The forensics behind accounting

Anyone who thinks accounting is boring needs to talk to Don Berecz.

He started using numbers to track wrong-doing back in 1983, when the FBI hired him and a slew of other able-brained accountants to sort through the savings-and-loan mess.

Now Berecz, director of Georgia Southern University's Center for Forensic Studies in Accounting and Business, helps college students gain the skills to sort through the debris of today's financial industry meltdown.

"Our course work is so close to practical application," says Berecz, a licensed polygraph examiner who teaches one class with the tough-guy title "Forensic Interviews and Interrogations."

Berecz, who started at the university in 2007, and his Georgia Southern colleagues are bringing their number-crunching know-how to Atlanta for a fraud and forensic accounting conference Thursday-Saturday at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Buckhead. Scheduled speakers are U.S. Securities and Exchange Commissioner Luis Aguilar; Barbara Nelan of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Atlanta; and former HealthSouth chief financial officer Aaron Beam, who served a three-month prison term for his part in a scheme to fraudulently inflate company profits.

The conference is designed for students, educators and practicing accountants — even those who consider themselves more bean-counters than sleuths.

"Forensic accounting permeates through all of those other categories of accounting," Berecz says.

Q: Why do you think white-collar crime has been so prevalent over the last 10 years?

A: The amount of money. No one ever thought a Ponzi scheme could reach the level of Madoff.

Q: Which is harder to detect, fraud within a corporation, like Enron, or fraud by an investment adviser, like Bernie Madoff?

A: Most detection of fraud comes because someone tells us about it. Without a whistle-blower, there's not a clear answer.

Q: Do you think additional regulation of the financial sector will help forensic accountants? Will it create more of a paper trail, for example, that will be easier to track?

A: I think it [increased regulation] is inevitable because we learn from our mistakes. It will cost more, but it is worth it for the good of the whole.

Q: But do you think it will help solve white-collar crimes?

A: I think what it will show is the intention of people committing crimes earlier. That's what I think the regulation will do. Small frauds that go undetected become larger frauds. It will help detect them earlier.

Q: What red flags of fraud should every investor know to look for?

A: Anyone who contacts you and tells you that they've got a guaranteed investment with a high return, that is the No. 1 red flag. And if there's some urgency and secrecy around it, if they say they are doing it just for you, that's a major red flag.

Q: How are you preparing students to detect fraud?

A: One example is our students take a course called 'Micro Fraud Examination.' We take them through 40 to 50 fraud schemes . . . Most of the people who perpetrate these frauds think they are doing something that has never been done before. But the reality is, they keep repeating schemes that have happened before.

Q: One of the classes at Georgia Southern teaches the verbal and nonverbal cues indicating truth or deception. What's one of the best clues that someone is lying?

A: The general rule of thumb is they're just uncomfortable. Eye contact is just not right ... When you lie, you have to be creative, use that part of the brain, so when you lie you have to visualize the lie, and you look up and to the right. That is a theory ... Also, it may be nanoseconds, but it takes a person six times longer to answer a question with a lie than to answer it truthfully.

Q: How many forensic accounting programs are there like the one at Georgia Southern?

A: Only four offer 10 or more forensic accounting classes: Utica College in New York; Stevenson University [near] Baltimore; Florida Atlantic University and us. In academia, we don't call them competitors, we call them peers.

Q: What's the focus of your Atlanta conference?

A: Twenty percent of our conference will be educators presenting what they're doing in the classroom. The other 80 percent will be practicioners presenting what is happening in the field. What we're trying to do is share the best practices in forensic accounting.

Q: What do you foresee as the next trend in white-collar crime?

A: Technology. Cybercrimes. I think it behooves us here at Georgia Southern to make sure our coursework continues to evolve with these cybercrimes.

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