By Anne Rosivach
Demand for courses in fraud and forensic accounting has been strong and is growing at colleges and universities throughout the country. Georgia Southern University is no exception, and The College of Business Administration's Center for Forensic Studies in Accounting and Business has taken the lead by offering two educational tracks in fraud and forensic accounting to students at both the undergraduate and graduate level.
One track enables undergraduates from any major to earn an interdisciplinary minor in fraud examination. "In addition to accounting majors, we see business students and others majoring in justice studies, information technology, political science, and hotel and restaurant management. Fraud permeates every aspect of society and students recognize the value of learning about it," said Don Berecz, the first director of the Center for Fraud and Forensic Studies who spoke with AccountingWEB about the programs.
The second track enables graduate accounting students to declare a forensic accounting concentration in the Masters of Accountancy program. "Student candidates planning careers as forensic accountants must not only be accepted by GSU's graduate admissions department, but also apply for admission into our forensic program," Berecz said.
Berecz is both a certified public accountant and a certified fraud examiner. He came to Georgia Southern in 2007 after 23 years of service with the FBI in Seattle, Illinois, and Washington D.C. where he worked in the agency's white collar crime, foreign counterintelligence, and polygraph programs. In addition to serving as director of the Center, Berecz also takes advantage of the opportunity to step into the classroom and teach courses in white collar crime and in forensic interviewing and interrogation.
"Georgia Southern's School of Accountancy is the only AACSB accredited institution in the United States that offers students classroom instruction at the graduate and undergraduate level in forensic accounting studies," says Berecz. "Most college accounting programs offer a single fraud course, we have 10."
The 10 courses require active participation by students to enable them to develop their forensic skills. "The only way to teach interviewing is just to do it," Berecz says. Students begin by interviewing each other without any structure, and learn the importance of structure as they develop their skills in successive weeks. Late in the semester Berecz tells them to bring their cell phones into the classroom – a real break from university protocol – so that they can conduct telephone interviews, and learn how much more difficult they can be in comparison with face to face interviews.
Students in the Fraud program at Georgia Southern also participate in the Internal Revenue Service's Project Adrian. This national IRS program brings special agents from their Criminal Investigative Division to campus and puts students through various financial investigative scenarios. Students are coached by experienced IRS investigators who take them through mock investigations that involve opening a case, record analysis, interviewing, surveillance, and the prosecution process which may include arrests and/or search warrant execution. "We have had a few people staring at our accounting students as they carry (mock) weapons through our classroom building," said Berecz. The project concludes with a mock grand jury investigation (and an indictment) at the county courthouse. Because of the popularity of this exercise (50 students this semester), and the number of IRS agents who are involved, Project Adrian is held only once each year, during the Spring semester.
"Masters of Accountancy students participate as plaintiffs, defendants, and expert witnesses in a mock civil trial which involves stockholders who are suing a public accounting firm. Not only has the support been incredible from the local and regional professional community of investigators, prosecutors, attorneys, judges, CPAs, and others... but I think those professionals assisting are having as much fun as the students in these mock trials and other projects.
"We have been told repeatedly by employers and advisors that our students are sharp, but make sure to guide them through their studies with practice and development of their writing, presentation, and interpersonal skills," Berecz says. "In one of our undergraduate courses, students go through 44 fraud schemes. Not only are they learning about the reasons and pressures that can be placed upon person to commit fraud, but through discussion they discover the red flags that will lead them to uncover the crime. This process leads to an understanding of the internal controls of the business which were nonexistent or weak. Each student in this class is required to present a professional oral presentation with audio/visual materials.
"The opportunities for fraud investigators and forensic accountants are unlimited," Berecz says. Students who complete the undergraduate program may pursue careers as federal, state, and local law enforcement officers (for example, FBI, Postal Inspectors, and the IRS Criminal Investigation Division), internal auditors, loss prevention specialists, corporate security specialists, private investigators, and fraud control specialists.
"The forensic accounting concentration of our Masters of Accountancy program is not even two years old, and our graduates have been hired or received offers from top four accounting firms," Berecz says. "They are hired for their forensic educational training, but are assigned to tax and audit functions with the expectation that they will be moved into forensic accounting within a couple of years. But some graduates have the bug, and want to start their careers in investigations and forensic accounting right away," he says. They end up joining regional forensic firms, litigation support consulting firms, or look to opportunities in state or federal government in accounting, law enforcement, or with federal regulatory agencies like the SEC and the FDIC.
"We want to be one of the nation's premier resource centers for identifying, analyzing, and disseminating effective anti-fraud practices," Berecz says. "Our programs were designed for students who some day would become members of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners."
The educational mission and role of the Center includes outreach to educators and practitioners. The Center will host its Third Annual Fraud and Forensic Accounting Education Conference in Atlanta in May, 2009, which will be sponsored this year by the Atlanta-based accounting firm of Porter Keadle Moore. The conference is a 20-hour CPE program that features speakers of note and is attended by educators and practitioners who exchange ideas and best practices. "The breakout sessions are very popular," Berecz says.
The Center is also planning to host five eight-hour CPE sessions in Savannah this Fall, through the sponsorship of the Savannah- and Atlanta-based accounting firm of Hancock Askew. These sessions will mirror Georgia Southern's five undergraduate courses.
A Forensic Accounting Advisory Board of professionals meets twice a year to help steer and improve the Center's long term mission and educational programs based on practitioner needs and current trends. Board members include leaders in forensic accounting from Big 4 accounting firms, regional CPA firms, private forensic firms, law firms, FBI, IRS, FDIC, State of Georgia departments, and executives from service industries fraught with fraud, such as banking. "We are looking for additional members throughout the country, and the only commitment is to join us on campus for a day of discussion each year."
Looking to the future, Berecz says he is constantly attending high school and college career fairs, conferences, and meetings to introduce the Center's programs. He frequently meets professionals involved in fraud investigations and forensic accounting. "I am amazed at the number of accounting and investigative professionals who, when they learn about our programs and are not able to attend our degree granting classes ask, 'Are you online?' I'm tired of saying no, so now I just say, 'Not yet.'"
Berecz also wants to get the word out to prospective students nationwide. "The majority of our students are from the southeast region, but we do have a handful of students from other parts of the country and from abroad. Excellent students with the drive and passion for this career path will find us. My job is to look beyond that, to strengthen the image of Georgia Southern University and the College of Business Administration by ensuring that everyone in our profession recognizes Georgia Southern's Center as the leading provider of fraud and forensic accounting education."
You can find out more about the Forensic Accounting and Fraud Examination Programs.