Accounting students learn how to crack the case

Collecting clues, gathering evidence, and following the trail to find criminals has an undeniable appeal, but few college students make any connection between those skills and the skills of an accountant.

The IRS has been making a methodical effort to change that misconception by holding mock fraud investigations in colleges and universities around the country.

The Adrian Project, so-called because it started at Adrian University in 2000, involves IRS special agents setting up mock criminal investigation and directing students how to use forensic accounting techniques to follow a paper trail to determine whether a money launderer, drug dealer, or fraudster is at its end.

Some of the techniques involve high-tech resources and some are more old-fashioned, such as interviewing skills. "They need to be creative in asking questions that will make an investigation progress, and creative in deciding what needs to be done to complete an investigation," said JoAnn Zuniga, head of the IRS Criminal Investigation Boston Field Office, at a recent event at the University of Connecticut.

"The program gives students a great opportunity to learn what a fraud investigator does," said Cliff Nelson, assistant professor of accounting, in The Advance, the weekly UConn newspaper. "It also gives them a chance to take charge in a simulated situation."

Ashley Ferrara, president of the UConn chapter of Beta Alpha Psi accounting society, called the experience eye-opening. "We were living in a story instead of just taking notes in a classroom," said Ferrara, who hopes to work in forensic accounting. "This is what it's really like."

Rich Brody, an accounting professor at the Anderson School of Management at the University of New Mexico, recently told the student newspaper there that the number of job applicants for special agent positions may increase as a result of the event.

"The students have an opportunity to experience life as an IRS Special Agent and directly apply what they have learned in the classroom," he said.

The IRS Criminal Investigations Division includes 2,800 special agents who work on criminal tax, money laundering, and narcotics-related financial crime cases.

Michigan Public Information Officer Steve Moore, who started the program, told the Valley Vanguard, the weekly newspaper at Saginaw Valley State University, that the IRS has a two-year waiting list for the program, which has been introduced in 10 states.

"By the end of the day," he said, "students will have a different picture of the IRS."