Thursday, December 8, 2016

Wells Fargo Incentives Lead to Fraud

Wells Fargo, one of the largest banks in America, was fined $185 million for the company’s fraudulent selling practices. A Wall Street Journal article1 reports, “Federal regulators announced that Wells Fargo opened as many as two million deposit and credit-card accounts without customers’ knowledge.” Many former employees of the bank attribute the widespread fraud to the incentive structure and the pressure received from managers to reach the company’s ambitious sales targets.

Wells Fargo has been envied by its competitors for its high return on equity, with greater relative profits than other leading financial institutions such as J.P. Morgan. This success is a result of the focus on cross-selling more products (i.e. different financial services) per customer, a strategy it has faithfully followed since 1999.

However, some managers’ fierce dedication to this strategy led many lower level employees to create dummy accounts. Sales progress was closely monitored, requiring updated reports several times a day. Not meeting your targets was not something to be taken lightly, as many lower and mid-level managers lost their jobs due to their inability to consistently achieve their goals.

The account representatives and account managers also felt immense personal pressure to achieve sales goals due to the monetary incentives attached to their targets. With low base salaries those bonuses became very significant and highly desirable. A Harvard Business Review article3 explains how this type of incentive structure entices employees to make minor ethical compromises which then escalate and spread from there. The article reads:
“Consider the following sequence: A bank account manager, under pressure to make a sales goal to receive his bonus, pushes a customer to add a credit card, even though the account manager knows it’s not in the customer’s interest. Still short of the goal, the account manager asks his friends and family to open accounts. (The accounts are to be closed shortly thereafter.) With the goal still not achieved, the account manager opens accounts without asking customers and transfers a small amount of money. (The accounts are closed shortly thereafter and the money is transferred back.) As soon as the account manager gets away with the first unethical act, it’s not a big step to the fraudulent ones. The justification moves from ‘it’s legal’ to ‘no one is harmed’ to ‘no one will notice.’ When such practices are tolerated, they escalate in severity and spread throughout the organization.”
Wells Fargo’s CEO, John Stumpf, accepted full responsibility in his congressional hearing last week.Over the past five years the bank has fired 5,300 employees for their involvement in fraudulent practices and has hired consultants from PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Accenture as well as several law firms to investigate the situation. However, it seems as though all that effort was too little, too late. 

Mr. Stumpf has received a lot of heat for this scandal, including requests for his resignation and calls for top executive’s compensation to be paid back to those negatively affected. Some have even questioned his competency as the CEO of such a large bank. The WSJ article1 previously mentioned goes on to state, “In the 2010 annual report, Mr. Stumpf said he often was asked why Wells Fargo had set a cross-selling goal of eight retail banking products per customer. “The answer is, it rhymed with ‘great,’ he wrote. ‘Perhaps our new cheer should be: ‘Let’s go again, for ten!’” 

The bank said it will “scrap all product-based sales goals in its retail branches starting January 1.”1  It is unclear why they are waiting until next year to implement this change aimed to alleviate the pressure experienced by employees that led them to these illegal practices.  Hopefully this scandal will help other companies see more clearly that extreme commitments to aggressive goals can potentially lead to fraud.

1.     http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-wells-fargos-high-pressure-sales-culture-spiraled-out-of-control-1474053044
2.   http://www.wsj.com/articles/wells-fargo-ceo-stumpf-i-accept-full-responsibility-for-unethical-sales-practices-1474326173
3.   https://hbr.org/2016/09/wells-fargo-and-the-slippery-slope-of-sales-incentives

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Combating Cheating in the Classroom

Online resources students may use for cheating

Have you ever heard of websites such as Course Hero, Quizlet, or Koofers? If you have, you may know that while these websites can provide some advantages for honest students, they also provide an opportunity for some students to cheat. A recent presentation by a professor at Brigham Young University (BYU) highlighted several concerns about these study websites. After searching the websites, thousands of assignments, quizzes, and exams were discovered posted on the various sites. While it may be okay to post student notes, flash cards, or even class slides depending on professors’ instructions, posting assignments, quizzes, and exams is likely a violation of copyright laws.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Whose Job is it Anyway? Are Auditors Expected to Detect Fraud?

