Finding Hidden Income and Assets

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Cases of financial fraud often focus on the core issue of where the money went. Successfully carrying out a fraud scheme involves not only taking the money, but covering up the fraud and hiding the money trail. Recent headlines have consumers wondering how someone like John Corzine of MF Global could have no idea where hundreds of millions of dollars went. But skilled financial investigators know there is always a trail, and while the money may or may not be recovered, it can be located.

Cases involving allegations of security fraud, money laundering, misappropriation of assets, income tax fraud, and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) violations require investigators to follow a money trail. However, sometimes it is difficult to know where to start, or where to continue when you’ve come to an apparent dead end.

Third Party Records

Regardless of the type of case for which there is a need to trace the flow of funds, the most reliable source of information is third party records. The records of an alleged fraudster are always suspect. How are we to know if the accounting records have been manipulated?

In contrast, records from a disinterested third party are much more likely to be authentic and to tell the truth about the money. The most common and reliable sources of third party records are banks, brokerage houses, and credit card companies. Except in rare cases in which a secret relationship facilitates the manipulation of these records, they will tell us exactly where money came from and where it went.

Do you know where to start getting these records? It may be simple in the case of a bona fide business with one or two sets of books. Even if the accounting records are manipulated or altered in some way, the records will likely point to financial institutions that hold at least some of the company’s money. The first place to start is the accounts disclosed by the target of the investigation or the accounts documented in the target’s records.

If we’re tracking down a fraudster with no disclosed or confirmed accounts, we will have to be creative. It’s not practical to subpoena every bank in existence, so some precision is required in our investigation. We must look to parties other than the target for information on accounts and activities of the scammer.

For example, an investor in a Ponzi scheme may have canceled checks relating to his investment, and the information on the back of the checks can go a long way in telling us what banks the target was using. Gather together the documentation of multiple victims of the Ponzi scheme, and suddenly several financial institutions used by the fraudster may be revealed. We can then get those records and dig through them to find evidence of other accounts used.

Detailed Analysis

A skilled fraudster is going to tangle a very intricate web of accounts, transactions, people, and entities. Money is intentionally bounced from bank to bank, account to account, and entity to entity in varying amounts with seemingly random timing. These things make it difficult to trace the flow of money and to tie funds to any particular act or scheme.

A capable investigator is going to be able to unravel the mess and make sense of the money movements. This isn’t easy, especially when the number of involved bank or brokerage accounts climbs. Cataloging individual transactions is simple. The more institutions, accounts, and entities involved, the greater the complexity of the analysis.

The difficulty is in ensuring that all accounts and all time periods have been analyzed, and all transactions between these accounts are properly documented. It is easy to get so caught up in the details of individual transactions, that the investigator could lose sight of the big picture. This could result in a failure to analyze all transactions, a missed link between accounts, an overlooked payment to an outside party that be a smoking gun, or a failure to have a complete and accurate tracing of money through the web of accounts.

Don’t think of this as simply a data entry exercise. It is much more than that, and it is a critical part of prosecuting or defending a fraud case. It’s easy for just about anyone to look at one bank statement or check copy and tell me where the money went. It is another thing entirely to look at 100 bank accounts over a period of three or five years and get a complete picture of the flow of funds over time.

Dead End?

What happens when you seem to have come to a dead end in the money trail? There is usually no such thing as a dead end unless you’ve come to a piece of real estate, a boat, an airplane, or a sizable bank account that can be seized (or at least tied up in the legal system for the foreseeable future). Whether a case is civil or criminal, part of the endgame will be recovering the proceeds of the fraud. In many cases, it is the most critical thing, especially for the victims.

If frequent small transactions are all you are seeing, and there is no apparent pot of gold, you just haven’t found the right information yet. Somewhere within all this evidence is a clue to a piece of real estate that was purchased with illicit funds. A payment to a municipality, a utility company, a real estate attorney, or a construction company may hint to the existence of real estate. A payment for a registration fee, to a fuel company, or to an insurance company might lead us to the existence of a luxury yacht.

