Accounting is a wide and varied field that has room for all sorts of professionals. If you are a whiz with audits, accounting, and wish to help solve crimes, then forensic accounting is for you. You might work for insurance agencies, federal law enforcement, or as part of a cyber security team. Forensic accountants also serve as expert witnesses in a range of court cases involving embezzlement, money laundering, and organized crime. Some even have a security clearance and work within the intelligence community.
What is a Forensic Accountant?
A forensic accountant is a business professional whose career involves investigating financial crimes. Forensic accountants might work on staff with a law enforcement agency or they might work as independent contractors who are called to uncover potential embezzlement or money laundering. These accountants also work with attorneys as expert witnesses. This career path takes accounting into a new and exciting direction.
Steps to Become a Forensic Accountant:
Becoming a forensic accountant is a process that involves many steps. However, the first step might be the most important. That is, in order to become a forensic accountant you need to have a passion for numbers and accounting. You will also need to have a love of solving intricate problems and find great satisfaction in seeing justice prevail.
If you have a strong talent for mathematics and have a great facility with spreadsheets you are on your way. Forensic accountants must also have a deep curiosity that is paired with a keen attention to detail. It will also help if you have a deep love of uncovering hidden truths and enjoy it when criminals are brought to justice.
Once you've decided that forensic accounting is the field for you, it's important to start mapping out your academic path. First, you'll certainly need to complete a bachelor's degree in accounting. Look for a fully accredited accounting department with credentials from either the AACSB or ACBSP. At a minimum, your program should have regional accreditation.
Keep in mind that accounting departments can prepare students for different careers. Some are focused on creating Certified Public Accountants (CPA) while others are focusing more on accounting technology and the IT aspects of the field. You should look for programs that offer forensics courses. You might also look for a school that has a criminal justice degree program. A minor in criminal justice can help inform your practice as a forensic accountant.
While you are working towards a degree in forensic accounting, you should consider accruing experience. You might be able to find a part-time job working in an accounting firm. Look for one that makes a practice in forensics. Alternatively, you can seek out an internship with law enforcement. For instance, you might be able to find an internship program with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, or your state's Bureau of Investigation. Some larger towns may also employ forensic accountants who can serve as your mentor.
In fact, the FBI has an Honors Internship Program for undergraduate students to apply to. You'll need to maintain a GPA of 3.0 for the duration of the program. The FBI also requires that your SAT scores be 1500 out of 2400 on the old exam and 1000 out of 1600 on the new version. You'll also need to pass a background check and provide references. If you can complete this program you can surely have your pick of entry-level positions.
Either directly after you complete your bachelor’s degree in accounting or once you have a few years of experience in the field, you should pursue a master’s degree. There are plenty of online degree programs for forensic accounting but you can also find traditional, on-campus MS in Accounting programs. Look for an MS in Forensic Accounting program that will prepare you to sit for the Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) exam. Consider, too, that earning a MS in Forensic Accounting will help you earn the credits you need to sit for your state's CPA exam. Even if you would rather focus on forensics, when you pass all or even a part of the CPA exam, employers are sure to notice.
When you've graduated with a MS in Accounting, you can then enter into the career path you choose. You could apply to work for a law enforcement agency such as the FBI or you could find work with a large law firm. Other forensic accountants work for consultancies and investigate possible fraud or theft for a range of public and private clients. If you feel daring enough you could venture out as an independent forensic accountant.
What Does a Forensic Accountant Do?
A forensic accountant uses the knowledge and skills they accrued in the study of accounting to investigate possible financial crimes. On a day-to-day basis they might spend time collecting evidence from their client or from their fellow law enforcement agents. Forensic accountants can consult with companies who may suspect embezzlement or other theft. On the other hand, they may work with other investigators to uncover crimes such as tax evasion, money laundering, or embezzlement. In fact, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is a large employer for forensic accountants. When you work with them you might help bust organized crime rings, corrupt politicians, or terrorists who use international wire transfers to shuffle funds around the globe.
On typical days, forensic accountants are hard at work in offices. They work on computer spreadsheets and even pouring over paper receipts to create a larger financial picture that helps support the team's case. Even if the crime in question isn't financial, a forensic accountant can help establish patterns in a criminal's life. Sometimes forensic accountants even go into the field to talk with witnesses or suspects. The information that these accountants uncover can sometimes take cases in whole new directions and thus ensure that the laws of the nation are enforced.
Forensic Accountant Skills to Acquire
To uncover financial wrongdoing you need to have top-level auditing skills to determine when and from where the money disappeared. You'll need a keen eye for detail that knows which leads to follow, even if they initially seem irrelevant.
- Macro Vision:
That is, you need to be able to see each case with a wide-angle lens and then dive into the details.
While much of accounting relies on hard facts and what is provable, you'll also need to have a strong intuition that helps lead your analytical mind. When you are able to detect new patterns and uncover new leads, you will be a true addition to any crime fighting team.
