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How to Become a Forensic Accountant

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Although homicide, theft, and drug-dealing appear to take the lion’s share of conspicuous criminal prosecutions, Americans are increasingly aware of a more insidious form of misconduct: white-collar crime. Even before the Great Recession—the era of subprime mortgages, inflated corporate bonuses, and rampant 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 2018) found that typical organizations lose 5 percent of their revenues to misconduct annually, or around $4 trillion when projected across institutions globally.

There are 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 (2018) found the highest proportion of misbehavior among three sectors: banking & financial services, manufacturing, and government & public administration. And not surprisingly, average losses increased as a function of the perpetrator’s level of power or authority in an organization.

To expose these financial abuses, forensic accountants perform a number of functions. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), forensic accountants exercise a number of functions including analyzing financial records to create profiles and detailed reports; ensuring compliance with government and accounting regulations (e.g., GAAP); tracing income sources and transaction histories; working with case agents in structured interviews of suspects; preparing search warrants or affidavits to more thoroughly investigate cases; and testifying as expert witnesses in court cases.

These forensic professionals 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 a wide range of cases such as 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 can be employed full-time for government agencies, insurance companies, banks, and police departments, or may be hired as contractors to investigate when suspicions of misconduct arise.

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. Read on to discover how much money these forensics professionals typically make, as well as the steps to joining this career in white collar crime-fighting.

Featured Fraud & Forensic Accounting Programs

Southern New Hampshire University - BS in Accounting: Forensic Accounting & Fraud Examination
Southern New Hampshire University - MS in Accounting: Forensic Accounting
Utica College - Online MS in Financial Crime & Compliance Management
Stevenson University - Master's in Forensic Accounting
Stevenson University - Forensic Accounting Graduate Certificate

Forensic Accountant Career Outlook

The BLS (2017) reports that accounting is a profession on the rise. In fact, there will be a projected 10 percent increase in openings for accountants and auditors between 2016 and 2026, a growth-rate substantially higher than that anticipated for all occupations during that time period (7 percent).

In the survey entitled “Compensation Guide for Anti-Fraud Professionals,” the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE 2017-2018, report available for download) found that forensic accountants are among the highest paid accounting professionals. In fact, they reported higher average annual salaries than four related accounting job functions—fraud examiners, compliance officers, external auditors, and internal auditors—reporting the following salary ranges:

  • 25th percentile: $63,000
  • 50th percentile (median): $89,868
  • 75th percentile: $128,000

The ACFE (2017-2018) also reported that having professional certifications can enhance a person’s earning potential. By illustration, certified fraud examiners (CFEs) made 31 percent more than their non-certified colleagues.

Education and Professional Certification Requirements

Forensic accountantcs typically have at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field. For the forensic specialty, many will also choose to purse a more advanced degree or certificate program in order 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 state require 150 hours of experience before one is able to sit for the CPA exam. Students in a four-year bachelor’s degree program typically earn around 120 hours of applicable training. 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 in order to further their career prospects. Details about potential certifications are available in the section below.

Steps to Become a Forensic Accountant

There are varied paths to becoming a forensic accountant, but the vast majority have at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting, finance, economics, business, or a related field. As proof of point, O*NET—a data organization partnered with US Department of Labor—found that 79 percent of surveyed accountants held bachelor’s degrees and another 5 percent had master’s degrees.

Here is one possible path to becoming a forensic accountant:

  • Step 1: Graduate from high school. 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 in order 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 (4 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. In addition to the programs listed on the forensic accounting education page, there is a wealth of options to consider.

    Some schools such as John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City provide fraud examination as a minor to qualified undergraduate students. These students receive training in fraud examination, forensic accounting, and white-collar crime. As part of their 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, it may be advisable to pursue a degree in a related discipline such as accounting, business, or finance. For example, the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) provides a top-notch undergraduate program in accounting through its famous Wharton School of Business. Offering advanced instruction in financial accounting, tax planning and administration, and corporate valuation, UPenn’s bachelor’s degree in accounting is competitive and prestigious.

    Also, although the majority of these programs are on-campus, there are online programs available such as the one at Franklin University. For more information on distance-based programs, please visit the online forensics programs page.

    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 there are several institutions which provide accreditation. For accounting and business, the primary programmatic accreditation body is the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).

  • 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 score of 75 out of 99.
  • Step 4: Garner professional experience, especially in forensic accounting, internal auditing, fraud detection, white-collar crime investigations, and other relevant areas (1-3 years). Prior to 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, as well as 75 hours of continuing professional education (CPE) in 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 applicable professional experience in internal auditing, criminology, fraud investigation, or loss prevention. The exam costs $350 and tests subjects’ knowledge in four areas: fraud prevention & deterrence, financial transactions & fraud schemes, investigation, and law.

    Finally, the Institute of Internal Auditors (IAI) provides the certified internal auditor (CIA) certification, as well as 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 2 years). Once forensic accountants have established themselves professionally, they may choose to enroll in a graduate degree or certificate program. Admissions committees typically 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, the University of West Virginia offers a hybrid (i.e., online and on-campus mix) master’s program in forensic accounting. The MFAcc—ideal for working professionals—requires two on-campus residencies of two days each and interdisciplinary coursework in criminology, professional ethics, data analysis methodologies, and more.

    There are also graduate certificates available—online, hybrid, and on-campus—which may sometimes be used to fulfill continuing education requirements to maintain professional licenses and credentials. For example, Georgetown University provides a graduate certificate program in forensic accounting to qualified accountants, internal auditors, fraud investigators, and related professions. This on-campus certificate program has most of its meetings on Saturdays, offering instruction in fraudulent financial reporting, advanced forensic techniques, digital forensic analysis, and fraud in the governmental environment. For more information on graduate programs, please visit the forensic accounting programs page.