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal details what could be one of the only legal cases from the great recession to actually go to trial. Taylor Bean & Whitaker Mortgage Corp. is suing PriceWaterhouseCoopers LLP (PWC) for $5.5 billion dollars claiming that PWC was negligent in auditing one of their clients. While PWC didn’t audit Taylor Bean, they did audit a bank with which Taylor Bean did frequent business--Colonial Bank (Colonial). Taylor Bean overdrew its accounts with Colonial for several years to cover cash shortfalls, then sold fake pools of mortgages to Colonial in order to cover up the fraud. Taylor Bean claims PWC was negligent in auditing Colonial, and that the collapse of Colonial led to them losing billions of dollars. The real question is how liable should auditors be for detecting fraud?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

HSBC Holdings Receives Nothing More Than a Slap on the Wrist

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal talks about the Justice Department’s decision to not pursue charges against HSBC for allegations made in 2012. HSBC is a major bank in the UK that admitted to neglecting to spot proceeds from drug trafficking in Mexico and also did not flag transactions by countries under economic sanctions. Rather than being prosecuted, the bank was allowed to admit guilt, improve its controls, and make a few other minor changes. Both Republican and Democrat lawmakers view the decision as a slap in the wrist for a company that admitted to engaging in extreme illegal activity. While former Attorney General Eric Holder says his remarks were misinterpreted (see below), the fact that HSBC is no longer being prosecuted lends credence to the idea that the government seems incapable of handling corruption within some of the world’s largest corporations.


See this previous post for a further discussion on companies being too big to fail.
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Friday, August 5, 2016

Fraud Prevention in the Banking Industry

According to a recent article on Bloomberg, banks are considering using blockchain technology, the same platform used in bitcoin transactions. This change could prevent losses that are due to one particular type of fraud. Some companies are applying for and receiving financing from multiple banks, but are using the same invoice as proof of collateral for all of the banks. This allows the company to receive much more financing than they should be able to receive, and the banks lose a lot of money if the company defaults on their loan. This fraud is similar to if an individual were to receive several mortgages from various banks for a single house. If the individual were to default on their mortgage, they would keep a lot of cash, and the banks would each be left with only a portion of a house as collateral. The losses due to this financing fraud have been close to $700 million for banks such as Standard Chartered Plc and JPMorgan Chase.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Expert Witnesses in the Armstrong Case: Are their Opinions Valid?



It’s been over three years since Lance Armstrong admitted to doping throughout his career, but the lawsuit between the United States Postal Service (USPS) and Armstrong continues. The main question that is still unresolved is whether or not the USPS actually suffered losses due to sponsoring Armstrong with more than $30 million between 1998 and 2004. If the USPS can prove they experienced losses due to sponsoring Armstrong and subsequently learning of Armstrong’s doping, then they will have strong evidence to win the case. On the other hand, if Armstrong can prove that the USPS didn’t experience any loss, he will have a better chance at winning the case. How is the dispute resolved? By hiring expert witnesses at $700 – 900 per hour.

Monday, April 18, 2016

New Detection Method Could Have Caught Lance Armstrong

There are several articles on Fraudbytes discussing doping in professional sports, but is there a way to stop doping? A recent article on road.cc discusses research that claims it could have caught Lance Armstrong. The current methods for detecting drugs in an athlete’s system are extremely sophisticated (i.e., if there was a drop of drugs in an Olympic sized pool, they would detect that drop). However, they are only able to detect the drug if it was used in the last 48 hours. According to Yannis Pitsiladis, a professor of sport and exercise science with a particular interest in genetics, his new method can detect if the athlete has doped in the past several months and, potentially, even years.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Financial Crime Registry: Will it Deter Fraud and Improve Restitutions?

Every state in the United States has a sex offender registry that is publicly available for everyone to see in order to identify people who have been convicted of a sex crime in the past. Could such an approach also prove effective at lowering financial crime rates? A recent article in The Wall Street Journal discusses the creation of a White Collar Crime Offender Registry in Utah. Utah is the first state to implement such a registry, making them, according to the article, the “most aggressive jurisdiction in the country when it comes to publicly shaming financial criminals.” The registry will list first time offenders of financial crime for five years, second time offenders for ten years, and third time offenders will never have the option of being removed. In addition, convicts who fully comply with court orders and pay their restitutions in full will not be added to the list.

