FBI forensic accountants follow the money

There are headline-grabbing cases that remind us of the frailties of the human condition and the sheer power of greed. Enron, of course, in the early 2000s, and even more recently,  Bernie Madoff, the former Wall Street stockbroker arrested

in 2008 for masterminding an elaborate Ponzi scheme. But Gordon Gekko, the transformational main character in the hit movie “Wall Street” reminded us of this back in 1987. “Greed captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit,” he said.

It is sad, but true.

In a 2012 report, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners estimated that as much as 5 percent of annual revenue around the world is lost to fraud. This translates to $3.5 trillion in potential losses. Fraud is notoriously difficult to detect and counteract; the typical perpetrator is intelligent, well-educated and in a position that allows them to easily cover their tracks. It is a problem – a big problem.

But the Gordon Gekkos of the world also provide opportunity to those who specialize in numbers and money – and making sure things add up. 

Forensic accountants are fortunate in having a diverse range of entry-level options available to them. Unlike other career paths in the accounting world, forensic auditors tend to perform the same functions throughout their career and move up from analyst, to manager, to supervisor/senior consultant over the course of their employment. Compensation generally begins around $50,000 and increases with professional certification, education and years of experience, with senior level auditors earning a salary upwards of $150,000. 

There are many certification options open to forensic accountants, but the two most widely recognized are the Association of Certified Fraud Examiner (ACFE) Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountant (AICPA) Certified in Financial Forensics Credential (CFF). Many fraud examiner positions will require one of these credentials, and even if they do not, certified forensic accountants earn on average 25 percent more than their uncertified colleagues.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts 13 percent job growth for accountants and auditors by 2022. The growth of all forensic accounting jobs should correspond with this rate, if not exceed it due increasing financial regulations.

What Counts was recently afforded the unique opportunity to hear first-hand from Kathleen M. Brekenfeld, CPA, CFE, and a Forensic Accountant at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Brekenfeld works the FBI’s Boston division in the Providence office. 

WC: How long have you been involved in "forensic accounting," and what you drew you toward that particular specialty?

Brekenfeld: I started my career in forensic accounting when I joined the Bureau in December of 2010. Prior to that, I was an auditor at one of the Big Four firms and then a regional accounting firm. I pursued forensic accounting because I was looking for a change in direction with my career path. I enjoyed my time as an auditor, but I knew it would not necessarily be a lifelong pursuit for me. So I decided to explore my other options and forensic accounting seemed like a great fit.

WC: How did you arrive at the FBI, and what is your role?

Brekenfeld: It was actually my father, a retired police officer, who suggested that I look at financial roles with the FBI. Quite honestly, I didn’t know the position existed until I saw the posting online and realized that it was exactly what I was looking to do.  So after an extensive interview and background process, I made my way through the doors of the Bureau! 

My role as a forensic accountant is basically to handle the financial piece of the investigation. We deal with the minutia of the bank and financial records, which can be very time consuming, but really gets to the heart of our cases. We are also an active part of the prosecutorial team, working closely with the agents assigned to the case, the assistant US attorneys, as well as other government agencies. Due to our in-depth knowledge of the investigation, we often participate in interviews of victims, witnesses and subjects.  We assist in preparing trial exhibits, search and seizure warrant affidavits, and participate in these searches. A forensic accountant might also testify in Grand Jury or during the course of a trial. The role has greatly evolved over the past few years, which has made the job far more exciting and rewarding.

WC: In general, what types of jobs might come across the desk of a forensic accountant working for the FBI?

Brekenfeld: The majority of cases are economic crimes (corporate/investment schemes, financial institutions and mortgage fraud, mail/wire fraud, money laundering, etc.). However, the great thing about this job is that we support a variety of criminal violations. I have experience working public corruption, organized crime, health care fraud, drug and gang related cases, counterintelligence and counterterrorism investigations.   

WC: Are there some specific skill sets that are required of someone in your position, separate from those of a traditional accountant?

Brekenfeld: I would say a healthy dose of curiosity and creativity. You are a financial investigator, and noticing when things just don’t look right is tremendously helpful. These cases are all about digging deeper and taking your analysis to the next level, in order to understand often complex schemes. What is equally important, though, is being able to present this information in a way that is easy to understand and furthers the goals of the investigation. This is where creativity is helpful. As an auditor we are used to following audit programs, but there are no checklists for investigations. You will often do the same sort of analysis (determining the sources and uses of funds), but you are always thinking of effective and efficient ways of presenting your analysis to the team, most of whom do not have a financial background.  

WC: In what ways might the work you do be similar to that of a traditional accountant, maintaining the books at business?

Brekenfeld: In the most literally sense, we maintain the books of undercover operations, which is a very interesting task. However, we are usually reviewing the activity of other companies, as opposed to recording the transactions ourselves. This is where having an accounting (and for me auditing) background comes in handy. As I mentioned above, you just know when things don’t look right, or when transactions are booked inappropriately (often as part of the financial scheme). But even for cases that don’t involve “traditional accounting” simply having a financial mind, an understanding of debits and credits, and having an eye for detail is tremendously important.  

WC: What do you like best about your job?

Brekenfeld: Quite frankly, feeling a sense of pride in my work and knowing what I am contributing to society. The day to day job might not always be exciting, but the bottom line, what we are accomplishing, is tremendously motivating. I know that my work directly helps put the bad guys behind bars, and, as importantly, hits them where it hurts--their wallet!  After talking to victims, knowing that I am helping them get some sort of justice is extremely rewarding.  

WC: I sense that in recent years, "forensic accounting" has enjoyed a surge in popularity? Have you seen that, and if so, to what do you attribute such a surge?

Brekenfeld: I would definitely agree. I think people are becoming more aware of the profession, and that you don’t always have to follow the traditional path of public accounting. I think in light of recent FBI cases, professionals are realizing the importance of "following the money" and how essential we are to investigations, even those that are not financial in nature – and they want to be part of that!  Forensic accountants might not have the exciting job that you see on TV shows, but we are the ones behind the scenes, slowly building the cases so that the agents can do their jobs. The job is interesting, challenging and exciting, and I think that is what is drawing a lot of attention in the accounting field. 

If you are interested in learning about forensic accounting positions with the FBI, contact recruiter SA Ken Callahan at the Boston office at (617) 742-5533.