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Oh No You Didn’t! 4 Tips for Preventing Employee Accounting Fraud

Updated Mar 01, 2024

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Despite being well-versed in fraud prevention, many small business owners fail to realize that fraud can happen anywhere and be carried out by anyone, including their own workers. Failure to notice signs of employee accounting fraud is one of the most common business accounting mistakes. This means you should always be prepared for this possibility, no matter how close your team is or how careful you are when recruiting.

What is employee accounting fraud? 

Employee accounting fraud occurs when an employee manipulates a business’s financial records to misrepresent the business’s health or mislead others, such as stakeholders or competitors.

In many cases, the employee who commits accounting fraud has access to the employer’s financial data with little oversight. However, a lack of oversight isn’t the only source of employee accounting fraud.

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How to prevent employee accounting fraud

Implementing safe accounting practices at your small business starts with the policies you enforce and the team you assemble. Here’s how to prevent accounting fraud at your business. 

1. Begin with your hiring process.

Each time you hire a new employee, you’re taking a risk. While a successful hiring process is necessary for every business, you can take steps to minimize the threat of future accounting fraud, such as conducting background checks on candidates.

“A background check for an employee can provide important insight into an individual’s past behavior and potentially be an indicator of future actions,” said David Thomas, CEO of Evident, a data security platform. “However, a background check is just the first step. Validating that an employee or applicant is who they say they are, with the appropriate documents, has the credentials and education they claim to have on their resume, and meets any regulatory requirements needed for their role are also invaluable identity verifications that can minimize the risk of fraud.”

Background checks are not foolproof, and they don’t always provide you with the most recent or relevant applicant information. For instance, Ken Stalcup, senior director at Houlihan Valuation Advisors and a certified public accountant, had an investigation involving an accountant who committed financial fraud. Stalcup’s client ran a background check on the accountant before hiring them, and it came back clean. However, the accountant had just committed financial fraud in another state, and the background check didn’t detect it. The company lost about $400,000 to the fraud.

“In my experience, [background checks] won’t be very effective,” Stalcup said. “It may weed out a few obviously bad prospects with an extensive, documented bad history, but background checks will not guarantee a fraud-free environment.”

Moral of the story? It doesn’t hurt to have an employee background screening system in place. However, don’t rely on it as your sole means of fraud prevention.

FYIDid you know

The best background check services dive deeper into results data and seek out records that aren’t reported to the national databases.

2. Minimize employees’ access to information.

“In any business, there are a number of ways for fraud to occur,” Thomas said. “One of the biggest opportunities to prevent fraud, especially by employees, is to implement clear processes and controls across the company.”

Thomas advised minimizing the amount of exposure and access employees have to information, including internal numbers and customer data. You can get this level of information control by delegating access among the entire team rather than giving it all to one person. If only one person is responsible for all of the accounting information, Stalcup said, there won’t be any effective internal controls to prevent fraud.

“Generally, the best way to prevent fraud is to establish good internal accounting controls,” Stalcup said. “That means no one person has the ability to initiate, approve and record a transaction.”

Did You Know?Did you know

Implementing employee monitoring software comes with benefits and drawbacks. It can boost security, but you run the risk of hurting loyal employees’ feelings and jeopardizing employee privacy.

3. Get help.

If you are suspicious of fraud, act quickly — but not on your own. Don’t approach the suspect with empty accusations that could potentially violate the employee’s rights. Make sure this employee is actually committing fraud, and hire legal help. Be very cautious when gathering details, as falsely accusing an employee of fraud may end in a major lawsuit. 

“You need to build a rock-solid case if you can,” Stalcup said. “Then, once you have collected enough information, you can confront the employee with the help of an attorney and the HR department. It’s likely you will have one opportunity to talk to the employee before they quit or lawyer up, so you have to be ready.”

From there, you can decide what course you want to take and how it will affect you and your business going forward. Many employers turn to certified fraud examiners (CFEs) to assist in the process. According to Stalcup, who is a CFE, “CFEs are typically hired after the attorney and client realize there is a loss and want to take additional steps to recover or prosecute. 

“Typically, the client and a lawyer will discuss the nature of the fraud. If the client has insurance covering fraud losses, the insurance company might want a CFE to quantify the loss,” he added. “If the client wants to prosecute the employee, they may have to persuade the prosecutor to file charges based on evidence from a CFE.”

However, many clients often “recover nothing and will not hire a CFE or disclose the situation,” Stalcup said. “They will just fire the employee and move on.”

TipBottom line

To avoid wrongful termination lawsuits, be transparent about your expectations for employees, train your managers on ethical practices, and invest in a competent in-house or outsourced HR professional.

