by Ed Zwirn

A Short Course in Finance Fraud

Dec 06, 20113 mins

A paper by a business law professor details how to perpetrate all kinds of frauds -- and get away with them.

“The most disquieting aspect” of the corporate frauds of recent memory “isn’t the massive amounts of money that was looted from the victimized companies,” writes Harvey Gilmore, a professor of taxation and business law at New York’s Monroe College, in the Journal of Business & Securities Law. “Instead, the truly unnerving fact regarding most financial frauds is that they are deceptively easy to formulate and sometimes even easier to implement.”

And Gilmore goes on at length to show how tantalizingly easy defrauding a company can be. In his paper, “This is Not a Symposium on How to Commit Fraud — But, If It Were…,” the professor shows how to successfully execute scams, from cashing company checks, to falsifying credentials, to conducting and concealing Ponzi schemes, to cooking books.

“In keeping with the general premise that one has to think like a criminal in order to catch a criminal (without becoming one of course), one has to always remember that the key to committing a successful financial fraud always lies in the details,” the professor says.

Gilmore — who had another project, on the perils of Sarbanes-Oxley for the CFO and CEO, featured in a blog here last week — this time offers up some details from recent fraud cases, including that of Refco and its CEO, Phillip R. Burnett. Burnett directed a “series of well-timed, yet simple, accounting entries” that enabled the company to take $430 million of bad debt off its books in 2005.

Every quarter, Bennett would have Refco Capital, a subsidiary, lend money to a third party, which would then lend that money to another corporation in which he was the sole shareholder, which would in turn give the cash to Refco in payment of the debts. After the company’s outside auditor completed its quarterly examination of Refco books, the transaction was quietly reversed. “The end result is an isosceles triangle in which money owed to Refco was in fact paid by Refco!”

It is perhaps a sign of the cynicism of the times that a law journal article is prefaced by a quote from “The Godfather” (“A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than 100 men with guns.”)

But the thrust of this paper, the author maintains, is altruistic: “I am not deliberately giving a clinic on how to commit fraud (title notwithstanding),” he writes. “Knowledge is power. Therefore, take the information in these pages and be sure to use it as agents for the forces of good.”