Forensic Accountants and Auditors
Forensic accountants and auditors, sometimes known as investigative accountants, investigative auditors, and certified fraud examiners, use accounting principles and theories to support or oppose claims being made in litigation. Like other accountants and auditors, forensic accountants are trained to analyze and verify financial records. However, forensic accountants use these skills to identify and document financial wrongdoing. They prepare reports that may be used in criminal and civil trials. The word “forensic” means “suitable for a court of law, public debate, or formal argumentation.” There are approximately 1.2 million accountants and auditors, a category which includes forensic accountants and auditors, employed in the United States.
Forensic Accountants and Auditors Job Description
Forensic accountants and auditors have all the skills possessed by traditional accountants and auditors. They are trained to compile, verify, and analyze financial records and taxes. They monitor the efficiency of business procedures and management. Unlike traditional accountants, however, forensic accountants use their skills to help clients prepare for trials.
“Forensic accounting,” says Jim DiGabriele, of DiGabriele, McNulty & Co., “uses investigative skills to follow paper trails. We follow financial documents to the end of the trail and then we more or less prepare reports for litigation.”
In an investigation, the forensic accountant usually begins by reviewing relevant financial and business documents and interviewing the people involved. He or she also may assemble relevant third-party information, such as economic data for comparable industries or companies. Using the compiled information, the forensic accountant may then calculate the losses or damages caused by any financial violations or errors. Finally, the forensic accountant prepares a detailed report explaining his or her findings and conclusions. This report is intended for use in litigation.
“Only about one in 20 cases actually goes to litigation,” notes Tom Fox, a forensic accountant with Davidson, Fox & Co., “but a forensic accountant must treat each and every report as if it is going to trial. Forensic accountants must carefully document and date every related conversation and scrap of information.”
If a case is scheduled to proceed to litigation, the attorneys involved may schedule a deposition. A deposition is a pretrial hearing, in which attorneys from both sides may interview one another’s witnesses to gain information about the case. Forensic accountants sometimes help attorneys prepare questions for these depositions. They also are sometimes asked to answer questions in a deposition.
If and when a case finally goes to trial, a forensic accountant also may serve as an expert witness and testify before the court. Forensic accountants may offer testimony regarding the nature of the violation, a person’s or company’s guilt or innocence, and the amount of the resulting damages. As expert witnesses, forensic accountants must be able to present information in a clear and organized manner. They must be able to explain complicated accounting concepts in a way that can be understood by people who are not in the field. They must be able to explain and defend the methods they used to arrive at their conclusions.
There is no “typical” case for a forensic accountant. Forensic accountants use their skills to investigate a wide variety of situations or violations.
Many insurance companies hire forensic accountants to evaluate claims they suspect may be inflated or fraudulent. If an insured company files a claim for a business interruption loss, for example, the insurance company may hire a forensic accountant to ensure that the company’s loss was as great as the company claims it was. To make this assessment, the forensic accountant must review the company’s past financial records. Before calculating the company’s probable loss, the forensic accountant also must consider the current marketplace. If the economy is booming and the market for the company’s products or services is hot, the insured’s losses may be substantial. If the economy is sluggish, or if the company’s product has become obsolete, the losses may be much lower.
Insurance companies also hire forensic accountants to assess claimants’ loss of income due to accidents or disability, or property loss to fire, flood, or theft. Occasionally, a claimant may hire a forensic accountant to defend his or her claim or to rebut another forensic accountant’s testimony.
Forensic accountants also investigate malpractice claims against accountants or auditors. In these cases, forensic accountants must examine the reports prepared by the accountants and auditors to determine whether they followed accepted procedures. If the forensic accountant does discover an error, he or she also may be required to calculate the financial impact of the discrepancy.
Companies sometimes hire forensic accountants to determine whether employees are taking bribes from vendors or customers in return for offering higher payments or lower prices. Companies also hire forensic accountants to detect insider trading. Insider trading occurs when an employee uses privileged information to make a profit—or helps someone else make a profit—by buying or selling stock. Forensic accountants also assist corporate clients by calculating loss due to breach of contract, patent infringement, and fraud.
Some forensic accountants engage in divorce valuation work. These professionals determine the value of the personal assets, liabilities, pensions, and business holdings of individuals involved in a divorce settlement.
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