Why Fraudsters Do What They Do

By Lowers & Associates,

Most managers and owners eventually discover a case of fraud and abuse in their organization. The fraudster is often a trusted, long-time employee or manager who had or created access to some of the organization’s assets, and helped him or herself to it.

Why does this happen?

The answer is not simply greed, but most, maybe even all, people want things and want more things. There are studies that show an amazingly high proportion of employees or managers have taken small things from their organization. However, there is a line between this petty theft and intentional fraud that a few people cross over.

The Fraud Triangle: A Model for Understanding Fraud

The fraud triangle, created by criminologist Donald Cressey, lays out the three factors that make up a true case of fraud. Like all crime, fraud requires both motive (called “pressure” in most discussions of the fraud triangle) and opportunity. Cressey named two of the legs of his triangle after these, but added a third element—rationalization—that is needed to account for the fact that occupational frauds can go on for a very long time before being discovered. The rationalization allows the fraudster to dull the pain of remorse and carry on as if nothing were wrong.

It’s difficult to explain the incidence of fraud by opportunity. Of course, the crime cannot occur without opportunity, but the same circumstances are available to other people in the organization who do not yield to the temptation. Even the fraudster may be exposed to the opportunity for many years before stepping across the line.

The key to the fraud is pressure. There are as many sources of pressure as there are fraudsters, but the most typical one is financial. Fraudsters may suddenly need money they cannot get quickly enough by saving, perhaps for a debt or loss, or to compensate for a bad investment. Of course, greed plays a role when a desirable lifestyle cannot be supported by income. Some fraudsters may simply feel entitled by a real or perceived slight, by being passed over for a promotion, or other personal affront.

If the pressure is the motivation, then rationalization allows the fraudster to continue to live as a thief. The purpose of rationalization is to justify bad behavior, so it will frame the behavior as a righteous act. For instance, the fraud may be seen as a response of a mistreated small person against a cold, uncaring corporation. Whatever the specifics, think of the fraudster as believing that their gains are just deserts.

Most financial and organizational controls like segregation of duties are aimed at known opportunities. These are generally well known, documented, and taught. However, occupational fraud is almost always done by an insider who knows the controls very well. So, the motivational component is key, and neither internal controls nor external audits are designed to assess motivation.

How well do you know your employees?

Organizational Fraud: The Motivation to Steal

By Lowers & Associates,

fraud week

Ordinary people can do extraordinary things, including committing fraud. The question is, what motivates an ordinary person to morph into a fraudster?

“Pressure,” or motivation, is one of the three causal factors of Donald Cressey’s Fraud Triangle, along with opportunity and rationalization. A quick summary of the theory is that a person commits fraud when under difficult or threatening personal circumstances (pressure) and he or she has access to a valuable target for personal gain (opportunity) that they can justify internally (rationalization).

The pressure factor in fraud risk is idiosyncratic and dynamic. Individuals’ circumstances are as highly varied as their perceptions and reactions are to them. The main thing is that the propensity for fraud emerges when a person’s circumstances create perceived pressure that leads him or her to exploit an opportunity when it appears. In other words, every person in every organization has the potential to commit fraud under the right combination of circumstances. … Continue reading

Opportunity for Fraud: Is Anyone Watching?

By Lowers & Associates,

fraud week

Donald Cressey’s Fraud Triangle historically has received a lot of attention during the ACFE’s Fraud Week and for good reason. It supplies a useful set of analytical distinctions in its three components—opportunity, rationalization, and pressure or motivation—that lead us to look at specific relevant factors that affect fraud in organizations. Understanding the causal forces at work helps us to take steps to address them.

The opportunity for fraud is the most straightforward causal factor for organizations to address because it is rooted in the organization itself. Unlike motivation or rationalization, opportunity does not depend on the potential fraudster’s personal circumstances or state of mind. Therefore, opportunity reduction works regardless of whether or not a potential fraudster exists in the workforce at any given time.

Opportunity has long played a part in the general policy of crime prevention. For example, in the 1980’s, a prominent theory was Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED). The aim was to create living and working spaces that removed opportunities for crime. In turn, CPTED was based on Jane Jacobs’ insight that safer cities were those that had vibrant, people-filled public spaces with lots of eyes on the scene. The idea that opportunity can be managed to reduce the incidence of crime, regardless of how potential criminals think or behave, has a solid pedigree. … Continue reading

Rationalizing Fraud: “I was just trying to support my family.”

By Lowers & Associates,

fraud week

We recently received a call from a small business owner who had just discovered that a long time employee had been stealing from his business. The crafty scheme involved fictitious vendors and false invoices that resulted in checks being written to accounts belonging to the employee and his girlfriend. The thief (or thieves, as it turned out) was a trusted employee, of course, but rationalized taking the money so he could “support his family.” That is, support the family with luxury items, vacations, gadgets, and goodies.

This kind of fraud is distressingly common, despite that it is so hard to understand in the context of mature, cooperative behavior. We are simply programmed to learn to trust people that we share experiences and challenges with over a long period of time. We form teams.

The Rationale Does Not Have to be Rational

Donald Cressey’s well-known “Fraud Triangle” identifies three elements needed to trigger a fraud: opportunity, motivation or pressure, or rationalization. It’s the rationalization that most often strikes us as removed from reality in some way, or transparently false. We feel a shock when someone trusted betrays us, and our first reaction is that they must feel the same way—how could they do this? … Continue reading

Examining the Bigger Picture in a Fraud Investigation

By Jamey Waters,

As an experienced corporate investigator, having investigated hundreds of various types of fraud cases, it’s really not hard to come to the conclusion that where there is smoke there is usually fire and often times in more than one place. When a client or an individual is alerted to suspicious behavior by an employee/contractor, the investigation generally must focus on the specific allegations. However, it is also important to use the initial investigation opportunity to open a broader review into the suspect for two main reasons:

  • To look for motivating factors (a motive); and
  • To determine, if he/she may be committing fraud or deviant behavior in other areas not specific to the case. After all, if the individual is involved in some form of fraud or deviant behavior that we are aware of, it is highly probable this extends to other areas as well.

According to the widely accepted Fraud Triangle model developed by Donald Cressey, “…individuals are motivated to commit fraud when three elements come together: 1) some kind of perceived pressure, 2) some perceived opportunity, and 3) some way to rationalize the fraud as not being inconsistent with one’s values.” One of the reasons for opening a broader investigation and not just focusing on the specific allegations is to look for motivating factors or pressure(s) the person may be under that might drive him/her to commit the fraud. People often say “I would never do that” but when faced with varying degrees of perceived pressure, it is difficult to determine the lengths people will actually go to in committing fraud. … Continue reading