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A forensic accountant is a specialized accountant who performs investigative accounting as well as litigation support. Those in the forensic accounting field generally use both accounting and investigating skills to interpret financial evidence and are often called upon to analyze and present this evidence to others in a clear manner. For example, they may be called upon as expert witnesses in a court of law or to provide documented proof of financial misdeeds. A forensic accountant can become involved in a wide variety of investigations among many different industries. They can work for private companies, such as banks or insurance companies, or they can be employed in public settings, such as government agencies or police departments.
Forensic accounting generally encompasses two main areas: litigation support and investigative accounting. Litigation support is professional assistance given to non-lawyers during the litigation process of civil trials. Typically, a forensic accountant providing this type of support would help to assess economic damages in cases such as those involving breach of contract. In the area of investigative accounting, criminal matters are often being investigated. For instance, in cases of employee theft or securities fraud, a forensic accountant may be brought in to analyze past accounting records or deeds.
A forensic accountant may be hired to work on divorce cases, business fraud cases or even cases involving capital crimes. In cases of divorce, they may help to locate and evaluate the value of the couple’s assets so the finances can be divided appropriately. In business fraud situations, accountants may help to trace and recover missing funds. In serious capital cases, such as homicide, they may aid the police in investigating financial evidence to discover criminal motive or to trace the trail of a wanted fugitive.
Several well-known case investigations around the world have involved forensic accounting. The famous American gangster, Al Capone, was arrested and successfully prosecuted in 1931 because a forensic accountant was able to unearth his tax crimes. In another example, it took 14 years for accountants to investigate the billion dollar embezzlement case of European publisher Robert Maxwell before finally solving the financial puzzle in 1991. Additionally, after the September 11 terrorist attack on the United States in 2001, forensic accountants were hired by the CIA and the FBI to track terrorist movement worldwide. These accountants are often able to follow a criminal's money trail which can help lead to a subsequent arrest.
Training for a career in forensic accounting generally consists of obtaining both a bachelor’s degree in general accounting and a Certified Public Accountant certification. The job typically requires both accounting skills and some legal knowledge. These traits, along with strong communication skills, perseverance and strict attention to detail usually are the requirements for a position in the forensic accounting field. Additionally, it can be helpful to become licensed as a Certified Fraud Examiner. Typically forensic accountants enjoy solving complex numerical puzzles and are also skillfully adept at research.
In every profession, the old adage "follow the money" rings true. Whether it's a journalist looking for a public official's records or an accountant tracking down an account in the Caymans, trailing the money often provides the answer someone is seeking.
In a recent case around my hometown, a public official was not reporting her expenses properly. A reporter started nosing around and found there were several charges on her county credit card statement for a business two counties over. Turns out, the charges were for flowers for an unknown person. But the county was paying for it. That's a very small example of how forensic accounting can work, but people who follow the money will usually get the answer they're looking for.
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