Surely everyone has seen an episode of a crime drama where the smarmy detective leans over a dead body, squinting and rubbing his fingers together, dashing towards an hour-long adventure whereupon he uses tiny clues left haphazardly around the crime scene to convict the real killer. Of course real life does not always work like this, but it's fun to get absorbed in the exploits without having to worry about the dangers. These shows have experienced tremendous popularity in the last few years as common Joes like you and I excitedly get to ride shotgun in a speeding cop car in pursuit of the bad guys.
In the big wide world of accounting, there are many facets to the industry that reach far beyond the stereotypical perception of the bean-counting, green-visor-wearing, calculator-punching tax processor, of course. As we move deeper into the 21st century, we are in the midst of an exciting shift - today's CPA works in a dynamic, ever-changing field full of opportunity, change, and endless possibility.
Much like the brooding detectives of popular cop dramas, there is a not-so-new specialty branch of the accounting industry that has seen unprecedented growth, especially now in the wake of the recent financial disasters hitting from Wall Street to Main Street. Forensic accountants are now more critical than ever to the world of accounting as they labor to piece together the "Blame Game" of financial meltdowns, fraud, and the debris of just plain bad accounting. They are, loosely, the CSI teams of the CPA world.
The Tampa Bay Business Journal said it best, explaining the need for these specialized sleuths: "The Enron and WorldCom scandals called for accountants to step-up their game in an effort to better spot fraudulent activity that could be buried in balance sheets. On the sidelines, the fallout pumped blood into forensic accounting as an academic program -- a boot camp that requires the tenacity of a detective and the sleuthing skill of a techie along with a passion for the checks and balances of corporate life."
Forensic accountants are certainly a unique bunch, driven by a desire to clean-up the obscured truth of financial statements and audit reports, digging through the mess to shed light on covert or blatantly false entries to bring accountability to accounting.
Some interesting features to the profession:
- Forensic accountants can oftentimes find themselves playing witness or detective, even on a court level. Law enforcement agencies often count on CFA reports as evidence to convict in criminal cases of fraud and some agencies even retain CFAs on their force just to serve this purpose.
- CFAs may also be brought on board to unravel shareholder and partnership disputes in cases where compensation and benefits are argued by either party. This can involve the CFA putting several years' worth of financial statements under his or her fine-tuned microscope.
- Car accidents can be costly business. Because "economic loss" is such a subjective issue, someone must calculate these losses exactly for compensation and reimbursement purposes. Because of their eye for detail, CFAs are oftentimes called to unravel the complication and make sense of losses stemming from accidents.
- No employer likes to consider the possibility, but many CFAs are also charged with the duty of investigating employee fraud. This can encompass anything from asset identification and recovery and funds tracing to interviews with personnel with access to the funds in question and due diligence reviews.
- CFAs can also be recruited as financial "mediators" in marriage dissolution disputes. This means going back through financial records of the divorcing party as far back as the days when their love was new and the ink was still wet on the marriage certificate, determining exact values of each party.
Forensic accountants are an interesting mix of detective, accountant, mediator, and investigator, putting together the complex puzzles (some intended to be deceiving and difficult to put back together) of fraudulent activity.
As we watch billion dollar corporations buckling under the weight of poor fair value estimates, bad accounting, deception, and misleading mark-to-market projections, the place for today's Forensic accountant continues to become all that much more critical. Someone must answer for the disaster, and CFAs are charged with the responsibility of making sense of these messes.
Unfortunately, though most accountants must take ethics exams for licensure, not all hold themselves to the highest professional standards - CFAs are the ones who get to burst through the front door, guns blazing, incriminating financial statements in hand yelling "Freeze, punk!"
Alright, so perhaps it isn't that exciting. However you feel about it, CFAs fill an important need in the accounting industry and it's because of their unique eye for detail that we are able to maintain accountability in the profession and restore broken faith in cases like the AIG reporting fraud.
Everyone loves a good whodunit, especially today's ever-diversified CFA.