Inside Investigation: The Role of a Forensic Accountant

forensic accounting

When you hear the term “forensics,” you might think of detectives investigating crime scenes, their jackets emblazoned with acronyms both real (FBI) and fictional (CSI, NCIS). However, there’s a forensic side to accounting as well. A forensic accountant ferrets out the financial truth. He or she works with law enforcement, government and the banking industry to investigate crimes such as fraud, bribery, money laundering and embezzlement.

To get a more up-close-and-personal view of forensic accounting, we spoke with Peter F. Grupe, a veteran white-collar crime fighter for the FBI, who is now a director in the Fraud Risk Management practice of global consulting firm Protiviti. He's based in the company's New York office.

What's the difference between forensic accounting and auditing?

While the two may seem similar, a forensic accountant actually uses auditing as part of his or her process. Forensic accounting is an investigative methodology to follow the money or the proceeds, conducted under the premise that the results may be utilized in a court of law.

What should someone thinking about this career know?

This job will keep you on your toes. There really isn’t a typical day in forensic accounting. Some days you may be crunching numbers, some days you might be conducting interviews, while others you may be reviewing documents. Additionally, you have to stay on top of the financial industry and markets to know how changes, such as new or updated mandates in regulatory compliance, can affect the finances of a company or individual. Regardless of the purpose of your engagement — civil or criminal — it’s usually all about following the money.

What attracts candidates to this role?

One particularly fascinating aspect of the job is how finance and accounting work hand-in-hand with the real-life decisions people make. I enjoy the variety that comes with working in multiple industries, as well as the challenge of solving financial “mysteries.” The job can get exciting at times. While I worked for the FBI, I handled cases involving drug dealers, organized crime, terrorists and Wall Street professionals.

What do you need to succeed?

First, you need to have a desire to investigate. Naturally, you’re also going to need a degree and background in accounting and finance. While you don’t have to be a certified public accountant (CPA) for this role, having that expertise could set you apart from the competition when you’re applying for jobs, especially if you also have a background in investigation. It’s also important to stay abreast of trends in the financial industry and take advantage of professional development in your field to maintain a firm grasp on banking, investment or accounting transactions. [Grupe has a BS in business administration and management from Central Connecticut State University, as well as an MBA with a focus in finance from C.W. Post School of Business. – Ed.]

Thinking this might be the career for you? Grupe expects the market for forensic accounting to continue to grow as financial markets become more complex and sophisticated. Also, pay for forensic accountants is on an uptick. The 2015 Salary Guide from Robert Half reports that forensic accountants should see a 3.7 percent increase in starting salaries this year compared to 2014.

Are you a forensic accountant, or have you worked with one in the past? Share your experiences in the comments section.

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