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Although Al Capone is infamous for committing deplorable acts of fraud, vagrancy, bribery, theft, and homicide, he was finally brought to justice by the scrupulous application of a growing subfield of forensics: forensic accounting. In fact, according to the National Association of Forensic Accountants (NAFA), Capone’s conviction for evading taxes is anecdotally the earliest known use of forensic accounting, a discipline which doesn’t deal with blood spatters and DNA analyses, but rather patient examinations of financial crimes such as money laundering, insurance fraud, and embezzlement.
So what can aspiring professionals expect to learn in a forensic accounting program? The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE)—one of the primary certifying agencies for this field—reports that forensic accountants offer a variety of investigative services, including analyzing financial data; tracking illicit funds and hidden assets; valuing businesses; preparing reports; communicating findings to cross-disciplinary teams; assessing damage or negligence; and testifying in court as expert witnesses. This career provides a stimulating blend of criminology, ethics, and data analyses, and was ranked #24 among CNNMoney & Payscale’s 100 “best jobs in America” (2013) for its relatively high pay ($103,000 median annually) and projected 10-year growth of openings (15.7 percent).
Read on to discover what to expect from a forensic accounting degree or certificate program—both on-campus and online—as well as information about professional certification and accreditation.
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There is a wealth of forensic accounting programs for this class of aspiring professionals, ranging from associate of science in forensic accounting (AS-FA) to master of forensic accounting (MFAcc) degrees. For many employers such as the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), it’s advisable for candidates to have at least a bachelor’s degree.
Here are four standout programs in forensic accounting:
The University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY) provides a master of science (MS) in forensic accounting accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). This one-year program—ideal for undergraduate majors in accounting seeking specialized, employment-ready skills—produces graduates who are “highly recruited” by 16 renowned governmental and private organizations internationally. With courses such as financial statement analysis, advanced management accounting, and digital forensics, this SUNY school prepares students to become certified fraud examiners (CFE).
Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri has a master’s degree in forensic accounting with specialized preparation in criminal & civil investigation, forensic analytics, cyber forensics, legal procedure, and internal auditing. Boasting experienced accountants and attorneys among the faculty to impart real-world applications of theory, many Webster graduates have secured employment in accounting firms, private companies, and government agencies. Furthermore, students can earn continuing professional education (CPE) credits as part of the program to be applied to various certifications.
The University of Charleston in West Virginia (UCWV) provides a 14-month hybrid (i.e., campus-based and online) master of forensic accounting (MFAcc) program comprising five distinct learning modules: foundational concepts in forensic accounting, criminology & the legal framework, gathering & analyzing evidence, forensic accounting engagements, and litigation services (including a capstone project). Please note that while much of the coursework is provided online, students are required to meet on campus for eight face-to-face sessions.
The University of Colorado, Denver offers a master of science (MS) in accounting with an auditing and forensic accounting specialization. This program not only imparts the fundamentals of the discipline such as internal auditing, fraud examination, and financial reporting, but also makes students proficient in the US Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) as well as international standards.
Here are common application requirements & prerequisites, courses, and sample programs for each level of forensic accounting program:
In addition to ForensicsColleges.com’s list of online forensic accounting programs, here are four additional options to give prospective students a feel for what to expect:
Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) provides an online bachelor of science (BS) program in forensic accounting and fraud examination. With a focus in the analysis of theft, fraud, and financial malfeasance cases, SNHU imparts a wealth of employment-ready skills to its graduates. Courses include cost accounting, federal taxation, and auditing & forensic accounting. Most notably, this school also offers a 30 percent discount for active-duty service members and their spouses. Finally, SNHU also hosts a master’s program in this field.
Franklin University of Columbus, Ohio offers an online bachelor’s program for aspiring forensic accounting. Franklin not only has top-notch, hands-on coursework in fraud examination, accounting research & analysis, and corporate governance & internal control assessment, but also prepares its graduates to seek national certification (e.g., certified fraud examiner [CFE], certified public accounting [CPA], certified internal auditor [CIA]). As part of the curriculum, students engage in a simulated investigation of a growing company’s questionable financial statements, streamlining the corporate accounting system using the Microsoft® Visio program—the industry-standard software—as well as learning concepts set forth in educational standards by the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), and the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE).
Northeastern University in Boston has an online graduate certificate in forensic accounting. Developed in response to the slew of conspicuous white collar scandals which have rocked the business world, Northeastern’s curriculum teaches awareness of corporate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley 2002 legislation and other financial reform ordinances from 2010. Through four courses—forensic accounting principles, dissecting financial statements, investigative accounting & fraud examination, and litigation support—Northeastern’s 16-credit certificate imparts the fundamentals of the field, teaching students how to identify and collect evidence of financial crimes.
West Virginia University (WVU) in Morgantown offers an online master’s program in forensic and fraud investigation (FFE) comprising six courses: FFE examination skills, fraud investigation, fraud data analysis, fraud criminology & legal issues, advanced analytical techniques, and advanced fraud investigation. Four of these courses parallel those taught as part of WVU’s nationally ranked MBA program. Furthermore, the FFE coursework involves performing real world case studies—analyzing evidence, preparing reports, and presenting evidence orally—as well as offering moot court testimonies. Please note that two short weekend residencies are required as part of this program. Finally, WVU also offers a graduate certificate in this area.
As part of some educational programs, students are offered preparation for various licenses and certifications. As it stands, existing certifications specific to forensic accounting are not as developed or widely recognized as those in general accounting. In fact, Wm. Dennis Huber of Capella University published an article in the Journal of Accounting, Ethics & Public Policy (2011) calling into question the quality, consistency, and vetting processes of these entities, preferring to view them as profit-seeking corporations rather than recognized, valid, certifying entities. As forensic accounting is a relatively new subfield of the discipline, this may change in coming years.
That said, there are three recognized professional certifications provided for forensic accountants:
The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) provides the widely known certified public accountant (CPA) license. Most states require at least a bachelor’s degree to qualify and two years of experience, as well as passing a comprehensive exam. Additionally, this group offers the certified financial forensics (CFF-AICPA) designation created in 2008 to qualified (and licensed) CPAs who have extensive experience in electronic data analysis, fraud prevention & detection, financial statement misrepresentation, and other important areas.
The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) offers the certified fraud examiner (CFE) credential following the completion of an exam which covers four areas: fraud prevention & deterrence, financial transactions & fraud schemes, investigation, and law. CFEs must complete 12 hours of continuing education (CE) annually to maintain the certification and pay a membership fee.
The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) has a certified internal auditor certification (CIA) which was established in 1973. Candidates must hold at least a three- or four-year postsecondary degree to qualify plus two years of experience, or seven years of verifiable experience in the field. Additionally, aspiring CIAs must obtain character reference forms from a supervising, licensed accounting authority.
Prospective forensic accountants are encouraged to verify the accreditation status of their schools and programs.
The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)—an internationally recognized accreditation body for assessing undergraduate and graduate level business and accounting programs—evaluates criteria such as the relevance of the curriculum, the quality of faculty instruction, and opportunities offered to students. Offered to only 5 percent of the world’s 13,000 business schools, this accreditation is a testament to the quality of the program.
In addition to the AACSB, there are six institutional accreditation organizations recognized by the US Department of Education which evaluate entire universities. Organized by region, these agencies include: