Some of the world’s most notorious criminals have been brought to justice with the hard work of forensic accountants, including Al Capone and his conviction for tax evasion. White-collar crime remains insidious and rampant although homicide, theft, and drug trafficking headlines dominate news headlines. Even before the Great Recession—the era of subprime mortgages, inflated corporate bonuses, and economic nepotism—forensic accounting had entered the scene to combat the WorldCom and Enron scandals.
So how widespread are these accounting-based malfeasances? In its most recent “Report to the Nations on Occupational Fraud and Abuse,” the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) found that typical organizations lose 5 percent of their annual revenue to misconduct. The ACFE reports three main types of fraud: asset misappropriations (the most common), corruption, and financial statement fraud (i.e., “cooking the books”), and many cases combine two of the categories.
Among the industries surveyed, ACFE found the highest proportion of misbehavior among three sectors: banking & financial services, manufacturing, and government & public administration. Not surprisingly, average losses increased due to the perpetrator’s level of power or authority in an organization.
To expose financial abuses, forensic accountants perform several functions. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), forensic accountants analyze financial records to create profiles and detailed reports; ensure compliance with government and accounting regulations (e.g., GAAP); trace income sources and transaction histories; work with case agents in structured interviews of suspects; prepare search warrants or affidavits to more thoroughly investigate cases; and testify as expert witnesses in court cases.
Forensic accountants typically begin as certified public accountants (CPAs) and employ similar detecting skills to “follow the money” and build criminal cases when financial statements or records are amiss. In addition to corporate investigations, they are deployed in many cases, including insurance fraud, business valuation, embezzlement, divorce, antitrust suits, credit card fraud, bankruptcy, personal injury claims, money laundering, damage assessments, contract disputes, and even tracking terrorism. They work full-time for government agencies, insurance companies, banks, and police departments, or are hired as contractors to investigate when suspicions of misconduct arise.
Read on to discover how much money these forensics professionals typically make and the steps to joining this career in white-collar crime-fighting.
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The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that accounting is a profession on the rise. From 2020 to 2030, there is a projected 7 percent increase in openings for accountants and auditors—the same as the growth rate expected for occupations nationally during the same period.
In May 2021 the BLS showed the median annual salary for accountants and auditors is $77,250. The lowest 10th percentile earned $47,970 compared to the top 10th percentile earned more than $128,970.
While the BLS does not differentiate the salaries of accountants and forensic accountants, data from Payscale.com (2022) shows that forensic accountants earn average annual salaries of $82,375 based on three self-reported salaries.
In the 2020 survey “Compensation Guide for Anti-Fraud Professionals,” the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (CFEs) found that forensic accountants are the highest-paid accounting professionals. Highlights from the report include:
The biannual survey illustrates that having professional certifications can enhance a person’s earning potential. Read on to learn more about certifications in the section below.
Forensic accountants typically have at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field, according to the ACFE. For the forensic specialty, many will also choose to pursue a more advanced degree or certificate program to gain more specialized knowledge.
Practicing accountants in any specialty must have the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) credential. Although the specific requirements for this test vary by state, most states require 150 hours of experience before one can sit for the CPA exam. The additional required hours can be earned either in a master’s degree program or a post-baccalaureate internship.
Forensic accountants may also choose to pursue a professional credential such as the Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) credential to further their career prospects. Details about forensic accounting certifications are available in the step-by-step section below.
There are varied paths to becoming a forensic accountant. Still, the vast majority have at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting, finance, economics, business, or a related field.
Here is one possible path to becoming a forensic accountant.
Step 1: Graduate from high school (four years)
Aspiring forensic accountants are encouraged to excel in math, computer science, statistics, and psychology classes. At this stage, some students may choose to intern or volunteer in forensics, accounting, computers, banking, or other relevant fields to enhance their university applications, garner letters of recommendation, and learn job-ready skills which can benefit them further down the road.
Step 2: Attend a bachelor’s program in forensic accounting or a related field (four years)
As stated above, forensic accountants typically have at least a bachelor’s degree. Application requirements for four-year colleges typically include sending official transcripts; having a competitive GPA (e.g., >3.0); completing specific courses (e.g., statistics, calculus, computer science); writing a personal statement; submitting official test scores (e.g., SAT, ACT, or TOEFL for non-native speakers of English); and paying an application fee.
Coursework varies by program emphasis but generally involves instruction in the principles of accounting, fraud auditing, asset misappropriation scams, rules of compliance, quantitative methods & analysis, and general education requirements, among others.
Some schools, such as John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, provide fraud examinations as a minor to qualified undergraduate students. These students receive training in fraud examination, forensic accounting, and white-collar crime. As part of their 18-credit minor, these students cover the material necessary to take the certified fraud examiner (CFE) exam.
