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ATF mock raid provides unique experience for FAFI students
Creative criminals are everywhere these days. That's bad, but, believe it or not, there's a silver lining.
It's bad because advanced technology and creativity have made crimes like hiding assets and making money illegally an art form, across the U.S. and around the globe. It's also good because when you have a highly respected and renowned Forensic Accounting and Fraud Investigation (FAFI) program like the one at WVU's College of Business and Economics (B&E), you can fulfill a very real need in the public and private sector workforces.
FAFI students have a unique opportunity from which to learn each year, an opportunity worthy of placing on a resume. Thanks to a partnership between B&E and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), students can participate in a mock search and seizure warrant that is held in the WVU Crime Scene Complex — a scene that would likely be part of an episode of one of the "CSI" or "Law & Order" TV programs.
"The June 15 mock search and seizure warrant at West Virginia University marked the seventh year we have conducted the event at WVU," said Franco Frandé, the ATF's chief financial investigator. "This is an invaluable experience for students, but it's also fantastic for the ATF because of the education value associated with providing this opportunity for students."
Dr. Dick Riley is a WVU professor who has taught the FAFI program since its inception. Frandé and his ATF team work with Riley and the WVU team like a well-oiled machine, and students benefit from it all.
"The experience that the students get in the crime scene raid with the ATF is phenomenal," said Riley. "The raid is one of eight sessions that the ATF presents for students and it fits seamlessly into the other ATF material. The eight ATF sessions are integral to the 44 total sessions in the program. Once students experience the entire 44 sessions, the knowledge, skills and abilities are beyond most other programs around the nation.
"The ATF investigators not only have the experience, each one is a great communicator and they have a way of connecting with the students to bring the real world directly into the classroom, converting the traditional classroom into a learning laboratory. Franco runs a very tight, very professional ship. His team brings in official ATF raid t-shirts for everyone in the class, he swears in class members as official representatives of the ATF and then they get to work implementing everything they've learned. Everyone in the class participates as part of a small group of investigators (forensic accountants). Students locate items such as financial records, thumb drives, computer hardware and software, a laptop tucked away under a mattress, a computer CD taped to the back of a picture on the wall — they're taught they have to think like the people they're investigating. It's truly an incredible learning experience for the class."
Riley added, "WVU is grateful to the ATF, a partner for the last seven years, and that partnership is one of several close alliances that the FAFI program instructors have with practicing professionals. Those partnerships include Steptoe & Johnson, Grant Thornton and Wicklander-Zulawski, to name just a few."
Additionally, findings from the ATF exercise will be integrally included at moot court proceedings on July 6, when each student in the class will testify to defend their overall investigative findings.
Frandé said that through WVU's FAFI program, not just the partnership between ATF and WVU for Accounting 584, students enter and leave WVU with a real world set of skills that are developed and tested throughout the program. Three years ago, ATF hired a graduate of B&E's FAFI program, and her talents and skills had her leading criminal investigations in her first year on the job and getting ready to testify in criminal proceedings as a financial expert within her second year.
"She came to ATF with skill sets that more closely resemble those of a more seasoned or veteran investigator. That makes a huge difference in terms of how fast a new employee's feet can hit the ground running, and the confidence level that is demonstrated in all tasks associated with investigating and perfecting a financial investigation," Frandé said.
ATF works over 600 fraud cases per year that involve everything from mail, bank and wire fraud to tax evasion, domestic and international money laundering, and terrorist financing schemes. These cases and frauds are uncovered through the use of forensic accounting/financial investigations by a professional nationwide division engaged with ATF Special Agents working cases within the ATF jurisdictions of Arson, Explosives, Firearms, Alcohol and Tobacco.
He added that, because of the strength of the FAFI program, these students had some distinct advantages:
- decreased learning curve
- higher display of confidence in conducting and documenting financial crimes/investigation
- greater level of preparedness to testify in criminal proceedings
- stronger in both individual professionalism/skills and teamwork
Dr. Jose Sartarelli, Milan Puskar Dean, WVU College of Business and Economics, said that the FAFI program is strong because of the efforts of those running the program.
"People like Dr. (Dick) Riley, Dr. Tim Pearson and Dr. Scot Fleming go above and beyond in teaching and preparing students in this program," Sartarelli said. "They have also forged strong relationships and partnerships with organizations such as the ATF and the Association for Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE). In fact, thanks to the great relationship we have with ACFE, we were able to create, develop and operate the Institute for Fraud Prevention within the College of Business and Economics. These are real connections that produce real results."
And the job market for forensic accountants and fraud investigators? Well, all indications are that demand is on the rise and will only increase.
The Wall Street Journal stated that "forensic accounting is a particularly hot field," and industry publications have indicated that the Big 4 accounting firms are now recruiting students with some exposure to financial forensics. According to ManagementParadise.com, "The need for competent staffing at the SEC (Securities Exchange Commission) at PCAOB (Public Company Accounting Oversight Board) and in private industry is outpacing the supply."
In an April 10 article by ABC News entitled "Fraud Squad: As Financial Scandals Mount, Forensic Accounting Becomes Hot Area," Catherine Valenti writes, "Forensic accounting is hardly new, but accounting and security firms alike have stepped up their efforts to use the discipline in recent years. Banks, insurance companies, police forces and government agencies typically use forensic accountants to track criminals after they've been committed. But industry insiders say they expect more companies to use them as preventative measures as the demand for financial transparency increases in the wake of the recent accounting scandals."
The article also noted that many forensic accountants believe it is only a matter of time before forensic accounting methods are used in all auditing practices.
Frandé said that the WVU FAFI program is having a great impact on students, as not only has one graduate been hired by ATF, but three more are being sought out. Former students that stay in touch with Frandé through Facebook and LinkedIn have reported much better interest and offers in interviews with a variety of the industry (accounting, forensic accounting and auditing organizations) due to the FAFI program, and with specific regard to Accounting 584 and the law enforcement investigative skills and the litigation skills taught and tested.
"Graduates of our FAFI program are equipped with a skill set that is very valuable," said Riley, "and it looks like that skill set is getting more valuable every day."