Church Fraud Hitting Close To Home

Because of our involvement in fraud prevention we make it a point to keep up with the latest news by periodically searching the web for news stories.  It seems like the pace of fraud occurrence is quickening.

Here are two recent stories of church embezzlement:

  • Church employee charged with embezzlement
  • Firefighter and church deacon accused of embezzlement

PSK is not involved in any of these situations so I have no idea about anyone’s guilt, innocence or the ultimate outcome of the cases.  But, I am sure of one thing; no church or ministry wants to make these types of headlines.

To avoid this kind of publicity we have been urging, almost pleading with churches to take this situation seriously.  A “clear and present danger” exists and every church should immediately perform an analysis of their current management structures to determine their vulnerabilities to fraud.

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What does Botox have to do with fraud?

This article (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30088148/) reminded me of a fraud prevention principle – Most church embezzlements are probably not committed by crooks.  Sinister looking guys usually don’t hang around churches with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths looking for the right opportunity to jump.  Instead, I think more financial attacks on churches are committed by people who are basically good but, for one reason or another, find themselves in bad circumstances such as addictions (gambling being the most frequent), business reversals, and health issues.

Unfortunately, many churches operate under the belief that you have to be a crook to be a church embezzler, and convince themselves that since “We have no crooks here we have nothing to worry about.”  What they forget is this:  they do have hurting people.  Probably more than they realize.   In fact, every church has plenty of wounded members and employees with all sorts of “issues”.  And unfortunately, many of their wounds can be eliminated, or at least, soothed with money.

I don’t know if the need for plastic surgery and Botox constitutes an “issue”.  But it did for this particular priest.  And his church is $85,000 the poorer for it…

PSK LLP has provided this article as a resource to help churches prevent fraud.
We can help you with your specific needs by calling us at 817.664-3000 (Toll Free: 800.424.5790)
or email Verne at verne@pskcpa.com

The Real Cost Of Church Embezzlement

The severity of a fraud incident is usually measured in one way – How much money was lost?  When presenting fraud case studies to church groups I have noticed a common reaction: the larger the dollar loss, the louder the gasps from the audience.  While it cannot be denied that in some cases the economic impact of embezzlement can cripple, or in some cases, result in the death of a congregation, the dollar loss is often the least of the church’s problems.

In the church environment, the real cost of economic fraud has little to do with lost funds.  In fact, most churches can replace stolen money with insurance claims. (Or perhaps a great sermon series!)  The real cost of an incident comes in the aftermath, when the church body learns they have been betrayed.  Loss of trust can, and often does, outweigh the dollars lost to an embezzler.

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10 Ingredients of Effective Fraud Prevention

Financial “bad behavior” is becoming rampant in the church.  You would have to be living in a cave to not recognize this.  There is not a week that goes by without another headline appearing that tells the sad story of a “trusted” church employee “gone bad”.

The good part of this, if there is a good part, is that the news is getting to be so nerve-wracking that churches and church administrators are finally beginning to recognize that a problem exists.  The two most common questions suddenly being asked are, “What can we do?” and “Where do we start”?  Unfortunately, financial misbehavior in the church is very pervasive and the variety of methods of abuse seemingly unlimited, causing answers to these questions to be quite elusive to the average church administrator.

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Organizing To Avoid Fraud

As the story goes, New York Yankee stars Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra were on their way to a function in Cooperstown, New York when Rizzuto commented that he thought they were lost.  Yogi’s reply?  “Yeah, but we’re making great time!”

This story reminds me of the way some churches approach fraud prevention.  There has been a recent proliferation of church embezzlement cases hitting the newspapers and many church administrators are reacting in fear.  Often, this fear causes them to do something similar to Phil and Yogi.  They head out quickly in the wrong direction, never slowing down to see if what they are doing is having any effect.  From their typical casual and relaxed approach to business affairs, many churches rashly set out on a crash program of fraud prevention.  Without much thought or planning, they begin to tighten things up by suddenly requiring dual signatures for all checks, beefing up offering count teams, and requiring purchase orders to be prepared in triplicate for all expenditures, no matter the size.  Other churches even install security cameras, hire armored car services, or have off-duty police walk the halls of the church during services.

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Developing A Fraud Risk Assessment

What do you think of when you hear names like Enron, WorldCom, and Sarbanes-Oxley?  Most of us think of one word: fraud.  These two companies who were embroiled in fraudulent scandal and the law passed to “fix the problem” have brought to light the impact fraud has on today’s society.  No one knows for sure the economic loss to fraud in our culture due primarily to the fact that most fraud goes undetected or if detected unreported.  However, some estimates have ranged as high as $600 billion in annual losses.

Unfortunately, churches are not immune to this threat.  And even more tragically, most churches pay little attention to the exposure.  Most church staff members are under a heavy work load and there is little if any time to stop and take stock of how vulnerable the church may be to improper activities.  Add to the fact that many churches operate under the mistaken assumption that since they work for a church and “we are all good people here”, they don’t really need to worry about anyone doing anything wrong.  They forget one basic fact: churches are in the business of healing sick people (Behaviorally sick as well as physically).  It should come as no surprise that a church will attract sick people including some who end up in a position of trust.

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Weeds in the Garden

The first step in fraud prevention is knowing what you are coming up against.  In other words, a clear understanding must be gained of what financial fraud is before designing a battle plan to confront it.

The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) defines occupational fraud as “the use of one’s occupation for personal enrichment through the deliberate misuse or misapplication of the employing organization’s resources or assets.”   Because of the heavy reliance of churches on volunteers, this definition should be expanded to include unpaid staff in addition to employees.  According to the ACFE, there are three major types of occupational fraud:

  • Fraudulent financial reporting
  • Corruption
  • Misappropriation of assets.

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Effective Fraud Prevention

Effective fraud prevention starts with a strong foundation.  And the cornerstone of this foundation is organization.  Churches “lucky” enough to have avoided fraud are not really lucky at all. Luck had nothing to do with it.  These churches avoid fraud because they make sure their organizational structure includes four key characteristics:

  • Proper tone at the top
  • An empowered leadership team
  • Staff buy-in
  • Competent volunteers

PSK LLP has provided this article as a resource to help churches prevent fraud.
We can help you with your specific needs by calling us at 817.664-3000 (Toll Free: 800.424.5790)
or email Verne at verne@pskcpa.com

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