Preventing Church Fraud: Individual Payments

Our Fraud Awareness in the Church series continues as we look at Individual Payments: Contractors and BenevolenceWe asked churches to respond to these statements:

“Before paying an individual as an independent contractor, our church applies IRS compliant tests to determine if the payee qualifies as an independent contractor.”

“Our church has written a policy to direct benevolence payment activity.”

With two notable exceptions, tax-exempt organizations are not to transfer assets or make payments to individuals.  The two exceptions are Contractor payments — reasonable compensation for services provided the organization, and Benevolence payments — to individuals who are the target of the organization’s exempt purpose (rent assistance, etc.).  Outside of these two exceptions, all other payments are looked upon with a degree of skepticism by the IRS.

Survey Results: Surprisingly, 40% of the respondents do not go through a formal employee vs. contractor test.

Key: Embezzlers tend to shy away from reporting their theft to the Government. If ALL payments to contractors are screened and a 1099 prepared, a fraud loophole is closed.

Another area particularly vulnerable to fraud is benevolence.  Again, 40% of the churches do not operate under a written benevolence policy.

Key: Benevolence funds are one of the few accounts where payments to individuals are not suspicious.  (Fraudsters are very aware of this fact.)

Double Key: Part of the benevolence policy should be to NEVER give funds directly to the people being helped.  Make payments directly to 3rd parties. (Utility company, landlord ,etc.)


Cash Disbursements, part 4

Part 4 of our series on Cash Disbursements. In our recent Fraud Survey, we asked churches to respond to this statement:

“Our church has established a “Positive Pay” program with our bank.”

Survey Results – Less than 5% of the respondents use such a program.

While the phrase “Positive Pay” is the trade name of one commercial bank, it has become a generic term for an agreement between a bank and its customer that works like this:

  1. The church establishes a standard routine for paying bills, for most churches once each week.
  2. A list of approved bills is compiled and transmitted to the bank.
  3. The bank only clears checks or other charges presented for payment that are on the church’s list.
  4. The church is also informed of any checks or charges presented for payment that were not included on the list.

Increasingly, businesses are using arrangements like this to address a newer face of economic fraud.  Fraud experts have historically used the “fraud triangle” of pressure, rationalization, and opportunity to describe the key ingredients of a fraudulent act.  Generally, this discussion has focused on “inside jobs”.

However, with the advance of technology, a new face has arrived on the scene – the “hacker” completely outside the organization (in many cases completely outside the country!).  Using Positive Pay is one protection against this type of fraud activity.

Perhaps a new leg needs to be added to the fraud triangle.  (I guess that would make it a square…)

Bank Account Theft – Fraud in the Church – Survey Results part 10

Part 10 of our ongoing Fraud in the Church series. PSK in cooperation with the National Association of Church Business Administration (NACBA) conducted a survey to determine the extent to which churches are attempting to address the problem of church fraud. We asked them to respond to this statement:

Our church has established a “Positive Pay” arrangement with our bank.

Increasingly, due to technological change and advancement, the threat of fraud is no longer limited to dishonest employees. Hackers and other “online bandits” have become quite proficient in draining the bank accounts of the unsuspecting. One defense against this is to establish a Positive Pay arrangement with your bank.

Only 5% of our respondents have this type of bank account protection in place, which is surprising because Positive Pay is a simple three-step process.

  1. During the check writing process, a list is compiled of bills to be paid.
  2. The list is sent to the bank.
  3. The only checks or drafts to be cleared by the bank are those on the list.

I am very curious why so few take advantage of this. Any ideas?

Vendors and Payments – Fraud in the Church – Survey Results part 9

Part 9 of our ongoing Fraud in the Church series. PSK in cooperation with the National Association of Church Business Administration (NACBA) conducted a survey to determine the extent to which churches are attempting to address the problem of church fraud. We asked them to respond to this statement:

Our church has established an “approved vendor list”. All payments for goods or services are made only to vendors on the list.

A surprisingly high percentage of our respondents – 82% had not established an “approved vendor list”. A common misconception in the church environment is that, “If we are going to be hit, it will be directed towards our tithes and offerings.” While this does happen frequently, some of the largest dollar losses occur in the disbursement processes, not the receipts. Also, these types of frauds, because of their difficulty of detection, seem to go on for longer periods of time than thefts of cash receipts. From my observations, it seems that many more churches are hit after their revenues are safely in the church’s bank accounts, not on their way in.

The first line of defense against vendor disbursement fraud is the development of well-defined AND well-written bill approval and payment policies and processes.

In addition to purchase orders and check requests, such a system should include a formal vendor selection and retention process. After successfully screening potential donors, the church should develop a preferred vendor list. As part of the check signing process, payees should be compared to the approved vendor list.

When to Say No

Every week ministries across the country get several hundred thousand requests for assistance. Some are valid, while others are not. Here are some real life examples of benevolence requests that I have encountered recently in my experience with ministries:

  • A church member requests the business office to help with the monthly payments on his vacation home in Colorado
  • An employee had a major surgery and the ministry decides to assist with overwhelming medical bills
  • A local resident calls the business office and requests helps with the utility payments
  • A stranger walks in the door and asks for help because her car ran out of gas
  • A local resident requests the ministry to buy him a $2000 suit for an interview so he can land his dream job
  • A church member requests assistance with expenses for her daughter’s semester in Spain

Most churches and ministries are sympathetic and want to help and most requests are compelling, especially in this economy. But unfortunately, there are scammers out there that prey upon ministries’ willingness to help and are not afraid to take advantage. For instance, on May 18, 2010, the Columbia Missourian reported the following story:

Columbia Church Reports Possible Money-Wiring Scam

It is relatively easier to tell the difference between a need and want, but not always easy to discern between legitimate and fraudulent requests. So how can a ministry respond to all requests in a compassionate yet tactful manner?

Adopt a written benevolence policy. A well written policy will lay out the foundation for ministry’s benevolence activities and should:

  • Specify who is to receive and approve the requests for assistance
  • Specify the situations in which assistance may be provided, the type of assistance that will be provided and how it is to be provided
  • Eliminate any inappropriate requests for assistance
  • Keep the ministry within guidelines set forth in the Internal Revenue Code
  • Establish confidence within the ministry and amongst its benefactors that benevolence funds are being administered properly
  • Enable the ministry from developing a reputation of an easy target amongst scammers

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