Again, the key will be to dig deep into the details of the financial transactions without losing sight of the big picture. As questions are raised regarding certain transactions, the investigation still must continue through the remaining transactions. Although one lead may look promising, it should not be the reason to stop going down other roads that may lead to the discovery of other valuable information.

Pulling It All Together

Equally as important as wading through a financial labyrinth skillfully is presenting the findings in a way in which non-accountants can understand it. Attorneys, judges, and juries may need to understand the flow of money in the scheme, so telling a story about the money is critical.

The best way to communicate results to people with varying levels of accounting and financial sophistication is with three approaches: words, numbers, and pictures. The financial investigator should start with an explanation of the work completed and the findings and conclusions. Then set forth summary tables of the most important numbers that are discussed, followed by charts and graphs that further demonstrate the findings. This gives the user an opportunity to see a picture of what has been explained about the disposition of funds or relationships between entities.

When these three approaches are combined, it is much easier for a reader to understand the conclusions that have been drawn after an exhaustive financial analysis. After all, a complex analysis and conclusion that is helpful to your case is not worth anything if the important people can’t understand the opinions and how they were reached.

Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, CFF is a forensic accountant and fraud investigator with Sequence Inc. in Milwaukee and Chicago. She has conducted hundreds of high-stakes investigations involving financial statement fraud, securities fraud, investment fraud, tax fraud, and criminal defense. Tracy is the author of Expert Fraud Investigation: A Step-by-Step Guide and Essentials of Corporate Fraud, and has been qualified as an expert witness in both state and federal courts. She can be reached at [email protected] or 312.498.3661.

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Herbalife $HLF CEO Michael Johnson on Recruiting

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michael-johnson-herbalife-recruitingLast week a video was posted to YouTube showing Herbalife CEO Michael Johnson talking about recruiting. Herbalife had the video pulled from YouTube on the basis of copyright infringement. That is most certainly a bogus claim. I’m not an attorney, but I’m smart enough to understand the concept of fair use:

In its most general sense, a fair use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and “transformative” purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work. Such uses can be done without permission from the copyright owner. In other words, fair use is a defense against a claim of copyright infringement. If your use qualifies as a fair use, then it would not be considered an illegal infringement.

The clip was a part of a longer video (about 71 minutes long) was first reported on in June 2015 by Michelle Celarier at the NY Post. The video clip posted last week was about a minute and a half long, and it was posted in order for people to comment upon it. No one was trying to steal some copyrighted materials from Herbalife and infringe on that copyright. Instead, the whole point was to expose what Michael Johnson said about Herbalife’s recruiting.

So why would Herbalife want to make a bogus copyright claim? Because the clip of CEO Michael Johnson put the company in a really bad light. And we can’t have that! Continue reading

Herbalife Report: “Pyramid Shakedown”

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herbalifeThis week New York State Senator Jeff Klein and Public Advocate Letitia James issued a scathing report on multi-level marketing company Herbalife (NYSE: HLF). The report, The Amercian Scheme: Herbalife’s Pyramid ‘Shake’down, is based on complaints filed by 56 Herbalife victims. It definitively calls the company a pyramid scheme and highlights the company’s deceptive practices.

The key findings include:

  • Since 2004, only 56 Herbalife victims in New York have been brave enough to file complaints against the company. Most victims are afraid of betraying family, friends, and neighbors.
  • The 56 victims that have filed complaints reported nearly $1 million in financial losses ranging from $90 to $100,000. The average amount loss was approximately $20,000.
  • Over 60 percent of new members make initial investments larger than the required $60 to $100 for the new member kit. The average initial investment is $1,800, but some are as high as $10,000.
  • Herbalife distributors purport that supervisors can make as much as $20,000 in monthly income.
  • Of 56 complaints analyzed, only eight victims received a check directly from Herbalife for their royalty claims. The average amount was $100.

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Advocare: What You Should Know

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Written by: Advocare Facts

AdvoCare is a multi-level-marketing company (MLM), founded in 1993 by Charles Ragus. Charlie once worked as a regional vice president for Fidelity Union Insurance while being a distributor for Herbalife. In 1989 Charlie co-founded Omnitrition International. Similar to AdvoCare, Omnitrition sold nutritional supplements, vitamins and skin care products. Charlie sold out after only a few years when Omnitrition became embroiled in controversy for being a pyramid scheme. The resulting lawsuit, Webster v. Omnitrition International Inc has become a landmark case in the MLM industry.

