Saturday, July 11, 2015

Vegetable Gardens and Rationalizing

I recently spoke with a friend who used to pick vegetables at a vegetable garden when he was younger. At the vegetable garden, workers were paid by the pound for some types of vegetables and by the bucket for other types. He told me that many people would “accidentally” add a few rocks to their buckets for the vegetables that were paid by the pound. He also said that workers would stack the vegetables in the bottom of the bucket in a log cabin style so as to use up as much space with the fewest amount of vegetables for the vegetables that were paid by the bucket. My friend is an honest person, and if he did participate in this behavior in the past, I doubt he would do so now. The story got me thinking about fraud in the business world and some of the similarities we see in this type of rationalization.

Friday, June 19, 2015

What Has the Red Cross Done with Almost Half a Billion Dollars of Donations?

After the 2011 earthquake in Haiti, the American Red Cross raised half a billion dollars and announced plans to build hundreds of permanent homes in Haiti. However, according to an article by Pro Publica, co-published with NPR, to this day the Red Cross has completed only six homes. Where has the half a billion dollars in donations gone?

Friday, June 5, 2015

Even Cancer Research Lacks Integrity

An article in Discover Magazine details some of the practices that occurred for 50 years in cancer research that both slowed and misled cancer research for decades. In cancer research, scientists use cancer cell lines (cells that contain a particular type of cancer) taken from tumors infected with the cancer in order to test possible treatments. The problem is that it is very easy for these cell lines to become contaminated, thereby changing the characteristics of the cell line. For years scientists used contaminated cell lines for their research, with numerous publications occurring based on false lines. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

How Chocolate Was Used to Fool Millions

You may have seen headlines in the news a couple months ago proclaiming things such as “Dieting? Don’t forget the Chocolate,” or “Chocolate Accelerates Weight Loss: Research Claims it Lowers Cholesterol and Aids Sleep.” These articles referenced a study which supposedly showed that chocolate can help you lose weight. What you may not have seen is the recent article by John Bohannon, the real author of the study. In the article, Bohannon explains exactly how he ran the study and how he was able to fool millions of people around the world into actually believing that chocolate is a healthy food that can help reduce weight and increase quality of life.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Fake Diplomas: Too Good to Be True

An example of a fake diploma issued by one of Axact's
fictitious schools, Grant Town University.
Earning a diploma for high school, college, and especially for a doctoral program requires a lot of work and a lot of time. You can’t just buy a diploma—or can you? A recent New York Times article discusses some allegations made against Axact, a Pakistani software company. Former employees of Axact and complaints from victims throughout the world accuse Axact of operating a massive diploma mill scheme by secretly operating websites for over 370 fictitious high schools, colleges, and universities which lure people in by promising them a good education and diplomas from accredited schools. The websites all look professional and appear to be from a real university. There are even phone numbers to call and people waiting to answer questions through online chat sessions. Several of the fictitious universities even have similar names to respected universities (i.e., Barkley, Columbiana, Grant Town), and the bank accounts for all of these schools funnel back to Axact, according to The New York Times.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Industries that Rely on the Illusion of Causality

I've been intrigued (and somewhat disgusted) by industries that sell worthless products to people who desperately want to find a cure for some condition in their life. These types of products are rampant in the multi-level-marketing industry (see our other posts on MLMs) but also can be found in the nutritional supplement industry. Often, amazing, too-good-to-be-true claims are made because the government doesn't regulate these industries or they make their outrageous claims off the record in private conversations, etc. Well, psychologists have a name for the illusion that these industries rely on. Read on to see what I'm talking about...

Monday, December 29, 2014

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year… For Scammers Too

During the holiday season, many people choose to give and help others around them, but sometimes due to the spirit of giving that abounds, we tend to let our guard down. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently published an article which outlines five popular scams to be sure to avoid this holiday season.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Fighting Fraud with Mathematical Weapons

According to a Wall Street Journal article, forensic accountants recently uncovered a several hundred thousand dollar fraud committed by employees at a national call center simply by “wielding mathematical weapons.” Using data analysis, they were able to identify a number of fraudulent refunds that call center employees were issuing. The find was critical to the company as it helped them discover where they were losing a lot of money.

Benford's Law
The forensic accountants who detected the fraud at the call center used a mathematical test known as Benford’s Law. Contrary to popular belief that there should be an even distribution in the starting digits of numbers, Benford’s Law says that “more numbers start with one than any other digit, followed by those that begin with two, then three, and so on,” and that “ones should account for 30% of leading digits, and each successive number should represent a progressively smaller proportion, with nines coming last, at under 5%.” In the case of the call center, the forensic team noticed an exceptionally large percentage of refund amounts where the starting digit was a four. It also happened to be that employees could issue refunds to customers up to $50 without needing additional supervision. By using Benford’s Law and investigating the transactions where the leading digit was a four, forensic accountants discovered a small number of operators at the call center “who had issued fraudulent refunds to themselves, friends and family totaling several hundred thousand dollars.”