As a forensic accountant, you'll need to be able to communicate often complex financial matters to the rest of the investigators. You may also be called as an expert witness in court and there you'll need to remain cool when the opposition's attorney tries to rattle you and undermine your testimony.
- Computing Skills:
You may need to design small applications in order to sort through the data you collect. Computer modeling may enable you to detect patterns of spending or deposits that lead to the conviction of a thief.
While the path to become an accountant is usually thought to necessarily involve a bachelor’s degree, that is not always the case. Forensic accountants can start out with an associate degree in accounting and perhaps a few courses in criminal justice. Your first job will surely be in a support position as an accounting clerk or bookkeeper but you can move up based on hard work and diligence.
Once you land a position in a fraud-related organization, you can enhance your status with a Forensic Accounting Certificate. Even if you don't have a bachelor’s degree, you can still earn new credentials through an accounting certificate program. For instance, the ACFE allows you to substitute one year of school for every two years you spend working in a fraud-related job. The ACFE accepts the following fields as being fraud-related: Accounting/Auditing, Criminology and Sociology, Fraud Investigation, Fraud Prevention, Loss Prevention, and Law. If your current job isn't in one of those specific areas, you can still apply if you feel that your work qualifies. Therefore, with a two-year degree in accounting, four years in the field will qualify you to sit for the Certified Fraud Examiner exam. Once you have credentials from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, your career path will unfold before you.
Forensic Accountant Career & Salary
Where Might You Work?
Forensic accountants can work in a variety of environments. After all, fraud can strike in any industry and at any level. Thus, you can start your career working for a public accountancy, consulting firm, law firm, state or federal law enforcement, the insurance industry, financial institutions, and government agencies, among others. Forensic accountants also work with private investigators to track down lost funds and to discover hidden money.
Since much fraud and theft is taking place via computer networks, you might also find work alongside cyber security experts. If you can detect an unexplained loss, you can work with the information security team to figure out where the information or funds disappeared to. Your keen eye for details and ability to conduct audits can be of great help in trying to uncover a compromised computer network.
If you have an entrepreneurial bent, you can likely convert your forensic accounting skills and experience into an independent consultancy. You will probably want to achieve a certification in forensics or fraud prevention in order to bolster your credentials. If you can pass the AICPA CPA exam you don't have to become licensed but can use the CPA certificate to prove your accounting skills.
Forensic accountants are seeing their field expand more each day. As companies and governments become more vulnerable to cyber-attack and as criminals become cleverer in general, it's vital to have a strong field of forensic accountants to help catch the bad guys. Furthermore, the financial system is increasingly online, and transactions are harder to track given encryption technologies.
Though there is no specific job category dedicated to forensic accountants, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tracks auditors and accountants. Those professionals are reported to earn a median salary of around $72,000. Meanwhile, Payscale.com reports that forensic accountants have an average base salary of $69,000.
As for growth in the field, the BLS is projecting a 4% growth rate for accountants and auditors in the years between 2019-29. However, if you apply your auditing skills to the IT arena, your career might fall under the umbrella of cyber security, which is projected to add 30% more workers in the next ten years or so. That field's professionals are also said to earn a median salary of over $99,000.
Forensic accountants are in high demand. As you peruse job listings, you are sure to find a range of positions that range from work in litigation support to insurance companies to counterintelligence. While most of the jobs require only a bachelor’s degree many also are looking for candidates with their CPA license or certification. With that in mind, you might want to satisfy the CPA exam's education requirements by completing your education in graduate school.
- Forensic Accountant:
You may find a position with a public accountancy firm or another firm as a behind the scenes force or as the face for its litigation support team. The minimum requirement for this position is a bachelor's degree in accounting, finance, economics, mathematics, or a related discipline.
- Forensic Accountant (project):
This is a short-term assignment for a forensic accountant who may be asked to review sales revenue, the budget for a specific project, or any other thing that is of interest to a company. These positions pay well, up to $90,000 or more over the course of the project. To qualify, you will need a strong resume with a background in accounting.
- Forensic Staff Accountant:
This job will be with a firm that spends at least part of its time in investigative and forensic accounting. To qualify, you’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree and it might be preferred that you have CPA licensure.
- Counter-Intelligence Analyst:
These positions are available in remote and in-person formats and many are based in Washington DC. Employers may be government contractors or government agencies. To qualify, you will need a security clearance and two year’s experience working in the Intelligence Community.
Find Forensic Accountant Jobs Near You
Advancing from Here
Once you have established yourself in forensic accounting you will find that you have a lot of upward mobility ahead of you. If you are in a public accounting firm, you might branch out and form your own forensics department that caters to certain types of client, such as litigation support in divorce cases. You could also amass a few years of experience, compounded by certifications such as CFE or CFA. Note that even forensic accountants can benefit from passing all or part of the CPA examination.
Another way to advance is by returning to school for a graduate degree. You could pursue a technology degree which would perhaps open doors in information security (cyber security). You can also consider a Master of Business Administration, which would help you reach the C-suites as CFO or perhaps Chief Security Officer (CSO).