We examine the role of the forensic-data expert, the skills and experience required for the job, how to get into the specialism and where it can take you in your career
This article was first published in the February/March 2020 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
While the motivations behind fraud have changed little over time, the means certainly have. PwC’s most recent Global Economic Crime and Fraud Survey reported that cybercrime is by far the most disruptive crime against organisations, and this is playing a key part in redefining the role of the forensic accountant.
Lem Chin Kok FCCA, head of KPMG’s forensic practice in Asia Pacific, foresees new challenges for businesses and governments. ‘There will be new types of fraud, ethical dilemmas and non-compliance that require investigation. It will be an interesting time for forensic accountants,’ says the former police commercial crime squad investigator.
Forensic accountants use a combination of accountancy and detective skills to examine a wide range of fraudulent activities. This helps lawyers, insurance companies and other clients to resolve disputes and assist in fraud investigations that could even lead to judicial proceedings, which means an opportunity to work closely with law enforcement organisations.
While in the past the most important investigative tool was the interview, today professionals also use evidence from sources such as computers and mobile devices, as well as financial records in electronic formats.
Accountants – in particular, those with an audit background – bring highly transferable and valuable skills to the table. They are already adept at following and questioning money trails, as well as dealing with large amounts of data. Key personal traits should include being constantly curious and questioning, highly analytical and naturally sceptical.
An extensive understanding of technology is vital, says Lem. ‘We started investing in forensic analytics 15 years ago and ventured into what we know now as AI or machine learning 10 years ago,’ he says. ‘About five years ago, we started building deep cyber response capabilities.’
Specialists will also need an understanding of governance structures, regulations, identity access and data privacy, including GDPR.
Getting in and getting on
Training is largely on the job, with postgraduate qualifications available through the globally recognised Institute of Certified Forensic Accountants. The Big Four are the most well-known employers, with specialist cyber and data forensic teams, but banks, police forces, financial institutions and government agencies are also increasingly providing opportunities. While there is scope to reach team leader, department head and partner roles, many move into consultancy.
‘As businesses increasingly operate internationally, cross-jurisdiction regulatory risks – such as data privacy, money laundering and sanctions risks – will become more relevant,’ Lem says. ‘As they increase their digital footprint, theft of intellectual property, computer crime and cyber crime will become more prevalent. To keep up, forensic accountants also have to evolve to remain effective.’
Neil Johnson, journalist