AdvoCare claims to provide physical and financial wellness through the sale of sports performance, nutritional, weight control, and skincare products (AdvoCare). Similar to other MLM companies, such as Mary Kay, Vemma, and Herbalife, they recruit distributors to sell their products via word of mouth and face-to-face sales, all the while promoting the idea that wealth and success can be obtained by anyone that adheres to their business model. Continue reading

Consumers Looking for a “Good” MLM

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psaRobert FitzPatrick of Pyramid Scheme Alert is bombarded every week by consumers who want to ask him, “What about this MLM?”

You see, the marketers of multi-level marketing companies have gotten very savvy. They know that plenty of us have figured out their con game. They now have consumers convinced that theirs is “one of the good ones.” They’ve convinced consumers that they’ve seen the “bad” MLMs, and that theirs is surely one of the “good” MLMs. (Yet they never tell consumers which ones are the “bad” ones, do they? Why is that?) Continue reading

MLM “Top Earners”: Making Money Off the Backs of Others

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Do you think it’s only the “bad” people who do bad things in multi-level marketing? Those who frontload new recruits, dial for dollars at the end of the month (i.e. get people to order products they don’t need), talk only about their highest commission check, lie about how profitable the MLM is for them, or hide the debt they incurred via their MLM?

Unfortunately, these problems are systemic in multi-level marketing. These are the things that must be done to get to the upper levels and to stay there. What about those “national sales directors” or “diamond executives” or “founders sapphires”??? They’ve just done more frontloading and general deception. They all lie. It is how things are done in MLM.

Listen to this former Mary Kay sales director, who was only a step away from becoming an national sales director when she walked away. On ABC’s 20/20, she explained how her “success” was at the expense of other women.

Looking Behind the Numbers in Litigation

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Written by Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, CFF

Nearly every lawsuit has a financial component to it. In many cases, the issues surrounding the numbers have high stakes. Cases involving securities fraud, money laundering, tax fraud, investment fraud, and Ponzi schemes rely on an accurate tabulation and evaluation of the numbers. To take the numbers as provided by the other side at face value, however, would be a huge mistake.

In fact, there is almost always a story behind the numbers. A case may very well be won or lost based on the ability to find out the story, which is often hidden from view. How, then, can a party best get to the truth? Continue reading

Pink Truth and Mary Kay on ABC’s 20/20

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pinktruth_on_2020Tune in to 20/20 on ABC on Friday October 2  for a story on the truth behind Mary Kay’s multi-level marketing “opportunity.” MLM is not a business opportunity, it’s a clever scam that has been made to look like a business. Host Rebecca Jarvis takes a look at long-time multi-level predator Mary Kay Cosmetics. Those on the side of MLM say you can make “unlimited” money on your own terms, while those who are on the opposite side have found that 99% of distributors actually lose money.

Over 9 years ago, I started the website “Pink Truth” to help educate consumers about the truth behind Mary Kay Inc. Four long-time Pink Truth members were interviewed at length for they story. They were all sales directors, and therefore part of the “top 2% of Mary Kay.” These women are part of the Mary Kay Cosmetics success story. Or are they? The truth is that the majority of the sales directors are barely making a minimum wage living, while some of them are actually losing money.

This story digs into the Mary Kay con that has been crafted and refined for over 50 years. Please take the time to watch this story. And if you have any friends or family involved in multi-level marketing, please encourage them to watch too.

Protecting the Work Product of an Expert Witness

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Written by Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, CFF

Wisconsin Law Journal

One often overlooked key to successfully working with an expert witness is the protection of privilege and work product. Until the expert is actually disclosed to the other side, it’s in the best interest of the client to make sure that the expert’s work is protected.

While no airtight accountant-client privilege exists, it is still possible to protect communications when an accountant (or other expert) is working with an attorney on a litigation matter. Continue reading