Laying the Foundation: Maximizing Your Success


Tiffany Couch, CFE, CPA, CFF


Learning the basics. While the phrase may conjure up long ago memories of learning the alphabet, using building blocks, participating in a new sport or, starting over in a new school, new job or new professional field — I find that when it comes to fraud examination, the basics are essential to the success of any engagement. From understanding fraud schemes and the red flags of those schemes, to interviewing witnesses, collecting evidence and writing reports, applying these fundamental concepts consistently during each engagement are building blocks indeed — building blocks of success.

In a recent engagement I was asked to identify why and how a senior vice president had manipulated the CEO’s signature on an expense reimbursement form — I definitely used “the basics”:

  • To identify that all four expense reimbursement schemes (fictitious, altered, mischaracterized and duplicate) were potentially being perpetrated against our client; 
  • To ask open-ended questions which led to information regarding the suspect’s approval authorities, lifestyle and assets;
  • To appropriately collect evidence, including paper and electronic evidence; and
  • To write a solid fraud examination report that led to an indictment and arrest of the suspect just three weeks later (and eventually to his incarceration in federal prison for 46 months).

Conducting a fraud examination based on a solid foundation of knowledge, skill and professional standards will lead to a successful case resolution. In fact, the more complex a case, the more important those basics become. Think about this: you are the smartest person in the room. Sure, your report or testimony may be considered by attorneys, judges and intelligent clients; but, they do not have the expertise you do. Conveying complex financial crimes in a simple way to those who do not have such a background is your most important job. And doing so consistently will be building blocks for something else: your professional credibility.

Consider what happens when a building or a relationship doesn’t have a solid foundation. You got it — it crumbles. I have been involved in a few cases where professionals who attempted to conduct investigations omitted critical information, opined on the “guiltiness” of a person or wrote incoherent reports. Their professional credibility and their work were put into question. I wondered, “Did they forget the basics? Ignore them? Think the rules didn’t apply to them?” Whatever the reason, it didn’t matter. Their cases crumbled for lack of a foundation. Don’t be afraid to get back to the basics every single time you approach a new case.

Whether you are an auditor wishing to improve your fraud detection skills, a professor wanting to impart more knowledge to your students or a law enforcement officer looking to gain skills for the increasing number of white-collar crimes hitting your desk, you won’t be sorry you spent time attending some of the ACFE’s foundational courses like Principles of Fraud Examination. Where else can you gather the knowledge you’re looking for, network with other like-minded professionals and even meet a fraudster in person? You won’t be disappointed. And who knows, you may just find that learning the basics introduces you to a whole new level of success. You can read more about this course and more events and seminars in our latest Resource Guide.

Tiffany Couch, CFE, CPA, CFF, ACFE Regent, is founder and principal of Acuity Forensics, a forensic accounting firm based in Vancouver, Washington. She has more than 15 years of experience in the field of accounting, with the last seven years focused solely on forensic accounting-related engagements. Couch has conducted dozens of financial investigations, managed litigation cases involving tens of thousands of documents, and has testified in state and federal jurisdictions throughout the U.S.