen hundreds of cases where that trust is not warranted."

In every case Guinn has examined, three common elements exist, making up what auditors commonly call the Fraud Triangle: "You have some element of pressure. You have to have the opportunity to commit the act, and normally there is some rationalization for the act."

UNC Charlotte offers a course in fraud examination through the accounting department. It also offers a forensic accounting certificate through the continuing education department.

For those who choose the field, Guinn predicts a long career.

"It's just pretty pervasive now. It seems to not be getting any better, and it's costing the economy billions of dollars."