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Individuals Causing the 2008 Housing Crisis Receive No More Than a Slap on the Wrist

Following the 2008 housing crisis, several of the banks involved paid large settlement fines. JPMorgan Chase was one of those banks. The Justice Department used evidence from an anonymous whistleblower in the prosecution, but until recently the whistleblower remained anonymous. Matt Taibbi recently released an article in Rolling Stone describing why the whistleblower, Alayne Fleischmann, has gone public with what she knows. Ironically, the Justice Department wasn’t committed to bringing “justice” to those individuals who contributed to the fall of the economy through fraudulent activities. In fact, Attorney General Eric Holder said the following:

“I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy, and I think that is a function of the fact that some of these institutions have become too large.”

What is the Justice Department doing if they aren’t bringing justice to those responsible for major crimes? When Fleischmann realized that much of what she reported to the SEC and the Justice Department was not being fully pursued, she decided she had to go public with what she knew.

Research Study Suggests That the Culture in the Banking Industry Leads to Dishonesty

Financial Times recently printed an article about a study done by researchers at the University of Zurich which suggested that bankers have a tendency to lie for financial gain. The study used a control group and treatment group of bankers. The bankers in the control group were asked questions about their everyday life (for example, “How many hours of television do you watch per week?”). The bankers in the treatment group were asked questions relating to what they did at work as a banker. They then gave each group a coin, had them toss it ten times, and then had them self-report their results. The participants were told beforehand whether heads or tails would count as a success. If no cheating took place, the average amount of heads compared to tails should have been very close to 50/50 for each group. In the control group this was the case, but the group who had been primed with thinking about their profession as bankers reported 58.2% winning tosses. From these results, the researchers estimate that 26% of the bankers in the treatment group cheated.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Would You Break the Law for $1 Million?

A survey was recently conducted in Korea where participants were asked if they would break the law in order to gain the equivalent of $955,000 (USD). Surprisingly, nearly one in four responded that they would. The study showed that people in their twenties were even more likely to break the law for $1 million (nearly one in three respondents in their twenties said they would). If this holds true throughout the world, we could potentially see more frauds committed as the younger workforce reaches stages in their careers where they have the pressure and opportunity to commit fraud.

Check out the article in the Wall Street Journal and ask yourself the same question – would you break the law for $1 million? Hopefully the number of people who answer yes to this question gets smaller and smaller over time.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Latest in Detecting Deception

I spend about two and a half weeks in my Fraud Examination class studying how we can detect when someone is being deceptive. I think it's a fascinating area that holds a lot of promise as one of the best things auditors could learn to utilize to detect fraud. If I was king of independent auditing for a day, I would change auditors' requirements to interview for fraud but that is the subject of a future post...

When I teach about detecting deception, I emphasize to my students that non-verbal cues are much less reliable than verbal cues. Some recent research shows that text analysis in verbal cues reveals four patterns in people who are lying. Check out the short, but informative, video below to learn more.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Lie Detector Could Help Stop Doping in Sports

They say a picture is worth a thousand words—and researchers have found a video can be worth even more. A recent article talks about research that was conducted using videos of Lance Armstrong where he denied doping, as well as the video where he finally confessed, taken from the Oprah Winfrey interview (see confession clip below). Researchers put the videos through a lie detector program to see the results.

The videos passed through the lie detector computer program and “revealed consistent patterns of behavior.” When Armstrong lied and denied allegations of doping, the computer detected patterns and revealed that Armstrong was lying. “Among the few, subtle patterns that Armstrong unwittingly repeated when lying were shaking his head, blinking and pressing his lips together.” When Armstrong confessed, the computer did not detect these same patterns.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Competitive Sports Leads to Academic Fraud at UNC

A report was recently released with findings of an investigation on academic fraud at the University of North Carolina. The report states that an office administrator, Deborah Crowder, established fake classes where students weren’t expected to do anything except submit a paper. The classes became known as “paper classes.” The investigative report revealed that “when Crowder graded the papers, she did so generously – typically with A’s or high B’s – and largely without regard to the quality of the papers.” A majority of the students enrolled in the “class” were student athletes (mainly football and basketball players) who needed a good grade to remain eligible to compete in their respective sport. Just like the frauds we have seen in cycling, competitive sports seems to have yet again created the perfect environment for fraud to occur, and it wasn’t just one person who knew about it.