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Global Economic Crime Not Abating

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November 19, 2009

There’s little sign that global economic crime and accounting fraud are slowing down, according to the latest survey data from PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The firm’s biannual Global Economic Crime Survey surveyed over 3,000 corporate executives across the globe and found that 30 percent reported having experienced at least one incident of fraud in the past 12 months. Of those respondents who reported economic crime in the past year, 38 percent reported experiencing accounting fraud. That’s a significant increase from the 27 percent who reported accounting fraud in the 2007 survey.

Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed attributed the greater risk of fraud to increased incentives or pressures, 18 percent reported that more opportunities to commit fraud were the most likely reason for greater risk of fraud, and 14 percent believe that people’s ability to rationalize was the main factor contributing to a greater risk of fraud. “Fraudsters have to have the ability to rationalize,” said PwC partner Steven Skalak at a press conference in New York on Thursday.

He noted that the survey found an increase in middle managers being involved in fraud. People cited the need to maintain a certain standard of living and a sense of entitlement as reasons why executives get involved in fraud. Businesses also cited recessionary pressures and cost cutting as reasons for the uptick in fraud. But overall, the financial condition of the company was not a determinant of fraud.

“We’ve concluded that fraudsters and the risk of economic crime do not discriminate among companies based on their current economic performance, but instead it’s the broader factor of the overall environment that appears to have the impact on everyone essentially equally,” said Skalak.

Even though companies have put in place control efforts aimed at reducing fraud, the temptation to commit fraud often gets the better of people. Variable compensation arrangements, such as stock options, also seem to heighten the risk of fraud occurring.

Skalak sees value in the interagency Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force that the Obama administration is setting up to coordinate efforts among various departments, including the SEC, the Justice Department, HUD, and other agencies. The task force could help keep the information flow going across agencies and avoid letting cases fall through the cracks in the system.

Financial crimes go beyond simply fraud to bribery and corruption, here in the U.S. and abroad. But PwC sees more of an effort to battle these problems, including stepped up enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The SEC recently announced that it is setting up an FCPA Task Force, and the Justice Department has an FBI unit involved in such cases. A decade ago, bribes used to be simply written off as business expenses, but now the problem is taken more seriously as individuals are increasingly being prosecuted for FCPA violations.

However, high levels of fraud continue to be reported in some countries, led by Russia, where 71 percent of the respondents to the PwC survey reported fraud, and South Africa, where 62 percent reported fraud. The leading industries for fraud are communications, insurance and financial services. Regulators like the SEC are no longer letting companies settle fraud allegations quietly, according to PwC partner Manny Alas. Instead, financial regulators in various countries communicate and coordinate more frequently now by e-mail and other means.

While fraud is increasingly global, so too are anti-fraud efforts, with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development pushing more countries to crack down on bribery, corruption, fraud and other forms of economic crime. The economy may go up or down, but fraud and crime never go away.

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