Stealing a Slice of the Company Pie

"There's no actual proof that theft goes up during difficult economic times," said Tracy Coenen, a certified public accountant and certified fraud examiner with offices in Milwaukee and Chicago. "It may seem like we're hearing about more fraud now, but there are more reasons for it than the economy."

For one thing, we all have fraud on the brain (thanks to folks like Bernie Madoff) and at our fingertips (thanks to the Internet), said Coenen, who's author of the book "Essentials of Corporate Fraud" (Wiley, 2008).

For another, in an effort to tighten their belts, struggling companies are scrutinizing their financial transactions and accounting practices more closely than usual. If an employee's cooking the books, the company's more likely to catch a whiff of it.

"In the last six months, we're seeing a lot of partners stealing from partners," said Chrissie Powers, a forensic accountant with Rea & Associates, Inc., an accounting firm in New Philadelphia, Ohio.

But, she said, "The fraud did not start occurring right when the economy went into a slump. It's been happening over a period of time. A fraud generally occurs over a 24-month period before it's caught."

To Catch a Thief

You might think that reference checks and criminal background checks would help companies weed out deadbeats. But according to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, most employees who steal are first-time offenders: Only 12 percent have been fired by a previous employer for fraud, and only 7 percent have a criminal record.

You might also think that a solid system of financial checks and balances is all a company needs to catch an internal thief. But the ACFE reported in 2008 that 46 percent of workplace plundering is detected by tips from employees, customers and vendors.

So what should you do if you catch a coworker with his or her hand in the corporate cookie jar?

Burke, the HR executive, suggests approaching your colleague with a, "Hey, what are you doing?" After all, there's nothing like a heaping dose of embarrassment to nip dishonesty in the bud.

If you're not comfortable playing McGruff the Crime Dog or you suspect a larger problem, take it to your manager, Burke said.

No need to play the schoolyard tattletale ("Jane's been stealing!"). Instead, tell your boss, "I saw something and I'm wondering if it's appropriate," Burke said.

As for the thieving employees themselves, Powers, the forensic accountant, offers this career advice:

"If they would put as much effort into their work as their [fraudulent] schemes, they would get farther ahead."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.

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