4. Establish the consequences.

How a small business responds to employee accounting fraud usually depends heavily on the circumstances of the fraud and the monetary loss incurred. It’s also a good idea to consider how long it will take the business to recover from the incident. Depending on the value of assets lost due to the employee’s activity, fraud can be extremely costly, even for large companies.

To decide the best way to handle employee accounting fraud within your business, be sure to figure out details such as the extent of the activity and how the fraud was conducted. Employers often choose to resolve more passive forms of employee accounting fraud by terminating the person responsible. The best way to handle extensive fraud, however, might be to take legal action following termination. 

Generally, a loss of less than $500 typically ends in termination, while a loss of more than $100,000 can lead to hefty fines for the fraudster and even jail time of up to eight years. 

Regardless of the loss amount, of course, the employee responsible will suffer significant damage to their professional reputation.

Types of employee accounting fraud

Understanding fraud categories can help you avoid falling victim to them. These are the most common types of employee accounting fraud:

  • Asset misappropriation
  • Corruption
  • Payroll fraud

Asset misappropriation

Asset misappropriation is usually the first thing that comes to mind when you think of employee accounting fraud. One type of asset misappropriation is the use of company resources for purposes other than their true intention. This could mean taking your family on a business trip and having the company pick up the tab, using the company car and fuel card to run personal errands, or taking home company supplies. 

Taking money from the company before it enters the accounting system is also asset misappropriation. This includes overcharging customers and pocketing the difference, engaging in fake billing schemes and creating fake expenses.

Usually, employees involved in this type of fraud steal small amounts of the employer’s assets consistently, hoping the employer won’t notice the missing assets because they’ve been taken in such small increments. 

This type of fraud, also known as embezzlement, most often involves the misuse of money. Depending on how small the stolen amounts are, it might be challenging to notice this type of fraud when it begins. 

Corruption

Corruption is the second-most-common type of employee fraud. Although it’s not always directly related to accounting fraud, corruption still hurts a business’s bottom line

Corruption often involves someone in a position of authority and includes bribery, product substitutions and kickbacks.

One typical example of corruption is when an employee offers discounts on products or services to bribe an external source. In another scenario, a manager might agree to hire a contractor to provide cleaning services to the business in exchange for free cleaning services in their home. 

While most people associate corruption with public figures, it should not be ignored as a costly potential risk within a small business. 

Payroll fraud

Payroll fraud occurs in more than one-fourth of businesses. On a small scale, payroll fraud could include clocking in and then leaving work or forging a time sheet to include more hours than the person worked. On a larger scale, ghost employee schemes are common. In these schemes, employees are on the books and getting paid, but they don’t exist. Instead, the money goes to the person who set up the ghost employee account.

Other examples of payroll fraud include buddy punching, which happens when an employee has a co-worker clock in for them when they’re absent. Another example, which could easily go unnoticed, is when an employee requests a paycheck advance and never pays it back.

What to do if you suspect employee accounting fraud

If you suspect an employee is committing accounting fraud at your business, take action immediately but proceed with a formal and carefully considered approach. Take these crucial steps:

Hire an attorney.

In the event of possible employee fraud, speak with an attorney immediately to ensure you follow the right course of action. Work with legal counsel to help you investigate, collect evidence and take the proper steps toward legal action.

Notify the right people. 

Although it’s not advisable to inform the entire staff about the situation, certain individuals should be notified. These individuals include those participating in the fraud investigation; authoritative figures in the company, like board members and managers; the human resources team; and any other pertinent parties.

Collect evidence.

As a small business owner, you’ll have to provide evidence demonstrating the employee’s deliberate intent, which is most effectively shown through meticulous documentation. Collect and safeguard your company’s financial records — with a preference for original, hard copies whenever possible. Additionally, secure and back up the data on your company’s network, including vendor invoices, bank statements and accounting ledgers.

Restrict employee access. 

Ensure that the accused employee is barred from any company data or confidential information during the investigation, and seek advice from both your attorney and human resources department to establish permissible restrictions. Change all company passwords, and verify that all company-issued electronic devices and accounts associated with the employee are either locked or restricted. 

Keep a record of the entire process. 

Document your process, beginning the moment fraud is uncovered at your business, to ensure you can prove your compliance with the law if needed. Having clear documentation of any communications or steps can also be useful throughout the investigation, as it will likely be a lengthy and complicated process where notes could serve as a helpful resource.

Sean Peek and Sammi Caramela contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Dachondra Cason
Contributing Writer
Dachondra Cason is a freelance writer and business consultant in Atlanta, GA. She has over 8 years of professional experience, with a focus on finance and small businesses. Topics she has covered include creating effective business plans, fraud prevention, and digital marketing. She has also written creative content including celebrity cookbooks, plays, and social media campaign material.
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