According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in 2019 a reported $1.9 billion was lost to financial fraud, and that represented an increase of over 15% from the previous year. However, not all financial fraud involves companies losing money in an immediately quantifiable manner. Often, the fraud centers around deception that results in a slow drain of funds or drop in profitability that can span several years. Regardless of the immediate or long-term effect, it’s important to know how to pinpoint—and stop—financial fraud before it affects your bottom line.
Evolution and Types of Financial Fraud
The most common types of financial fraud involve inflating earnings through various means. The objective is to keep specific groups of stakeholders happy. This often includes private investors, the stock market, or people or organisations holding the company’s debt. There are several ways this kind of fraud is levied, but some of the most common include:
- Extending the period of depreciation to delay when the depreciation gets factored into the company’s accounts. Many assets depreciate, steadily, year-to-year. If a valuable asset’s depreciation is left off the books for an extra year or so, stakeholders can be fooled into thinking the company’s financial performance is more valuable than it actually is.
- Hiding liabilities by shifting debt from the main company to a special purpose entity. This kind of fraud involves creating or maintaining a separate company that the main company can shovel off its debt to. The entity's balance sheet reflects the debt that used to be on the main company’s records.
- Recognising revenue early while delaying the recognition of expenses. Some companies will enter their revenue but leave out the funds they spent to make that money until a later date. When both are, eventually, included, the books balance true. But before then, it looks like the company’s revenue to expense ratio is a lot higher than it actually is.
- Incorrect capitalisation of expenses. When a company capitalises something, they categorise it as an asset instead of an expense. As a result, it shows up on the balance sheet instead of the income statement, which accounts for expenses. If an investor or other stakeholder were to ask to see the income statement, this potentially sizeable expense wouldn’t be factored in, artificially inflating the company’s performance.
- Factoring in non-existent inventory to fraudulently reduce the cost of goods sold (COGS). The lower your cost of goods sold, the more efficient your company’s production system looks. To calculate COGS, the Initial inventory is added to Purchases made during the period and the period ending inventory is deducted. So, if a company pretends that they have more inventory at the end of the period, their COGS is lower, making them look better to investors.
Cases of Financial Fraud
The history of financial fraud is long and complex, but here are some of the more notable examples. One of the largest and the most high profile frauds was that of Enron. Enron, which was once a poster boy of Wall Street, was found to have engaged in serious fraudulent activity which involved keeping large debts off the balance sheets. While the high stock prices did arouse suspicions, it was eventually an internal whistleblower’s revelations that led to the downfall of the organization. The scandal ended up costing shareholders around $74 billion and resulted in the creation of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. In 2016, the car manufacturer Volkswagen was embroiled in a scandal that ended in a settlement estimated to be in excess of $25 billion. This was not a direct financial fraud, but nevertheless, one that had serious financial consequences . In order to avoid failing to meet emission standards set by authorities in the US and other markets, Volkswagen installed software in their vehicles that enabled them to fool emissions testers. Thus, vehicles tended to show far lesser emission levels than actual and were considered roadworthy. Once the cover-up was unearthed, it led to a recall of almost 500,000 vehicles and led to serious financial and reputational losses for the company. Other cases like the Lehmann Brothers scandal that triggered the economic recession in 2008, the Wells Fargo scandal and Bernie Madoff’s outrageous Ponzi scheme were also noteworthy, but the unfortunate situation is that despite all efforts from authorities across the world, there are still several cases which continue until this day. The most high profile case in recent times was that of the German financial services company Wirecard. The Wirecard scandal has been dubbed the “Enron of Germany.” The payment provider falsified their books by reporting money that simply did not exist, executing a fraud that spanned the globe. They owed creditors nearly $4 billion. While the CEO was arrested, their COO, who was considered to be a key figure in this scandal, is still missing at the time of writing this article.Click here to learn more.