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MIND YOUR BUSINESS

Allen Harris: Embezzling happens more than you think. Here’s how you can protect yourself

Lenox National Bank to be sold to Adams Community Bank (copy)

Two tellers at the former Lenox National Bank pleaded guilty in 2016 to embezzling $378,000 from the institution. Financial institutions are not the only targets; Berkshire municipalities, small businesses and nonprofits all have been targets of theft.

In the book “When to Rob a Bank,” authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner point out some of the downfalls of robbing a bank.

For example, most culprits get caught. Those who evade arrest typically make off with just $4,120. That’s not a big haul, considering the chase, arrest, and conviction rates. Not to mention the possibility of getting shot.

Instead of enduring the anxiety of pulling off a bank heist, the authors point out, you could instead embezzle. Compared to robbing a bank, embezzling is relatively low stress. It can be accomplished reasonably comfortably from the office chair for years, the amount taken is often sizable, and the penalties are much more lenient.

However, embezzlement charges are often not even brought against the criminal. The offenders often escape justice because the victimized organization worries about their reputation and keeps it out of the public. It’s not an unreasonable calculation of risk versus reward. If it goes to court, the guilty are ordered to pay restitution to the business. However, the affected enterprises are infrequently made whole. Over half (52 percent) of the victim organizations never recover any fraud-related losses.

Embezzlement is a crime that hits close to home. The Berkshire Eagle has reported on local crimes, such as embezzlement of $220,000 from Berkshire Bank, $110,000 from TD Bank, and $378,000 from the former Lenox National Bank.

Financial institutions are not the only targets; lawbreakers abscond with cash from municipalities, too. The towns of Monterey and Great Barrington were hit for $25,000 and $200,000, respectively. Nonprofit organizations were not safe either. Cadmus Lifesharing Association, the Christian Center, and Susan B. Anthony Museum were targeted for $8,400, $20,000, and $31,000.

Small businesses tend to be fruitful targets for embezzlers. George Apkin & Sons scrap metal, and O’Connell Oil Associates suffered losses of $1 million and $1.5 million, respectively. These are some of the alleged embezzlements that were revealed, brought to court, and printed in the newspaper. Many of us are aware of other incidents that were kept mum.

According to the National White Collar Crime Center, employee theft and embezzlement cost organizations $400 billion annually. About 44 percent of victim organizations are for-profit businesses, and businesses with fewer than 100 employees are most at risk. The FBI Financial Crimes Report to the Public estimates that financial crimes account for more than thirty percent of all business failures.

According to Hiscox, 70 percent of embezzlements transpired for more than one year, and the average embezzled amount was $357,650. If you become familiar with embezzling tactics, you’ll be able to spot the warning signs and protect your company.

Since the following crimes weren’t taken to court, I’ll change the names. Still, the situations and locations are accurate. The Lenox-based Acme Co. was taken to the cleaners by Tad, their outsourced marketing professional.

Acme advertised in The Print, a local publishing company. The Print would send invoices to Acme. Tad told Acme that he paid those bills as part of his service — but he didn’t. Tad told Acme to make reimbursements by writing checks out to him. The advertisements were in The Print, so it all seemed legitimate.

This crime went on for some time until The Print more forcefully demanded payment. Tad then wrote a few small personal checks to keep The Print at bay while he continued to collect from Acme. Eventually, Acme and The Print caught on to Tad’s shenanigans.

Acme had to write a big check to pay The Print and keep the collection agencies, and possibly the courts, at bay. However, Tad walked away with a pocket full of loot because Acme was afraid that if they told the authorities the publicity would damage their reputation.

A solution would have been for Acme’s accounts payable department to pay invoices directly to The Print instead of paying an intermediary. That may seem obvious in hindsight, but it’s not unusual for outsourced marketing managers to offer comprehensive services, including placing ads and tracking the spending and results.

Twenty years ago, the classic embezzler trick was using a stamp of an executive’s signature. Today, companies “write” checks via electronic bill pay. You want to look for checks made out to unknown vendors. Implicit in that is a fundamental first line of defense — you should take time to review your bank statements. You want to track the outflows (to whom did the payment go?) and the inflows (did you receive what you expected?).

Lydia, the owner of an insurance company in Northampton, separates payment and collection duties. Lydia collects premium payments, but an outsourced bookkeeper pays the bills. The invoices flow to the bookkeeper after Lydia’s office manager approves the invoices. Lydia reviews the monthly bank statements to look for anomalies. These tactics prevent common ploys, such as overbilling customers or faking vendor payments.

Dubious employees can use a company credit card for personal use. Or they can double-dip on a single legitimate expense by paying with the card and then requesting a cash reimbursement for the same cost. Insisting on seeing all receipts and using expense management software such as Certify, Zoho or Tallie, can help prevent this.

Shady characters could collect cash kickbacks from vendors for adding licenses or extending contracts. Contracts should specify that reimbursements are paid to the company, not a representative.

An employee could also commit business identity theft. This occurs when the embezzler uses your company information to secure a line of credit in your business name, then uses the money for personal reasons. Tracking your credit report for signs of new loans or shifts in your credit score can be helpful to spot this. Unfortunately, it’s easier to identify embezzling than to predict it.

Friendly Inc., a Pittsfield-based nonprofit, accepted Jocko, a well-known public servant, to its board. Jocko had check-writing privileges to Friendly. Not all embezzlers are clever; Jocko wrote checks from the nonprofit’s account to make personal purchases. But the point here is that you just wouldn’t have expected this perceived pillar of the community to steal.

Relying on background checks is insufficient. Approximately 83 percent of embezzlers brought to court have never been punished or terminated for fraud-related activity. Instead, you may need to rely on signs of existing misconduct.

For example, employees who fail to take a vacation may be reticent to allow people to cover for them and discover their wrongdoing. Be on the lookout for excessive control issues regarding sharing duties. There should never be a reason why your employee wouldn’t explain transactions. If there is a reluctance, you should consider an audit.

You’re not alone if your company was targeted; embezzlement is prevalent. If you discover theft, don’t hesitate to get the authorities involved.

Allen Harris is the owner of Berkshire Money Management in Dalton. He can be reached at aharris@berkshiremm.com.

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