Imagine this: You are part of a small historical society with just enough money and volunteers to fulfill your goals. At a board meeting you notice that a financial statement provided by your treasurer, someone you’ve known for years, does not match a bank statement. After the meeting, your treasurer stops taking your calls. You start digging, only to find that thousands of dollars have disappeared from the historical society’s bank account, presumably into the treasurer’s personal bank account.
Betrayed and angry, you report the crime to the police, aware that your file will go into a huge stack on a detective’s desk. But what choice do you have? Your society does not have the thousands needed to hire a Certified Fraud Examiner, nor does anyone in the organization have the time or expertise to decipher the data. The only option is to take the financial loss, try to heal from the betrayal, and move forward.
Until you get a call from a detective in the white-collar crimes unit at the Portland Police Bureau. They offer you another option: a team of college accounting students who will investigate your case and wade through all that data in collaboration with both police and accounting professionals. You have a chance to get your money back, but more importantly, to find closure. For free.
“I have never been in a class that immersed me in such applicable lessons.”
That’s exactly what George Fox University accounting professor Seth Sikkema’s forensic accounting class does. This team of students works real-life cases in special collaboration with the Portland Police Bureau and Oregon Chapter of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, seeking justice for small businesses and nonprofit organizations that have been victims of financial fraud.
Sikkema became interested in financial fraud after working at a public accounting firm affected by the Enron scandal. He was also looking to provide students with real-life experience in the field. “I asked myself, ‘How can I get my students to do something with their hands, so to speak, where they’re working with something that is messy, unstructured and difficult?’” recalls Sikkema.
An answer appeared in a program first developed at Gonzaga University in 2010. After researching the program, Sikkema knew it would closely align with the goals and mission of his university’s College of Business, and in January 2013 the Justice for Fraud Victims Project (JFVP) at George Fox began.
The process starts with Detective Liz Cruthers from the Portland Police Bureau identifying an open fraud case where the victim has significant financial need. These cases have primarily involved nonprofit organizations and small businesses, but could extend to individual or elder care fraud. Cruthers passes the information along to Sikkema and his students, who then work closely with Heidi Bowen, a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) from accounting firm Financial Forensics.
Sikkema calls these “shoebox cases.” “Students are literally given a box of information with receipts, bank records, paper checks, everything that you can imagine – just in a box,” he says. They must then decide what is meaningful to the case, and what is not. This process takes an enormous amount of time and precision. Student Megan Hays remembers spending over six hours at a time “entering credit card statements line-by-line into Excel” while digitizing financial data. Bowen helps the students decipher what is important – piece-by-piece, paper-by-paper.
Special guests from a variety of professional fields are also brought in to help students round out their perspectives on financial crimes. Last spring, the class heard from Kurt Charlton of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, who recently worked on the well-publicized Canby Psychic Case; Aaron Sparling, who works in the Portland Police Bureau’s Criminal Intelligence Unit and serves on the U.S. Secret Service Electronic Crimes Task Force; and Sean Hoar, the former lead cyber attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice in Oregon who currently works with the privacy and data security team of a national law firm.
The lessons learned through this course are vast and varied. First, students gain knowledge of this growing but under-taught field. The experience is invaluable, according to Financial Forensics’ Bowen. “These students are so lucky to have this hands-on, real-world experience,” she says. “Many universities don’t offer training in this type of accounting work, so in addition to giving students a good idea of what the profession actually entails, the experience looks especially impressive on a resume.”
Students also learn the value and satisfaction of hard work. They have the opportunity to collaborate in teams with peers and professionals who depend on work being accurate and timely. “They come away with a better appreciation for the level of effort it will take to maintain and go forward in their careers,” says Sikkema. “In the past, they’ve said things like ‘I didn’t realize I could work this hard and enjoy it so much’ and ‘I had to persevere through all of these challenging times when I didn’t have an answer and I had to continue to wade through it.’” Student Spencer Giles agrees: “I have never been in a class that immersed me in such applicable lessons.”
Sikkema also finds value in the creativity that students develop – not necessarily the first consideration for many accountants. “The people who are out there, who want to do financial damage, they’re creative people and they’ll find a way to do it,” he says. “So our accountants and professionals need to be just as creative and just as able to come up with ways to protect people and look out for their interests.”
Beyond developing students’ professional skills, the program makes a significant impact on the community. These victims, much like the historical society assisted by students this past semester, do not have the financial ability to regain their losses. Sikkema doesn’t usually take the time to quantify the work his students do in dollars and cents, but he estimates the billable work would be in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Perhaps most important, students learn to engage with a vulnerable and violated community that they must approach as professionals with tenacity and compassion. “This project is an excellent way for students to figure out how to serve others ahead of their own needs,” Sikkema says – an outcome that aligns with the College of Business’ emphasis on servant leadership.
“The class is a good example of how college students can give back to the community,” says student Christine Wang. “Having a class like this gives us an opportunity to volunteer, and it integrates the value of justice into higher education.”
At the end of the course, the teams pitch their cases to the Multnomah County District Attorney in an attempt to get him to take them to court. Occasionally, they also meet with the victims, presenting them with recommendations for avoiding future fraud.
That final step sticks with students and professionals alike. “I will always remember the face of the victim when we presented our final findings to him,” says student Ben Fullhart. “He was so appreciative of all of our work, and I could tell it meant so much to him.”
Bowen says that victims who feel betrayed and violated want justice, but they also want to be heard and valued. When these students, dressed in their professional best, provided that same fraud victim with their findings, Bowen remembers seeing on his face that he finally got what he had hoped for. “That was his bit of justice,” she says, “having those students listen to him and spend all that time on his case.”
The legal battle is still to be won, but the victim can find closure and peace in the work that George Fox University’s emerging accounting professionals provide – one shoebox of receipts at a time.