Crime fighting accountants

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“I originally wanted to be a police officer,” says Rob Hampson, an associate director in Grant Thornton’s forensic accounting department.

But over the course of a degree in social policy and criminology at The University of Hull he found himself increasingly intrigued by white collar crime. “It piqued my interest in fraud and investigation, and I became less interested in joining the police force,” says Rob.

A little research showed that forensic accountancy was the career path he was looking for; however, it’s unusual to enter the field as a trainee, the most common route being to gain an accounting qualification, often as an auditor, which is what Rob did for the three years after university, at which point he moved over to forensic, and the rest, as they say, is history… a history spent investigating fraud, financial irregularities and acting as an expert witness in court proceedings, so a pretty exciting history.

Rob’s investigatory work has taken him all over the world, to Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. He’s built up an impressive CV working for several of the biggest accounting firms, including Deloitte, EY and Grant Thornton. His continued professional development has led him to gain Accredited Counter Fraud Specialist status.

Smoking guns

So how does a plot thicken?

“An investigation begins because you’ll hear from someone who’ll have a suspicion about an employee, for example, or a black hole in the balance sheet that no one understands, it could be an error or it could be fraud,” says Rob. “So you really have no idea what you’re going to find.

“When you come across a smoking gun in a financial record, there’s definitely a eureka moment. But in honesty, there are an awful lot of false positives, where what you think is a lead, on reflection, isn’t. But when you get to the point that you’re satisfied you’ve found a smoking gun, it’s a big achievement.”

You’d expect that in a time of post-global financial crisis volatility and uncertainty, with low wage growth, constrained investment and stifled revenues, instances of fraudulent behaviour and corporate skulduggery would be on the rise. Not necessarily so, says Rob. “If you look at most of the people I’ve come across, one of the key motivations for senior managers or directors to commit fraud is not necessarily due to financially difficult circumstances, it’s more often borne of a sense of entitlement or of being overlooked, the view that other others are being undeservedly paid more.”

Half the battle in forensic accounting is finding a lead, which usually involves winning someone’s trust so they’ll feel comfortable enough to talk to you about their suspicions of wrongdoing. Along with attention to detail, the ability to build a rapport with someone in a position to potentially ‘blow the whistle’ is a key quality for an investigating forensic accountant. “What makes an individual stand out as a forensic accountant, particularly where investigation is concerned, is being able to build relationships quickly with strangers, sometimes those responsible for fraud, or people who are witnesses. You need to be able to build a rapport so people will show you things they otherwise wouldn’t have.”

Rob’s three reasons to get into forensic accountancy:

  • Opportunity for travel and to meet a wide range of people: in terms of people, some forms of accountancy tend to involve meeting only other accountants, whereas our work allows us access to the most senior and most junior people in an organisation, across the whole spectrum of roles.
  • Our work really matters to the people we work for, both in monetary and emotional respects.
  • Interest in the law and the interaction between accountancy and legal aspects.

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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