Having started as a bookkeeper and worked his way (fifteen years later) to become controller of the Bunz in the Oven family owned business, Swendoll Hugh felt underpaid and under-appreciated by Bertha Bunz and her highly successful business. When Swendoll’s grandmother passed away, he “borrowed” funds from Bunz in the Oven to cover funeral expenses. Easily repaying the money without detection, Swendoll “borrowed” again and again, and eventually quit repaying the “loans” amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars. What’s the crime? How could that have happened? What might Bertha and Bunz in the Oven have done to discover Swendoll Hugh’s embezzlement earlier?
It’s a crime to steal all or part of the money or property entrusted to you for management or monitoring. Beyond merely stealing, embezzlement is also a violation of a special position of trust. For embezzlement of money or property valued over $200,000, Texas penalties include a fine of up to $10,000, at least five (and up to 99) years in prison, or both.
Embezzlement often occurs when there is a lack of accounting controls. For smaller companies with minimum gross revenues, missing money is more obvious and the cost to implement necessary controls may be cost prohibitive. Yet, as the company and its gross revenues grow, so must accounting controls.
Embezzlement can be as simple as issuing and then voiding a check to a customary vendor at a time when the expense is expected, and then issuing a check for an identical amount to cover personal expenses. According to news accounts, that’s exactly what the controller of Collin Street Bakery did on his way to stealing nearly $17 million from the landmark Corsicana business.
Look for These 4 Warning Signs.
Beyond making prudent accounting changes to match your business success—and avoiding placing trusted employees into a predicament tempting their violation of company trust—these warning signs should alert you to be more vigilant:
- Significant Lifestyle Changes. Just like the Collin Street Bakery controller who spent millions on watches, cars and vacation homes, that were noticed and ignored for years, unexplained upgrades in automobiles, exotic vacations and expensive apparel merit close attention and perhaps investigation.
- Financial Difficulties. Employees with constant financial troubles have a greater incentive to steal and can generally rationalize almost any behavior when faced with enough pressure from friends, family and creditors. Often not intending to commit fraud, many act out of desperation.
- Never Wants to Take a Vacation. Certain types of fraud have to be monitored to maintain and remain undetected. The perpetrator will be unwilling to take a vacation and risk detection.
- Constantly Works Overtime and Wants to Take Work Home. Embezzlers often avoid the watchful eyes of co-workers. They need privacy and might work late or take work home to eliminate unannounced visits from fellow employees when dealing with incriminating evidence.
Tilting the Scales in Your Favor.
Trust but verify. Be vigilant. And, be careful. Your self-indulging employee may have won the lottery or inherited from a rich uncle. It might be prudent to offer aid to an employee with a sudden death in the family. Cross-train employees so that trusted, dedicated employees can confidently go on vacation knowing that a competent co-worker is filling in. Consider re-arranging the workloads of those constantly working overtime to improve their work-life balance. Explore the value of both a periodic financial audit by your outside accounting company and their examination of your appropriate financial safeguards.