TL;DR – Think Modern Day James Bond.
It was early in the morning as I waited for an accountant whom I was slated to interview.
Suddenly, a tall, slim lady in a black peplum dress walked into the office.
It dawned on me that she was who I had been waiting for.
We adjourned to a quiet room where with steaming cups of coffee, she proceeded to share about her career as a fraud investigator around the globe.
Although she did not have to do parkour stunts and kill baddies with guns (think James Bond), she has concluded white collar crime investigations with a combination of forensic investigation tools, a nose for gathering collaborative evidence and even the humble Post-It!
Here’s what I gathered:
1. Post-Its Can Be Lethal Weapons
After graduating with a degree in Accounting and Finance, Belinda Tan started her career as an external auditor for 6 years, before being recruited into a “business advisory” role.
Her first engagement as an “accounting CSI” (aka fraud investigator) newbie was to allay allegations of misused funds. She had to trawl through the company’s 16 years of financial records to build up a credible accounting evidence for her client.
When the case went all the way to trial, she said,
“Wah, you mean business advisory’s first case is like that, so exciting!”
Sitting behind the client’s lawyers, she armed herself with a pen and post-its to scribble accounting related questions to hand to the lawyers to ask the opposing party’s accountant during the proceedings.
The opposing parties eventually changed and came to the same set of numbers as her team did, and the various parties settled in the midst.
2. Going Undercover as an “Accounting CSI” Agent (aka fraud investigator)?
Belinda moved to India, Hong Kong and China to deepen her investigation experience and to find out just how different the profile of white collar crimes in this region was.
One of the more memorable cases was a lengthy secondment to a client in Southern Asia where a group of investigators were uncovering expenses and credential fraud which involved more than hundreds of employees!
3. Perks of Being A Fraud Investigator
Why does Belinda still have that spark of passion in her eye even after surviving harrowing encounters in the course of her investigative work?
In all the cases that she has encountered, Belinda explained that fraud usually occurs due to 3 reasons:
- Rationalisation (everyone else is doing it so why can’t I?)
- Opportunity (loopholes, weaknesses in systems)
- Pressure (addictions, gambling problem, paying for spouse’s spending, pressure to hit sales targets etc.)
The ability to uncover, to get to the bottom of a case, to be in the thick of the action when the evidence of the white collar crime is increasingly revealed are extremely satisfying.
Belinda shared that it is also fascinating to examine the psychology of why the perpetrator committed the crime, how he sophistically (or unsophistically) attempted to cover his tracks and study the body language he exhibits particularly when questioned.
“In every fraud case, because of the fact you are dealing with human beings and from varying backgrounds, the profile of the crime is very different.
This has a lot to do with individual, his education, upbringing, culture and the perpetrator’s reason for committing the crime.
Even though it has been more than a decade (being in this line of work), I still get a kick out of it, the satisfaction that we resolve the case and the client got to the objective why they hired us for.”
4. Challenges of Being A Fraud Investigator
Belinda also shared that the job isn’t glamorous as it sounds. There are limitations to what a fraud investigator can do.
Fraud investigators have to advise clients on rights of access to information.
For example, the team can check a company-issued mobile device or laptop on behalf of the company, but they will require a warrant or court order to check personal devices or bank records.
She pointed out:
“You have to think like a fraudster in order to stay ahead of the game”.
The investigator also has to learn how to assimilate into the company and be under the radar when conducting the investigating to avoid alerting the perpetrators to cover up their tracks or even destroy evidence.
As more people have more access to electronic devices, education and technology advancement, the instances of cybercrime will naturally rise.
The services of a fraud investigator will become more in demand in future we move towards more transparency and governance, and as fraud will also become more sophisticated and harder to detect.
However, it is difficult to hire the right talent for this industry.
As you can see, it took 2 decades for Belinda to finally decide to outwardly profile her job in the hope that more talents will join the fight against cyber and white-collar crime.
5. How Can One Become A Forensic Accountant?
According to Ernst & Young’s recruitment website for a Senior Associate job in Forensic Data Analytics, you need to have:
- At least 2 years of working experience in the consulting, accounting or financial industry; strong experience in data analytics
- Bachelor’s degree in a numerate discipline e.g. Information Management, Business Intelligence, Mathematics, Statistics, Engineering or Computer Science
Just as those with the above are akin to being General Practitioners, you need to upskill yourself with specialist skills such as Tableau, Qlikview or Power BI, SQL, Python, R etc to be a forensic fraud investigator.
Those from law enforcement backgrounds (such as CPIB and CID) have an edge, as sniffing out crimes and interviewing suspects are part of the job.
If you have a penchant for solving crimes and bringing the bad guys to justice, you can start planning your career path towards fraud investigations.
There are stepping stones you can use to get a foothold in the relevant skills before you make the jump into forensic fraud investigations. For example, since data analytics is a relevant skill, you can consider entering the Infocomm Technology (ICT) sector.
According to NTUC LearningHub, there will be 10 ICT job roles offered in the first half of 2017 under the ICT Professional Conversion Programme (PCP), which allows you to get on-the-job training and course fee subsidies. Alternatively, you can consider the PCP for Compliance Professionals which will be run the second half of 2017 by Workforce Singapore (WSG) and International Compliance Training Academy (ICTA).
So now you know this undercover CSI secret agent job actually exists, would you consider this as a job of your future?