While there are some bachelor’s programs in forensic accounting, pursuing a degree in a related discipline such as accounting, business, or finance may be advisable.
For example, the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) provides a top-notch undergraduate program in accounting through its famous Wharton School of Business. UPenn’s bachelor’s degree in accounting is competitive and prestigious and offers advanced instruction in financial accounting, tax planning and administration, and corporate valuation.
In addition to on-campus programs, there are online forensic accounting programs available such as the one at Franklin University. This online 124-credit program offers six and 12-week courses in financial accounting, auditing, principles of finance, and fraud examination. To graduate, students must complete a capstone requirement to evaluate, analyze, and problem-solve a real-world problem in the discipline of forensic accounting.
For more program options, please visit our forensic accounting education page, for a wealth of on-campus, online, and hybrid options.
Step 3: Take the uniform certified public accountant (CPA) examination (timeline varies)
The National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) offers the uniform CPA examination to aspiring (forensic) accountants, which comprises four sections on the fundamentals: auditing & attestation, business environment & concepts, financial accounting & reporting, and regulations. Students must pass this exam with at least a 75 out of 99.
Step 4: Gain professional experience (one to three years)
Before seeking the state-based CPA license and other professional certifications, prospective forensic accountants typically need hands-on experience to complement the didactic instruction of their university education.
Step 5: Seek state CPA licensure and other professional certifications (timeline varies)
First, requirements to get one’s state CPA license vary by state or jurisdiction. For example, in addition to 150 semester hours of qualifying accounting and business courses at the university level, the California Board of Accountancy requires 12 months of experience working in accounting and 500 hours of verifiable work.
The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) provides a convenient table of state requirements for becoming a licensed CPA.
Second, although there is a wide range of additional certifications relevant to forensic accounting, some are more reputable than others.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), for instance, only accepts the following credentials among its applicants in forensic accounting: certified public accounting (CPA), certified financial forensics (CFF-AICPA), certified fraud examiner (CFE), and certified internal auditor (CIA).
The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) provides the Certified in Financial Forensics (CFF) credential. Established in 2008, the exam for this certification is open to qualified CPAs with at least 1,000 hours of experience in forensic accounting over the previous five years and 75 hours of continuing professional education (CPE) in the relevant subject matter.
The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) offers the Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) credentialing exam to bachelor’s-prepared ASFE members with at least two years of professional experience in internal auditing, criminology, fraud investigation, or loss prevention. The exam costs $450 and tests subjects’ knowledge in four areas: fraud prevention and deterrence, financial transactions and fraud schemes, investigation, and law.
Finally, the Institute of Internal Auditors (IAI) provides the Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) certification and four specialty certifications: control self-assessment, government auditing, financial services auditing, and risk management assurance.
Step 6: Pursue a graduate degree in forensic accounting (typically two years)
Once forensic accountants have established themselves professionally, they may choose to enroll in a graduate degree or certificate program. Admissions committees usually call for official transcripts from postsecondary schools with relevant coursework (e.g., accounting, economics, finance, auditing, etc.); a competitive GPA; personal statement; interview (video or in-person); letter(s) of recommendation; and test scores (GRE, GMAT, or TOEFL for non-native speakers of English).
For example, West Virginia University offers a hybrid (i.e., online and on-campus mix) master’s of science program in forensic and fraud examination (MSFFE). The 30-credit MSFFE—ideal for working professionals—can be completed in as few as 12 months and features interdisciplinary coursework in criminology, professional ethics, data analysis methodologies, MBA courses, and more.
For more information on graduate programs, please visit the forensic accounting programs page for on-campus, online, and hybrid options.
Finally, students are advised to seek out accredited programs—those which have met or exceeded quality standards related to faculty, facilities, student support services, and more—and several institutions provide accreditation. Accreditation is offered at the institutional and programmatic levels.
The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is affiliated with the U.S. Department of Education, which oversees institutional accreditation. There are six regional accrediting bodies:
The primary programmatic accreditation body for accounting and business is the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), which accredits 900 business schools in the US and globally.
A second business program accrediting body is the International Accreditation Council for Business Education (IACBE) which accredits over 2,000 business and accounting programs worldwide.
Jocelyn Blore is the chief content officer of Sechel Ventures and the co-author of the Women Breaking Barriers series. She graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley and traveled the world for five years. She also worked as an addiction specialist for two years in San Francisco. She’s interested in how culture shapes individuals and systems within societies—one of the many themes she writes about in her blog, Blore’s Razor (Instagram: @bloresrazor). She has served as managing editor for several healthcare websites since 2015.