The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners kicked off its 24th Annual ACFE Global Fraud Conference with record attendance of over 2,600 people and the news that it will be expanding its corporate alliances and student chapters.
ACFE president and CEO James Ratley said the corporate alliance program, which launched in 2011, has already attracted a number of major international corporations, and others are in the process of signing up for the program, which helps corporations identify red flags that could be signs of fraud. “As the ACFE corporate alliance continues to develop, we believe it will lead to more opportunities for anti-fraud protections,” said Ratley in a speech Monday.
He noted that the ACFE now has 32 student chapters, 31 of which are in the United States along with an international chapter in Germany. The ACFE is also offering scholarships to enable students to attend the conference, and 13 student members were in attendance this year. “An important part of our mission is to lead the way in training the next generation of fraud fighters,” said Ratley.
ACFE founder and chairman Dr. Joseph T. Wells described some of the main fraud trends he sees over the next few years. “Investment schemes and unscrupulous practices on Wall Street have continued to enrich the 1 percent at the expense of the 99 percent of the rest of us,” he said. “By every statistical measure, the rich are getting richer. With part of that wealth, those who earn their money dishonestly can buy some of the best legal defenses available.”
Wells expects to see a continuation of the trend of large financial statement manipulations by insiders at corporations, especially as trading activity heats up and puts more pressure on corporate executives to meet earnings expectations.
“Computerized trading using complex programs can buy and sell large blocks of stock in the blink of an eye,” said Wells. “The quest for share price has placed enormous pressure on insiders to perform. It is this pressure, not inherent dishonesty, which is the root cause of financial statement manipulations. And in our quest to trim the cost of government, we’ve provided for fewer watchdogs at the exact time we need more.”
He sees a need for Certified Fraud Examiners to educate management and staff in the crucial part that ethics plays. Wells also expects to see a rise in cybercrime. “There really isn’t any such thing as a secure computer that can’t be digitally hacked,” he pointed out. He noted that small business has increasingly been targeted for data breaches, often by foreign gangs of cybercriminals who are difficult to track down and prosecute. “As large organizations develop stronger controls over their networks and digital data, attacks on small business have mushroomed,” he said. He believes that better authentication systems that force people to prove they are who they say they are, such as biometric systems, would deter crimes such as identity theft and tax fraud.
The ACFE presented its Guardian Award to investigative journalist Allan Dodds Frank, who currently contributes to Fortune and Newsweek. While at Bloomberg, he covered the Bernard Madoff fraud, as well as the collapse of AIG, the Martha Stewart insider trading case, and a variety of financial crimes. He talked about the financial frauds of today.
“For me, it’s becoming really hard to tell where society thinks the once bright line of right and wrong is,” he said. “The problem starts with what I perceive to be the ‘steal from everybody’ business model. Mainline institutions, such as the biggest banks in the United States and Europe, routinely are committing infractions such as mortgage fraud or interest rate bid rigging. Getting caught now just seems to be the cost of doing business, especially when the CEOs escape prosecution. There is no shame and no reputational damage, so the business model for many big companies appears to me to be commit tiny crimes against every customer. If you do it successfully, you make sure you’re taking just a slice. Then the amount you take from each individual is too little for anyone to contest the transaction.”
The ACFE also presented its highest award, the Cressey Award, to Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who has prosecuted many financial criminals.
Bharara said his office has charged 81 people in trading cases and won 73 convictions, with no acquittals. He noted that earlier that day, an appeals court had upheld the conviction of Raj Rajaratnam, the former hedge fund manager who founded Galleon Group and was convicted in 2011 of insider trading.
“As every single one of you knows, rooting out fraud can mean, for a company, the difference between a record profit for shareholders and pink slips for its employees,” said Bharara. “It can mean for a city the difference between a robust teaching corps or police force and mass layoffs. It can mean for an investor the difference between college tuition and an education cut short. It can mean for a pending retiree the difference between a life-saving pension and life-altering poverty.”
He criticized what he called a culture of minimalism, doing the minimum amount possible to avoid an enforcement action or criminal charges, rather than focusing on doing the right thing and earning a reputation for integrity and honesty. He sees a problem in businesses that will push things just short of the line of breaking the law.
“If you are single-mindedly focused on walking the line, you are bound to end up afoul of the regulators or criminal prosecutors,” said Bharara. “Even more dangerous is that a place like that is sending the message to every other person at the firm that line walking is a good idea. A single-minded focus on remaining an inch away from the legal line is just asking for trouble.”