2017-ICPAS-INSIGHT-Masthead

You Make All the Difference

The work of accountants & finance gurus is changing lives, worlds & stereotypes. By Clare Fitzgerald | Spring 2015

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Like any profession, accounting has accrued its fair share of stereotypes and pop culture iconography. Bean counters, green eyeshades and less-than-glowing post-Enron depictions are usually the first that come to mind.

But the profession and its image continue to evolve. Today’s CPAs and finance gurus, in fact, are far more likely to be known as crime-fighting execs, financial sleuths and altruistic globetrotters.

Here are a few specialty areas reinforcing that modern image.

Financial Crime Fighters

The role of crime fighter isn't much of a stretch when you really think about it. Accountants have long played a part in strengthening the efforts of law enforcement. Just think of 42-year-old IRS intelligence agent Frank J. Wilson, who, along with Chicago prohibition agent Elliot Ness and others, performed the crucial investigation into Al Capone’s tax affairs that ultimately led to his historic conviction. Wilson went on to become chief of the U.S. Secret Service. The character of Oscar Wallace in the 1987 motion picture The Untouchables, in fact, is loosely based on Wilson.

Coming back around to modern times, according to the FBI, approximately 15 percent of its agents qualify as special agent accountants. Finance experts are so indispensable to the FBI’s work, in fact, that in 2009 the agency created a new position—that of forensic accountant. This investigative support role integrates accounting, auditing and investigative skills, and is heavily relied upon to provide quantitative financial information suitable for court.

The work of forensic accountants extends far beyond complex fraud cases in the corporate, healthcare, mortgage and investment realms. These agents also contribute to efforts related to counterintelligence, counterterrorism, cybercrime, organized crime, public corruption and violent crime, to name just a few. Responsibilities range from gathering evidence, testifying in court and preparing search warrants to conducting forensic financial analysis and developing financial profiles for those individuals and entities identified as participating in suspicious or illegal activity.

There’s even a SWAT-like group within the FBI—the Forensic Accountant Support Team. Based out of Washington, D.C., the team responds quickly to significant high-profile investigations anywhere in the country. Visit FBI.gov to find out more about how accountant special agents are helping to fight crime.

Corporate Watchdogs

Accounting professionals ferret out fraud and keep America honest both inside and outside the FBI. As Andi McNeal, director of research at the Association of Certified Examiners (ACFE), explains, “The crux of fraud is almost always financial, and CPAs have the skills and background needed to spot red flags. Accountants have an inherent understanding of internal controls, and so much of fraud prevention involves internal control processes and mechanisms.” In fact, it was an accountant-turned-FBI agent, Dr. Joseph T. Wells, who founded the ACFE in 1988.

The ACFE administers the Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) credential, which, McNeal explains, helps to protect the global economy by uncovering fraud and implementing processes to prevent it from occurring in the first place. CFEs combine knowledge of complex financial transactions with an understanding of how to resolve fraud allegations.

“Fraud is a universal risk that every company, every entity, faces,” she says, adding that everyone, including investors and individuals, can be affected by fraud. Think about tax return identity theft and corporate and municipal fraud cases—and their disastrous consequences for individuals, companies and communities.

Aside from the public good, fraud examiners positively impact the CPA image. “You’re really solving problems, uncovering clues and putting pieces together,” says McNeal, noting that accountants have the ability and background to sift through data, install fraud prevention mechanisms and exercise professional skepticism to see financial warning signs.

In addition to the investigative nature of the role, she also notes that there’s a strong human and behavioral element to fraud investigations. As Dr. Wells described it in a 2011 interview with the ACFE’s Fraud Magazine, “By its nature, fraud examination is an adversarial process; you are trying to prove someone did something wrong. That eventually means confrontation, either in or out of the courtroom, or both.

If that makes you uncomfortable, choose another line of work. But for those experienced and wellsuited, it is a job that brings enormous satisfaction. You are helping make the world a better place.” If the thought of helping to prevent fraud grabs you, then know that the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), which offers the Certified in Financial Forensics (CFF) credential, considers this to be one of the fastest-growing specialty areas for CPAs moving forwards. Find out more at ACFE.com and AICPA.org.

Global Champions

Accounting and finance professionals are well known for the critical role they play in the world financial system. And, according to the AICPA, CPAs have the luxury of being able to find opportunities to work in support of just about any cause they believe in and feel a commitment to.

A look at any humanitarian or international development job board makes it clear that accounting and finance skills are highly sought after for a variety of functions, including helping nongovernmental organizations secure funds and deliver results, providing technical financial and operational expertise, giving advice to microfinance institutions on the best use of loans, and teaching math, accounting and budgeting skills overseas.

There’s a particularly strong demand for sound financial management in the international development sector, according to Accounting for International Development (AfID), a London-based agency that offers accountants from around the world the opportunity to use their skills to support a broad range of nonprofit entities. Founded in 2009, AfID partners with international charities and community-based organizations such as child centers, hospitals, microfinance entities, conservation projects, women’s empowerment programs and schools. AfID volunteers are tasked with helping to develop and enhance the skills, confidence and potential of local communities, and providing organizations with the financial management capacity to deliver effective and sustainable programs. As the agency explains, “Volunteers could be budgeting with a street child center in Kampala, coaching a hospital bookkeeper in Kigali, or financial reporting for a primary school in Kathmandu.”

VSO, another UK-based international development charity, places volunteering professionals within the local organizations of the world’s least developed countries. According to VSO, “financial manager” is a particularly in-demand role, needed specifically to develop and establish financial systems, provide technical advice and training on financial best practices, assist organizations in applying for government and institutional funding, and guide organizations in managing their resources more effectively.

This global altruism is nothing new—it’s just better publicized these days. In 1996, for example, teams from major international accounting firms were engaged by an international commission headed by Paul Volcker, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, to conduct an audit of funds held by Swiss Banks that were believed to belong to victims of WWII Nazi persecution. According to SwissBankClaims.com, the official website of the Swiss Banks Settlement: In re Holocaust Victim Assets Litigation, the Volcker Committee identified at least 36,000 accounts opened between 1933 and 1945 that “probably” or “possibly” belonged to Nazi victims or their heirs and were estimated to be worth between $643 million and $1.36 billion.

Whether your interests and heart lie in law enforcement, government, consulting, private industry, or public accounting, the opportunities to contribute to the public interest and world good are many. It’s up to you to discover how and where to earn your living—and make your mark.