Friday, March 25, 2016

How to Avoid Being Asked to Commit Fraud

A recent article in The Economist discusses how to avoid being asked to commit fraud. It can be very uncomfortable if your manager asks you to alter the books or do anything that is unethical. Often there are not only repercussions for committing the fraud (i.e., fines or jail time), but also for not committing the fraud (21% of employees who reported unethical behavior at work said they experienced some form of punishment from their employer). If you refuse to commit a fraud, your manager may choose not to promote you or may even fire you.  Rather than refusing to commit a fraud, the best scenario for an employee would be to never be asked to commit a fraud. A study that was done by Dr. Sreedhari Desai (professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) found one approach that dissuades managers from asking employees to engage in unethical behavior.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Doping and Match Fixing: Has Tennis Crossed the Line?

News of professional tennis player Maria Sharapova failing a drug test at the Australian Open has spread rapidly, especially since tennis is generally considered a more sophisticated sport, and people don’t usually think of tennis players when they think about athletes that are doping (see the video below of the press conference where Sharapova made the announcement). While Sharapova says that the drug she was taking was a medicine given to her for health reasons that was only just recently banned by WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency), she still takes responsibility for taking it after it became a banned substance. Additionally, this situation has brought to light other instances of potential fraud in professional tennis, including doping and fixing matches.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Advances in Technology for Auditing Firms: KPMG to Announce Deal with IBM Watson


A recent article in The Wall Street Journal discussed the technological improvements among auditing firms (KPMG in particular). KPMG is expected to announce an alliance with IBM to use their artificial-intelligence technology, IBM Watson, which will allow KPMG to audit all of the data for their clients rather than only samples of the data. The technology is not meant to replace human auditors, but will help them know where abnormalities may exist in the client’s books.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Ponzi Scheme in China: $7.6 Billion Lost

A recent article in The Economist elaborates on a massive Ponzi scheme that recently collapsed in China and caused 900,000 investors to lose about $7.6 billion.

Ponzi schemes are not new in China. In fact, China’s current lack of regulation in the peer-to-peer lending industry has created an environment ripe for fraud. This article points out how the lack of government regulation can lead to an economic environment where investors find it nearly impossible to distinguish between fraud schemes and legitimate businesses. We can also learn a few additional things from this Ponzi scheme that might help investors identify when something really is too good to be true.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Program Makes its Annual Report to Congress

The Whistleblower Program was instituted in August of 2011 with the purpose of incentivizing people with inside, original information about potential securities law violations to come forward and share that information with the SEC. In order to incentivize whistleblowers, the Whistleblower Program may award whistleblowers an amount between 10% and 30% of the monetary sanctions collected. The Whistleblower Program recently released its 2015 annual report to Congress.

Some interesting things from the report are the following:

Monday, December 21, 2015

Martin Shkreli: The Downward Spiral of Fraud and Greed

Martin Shkreli, former CEO of a pharmaceutical company is known for buying up old drugs and immediately raising the price to consumers by as much as 5,000% overnight. He recently raised the price of one drug that treats a devastating infection in babies and people with AIDS from $13.50/pill to $750/pill. Mr. Shkreli has often spoken out against critics, and has become known as the “bad boy of pharmaceuticals,” portrayed by his excessive greed. On December 17th, Mr. Shkreli was arrested for securities fraud and wire fraud charges, not because he raised prices so quickly in his current company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, but because of fraud he committed in two prior hedge funds and a previous biopharmaceutical company, Retrophin.

Mr. Shkreli lied to investors for both of his hedge funds while losing millions of dollars. He then paid them off by using funds from Retrophin without consent from the board of directors. Throughout the process, he and a partner fabricated consulting agreements so that external auditors would not be suspicious of the transactions taking place between Retrophin and the investors of the two hedge funds. This article from The New York Times and the video below (posted by the Associated Press) give more information about what Mr. Shkreli did and what he has been charged for.