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Putting the spotlight on a forensic investigator

Author: Samir Paranjpe

The history of fraud dates back to 300 B.C.1, and since then frauds have increased significantly in volume and complexity over the years. Frauds in today’s digital world are highly complex, and vulnerabilities in anti-fraud controls continue to be exploited by fraudsters. The role of a forensic investigator with deep subject matter knowledge and investigation experience has only gained prominence in detecting, investigating and mitigating fraud.

A forensic investigator may appear to many as a prototype of the famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. While there may be similarities, the role of a modern forensic investigator, with the ever-expanding fraud vector, is much more multifaceted. It involves unearthing fraudulent activities such as siphoning or embezzlement of funds, financial irregularity, misappropriation of assets or unethical conduct, as well as application of accounting knowledge, analysis of forensic data and interview assessment to name a few.  

Broadly speaking, the multidisciplinary field of forensics is a combination of accounting, audit and investigation. The role, understandably, demands a specialised skillset – attention to detail, ability to draw meaningful insights from volumes of data, intuitive mindset and strong communication skills to clearly articulate the facts and findings of any investigation. Thesaurus traces the origin of the word ‘forensics’ to the Latin word forensis, which meant ‘relating to courts of law’. The evidence collected during an investigation must be suitable to produce in a court of law, if required.

Use of the word ‘forensic’ over time

Source: Google Ngram viewer

A dynamic fraud theatre, the challenge of handling tight deadlines and sensitivity of situations make a forensic investigator’s typical day hard to define. More often than not, it is a race against time because the sooner the modus operandi and evidence are discovered, the lesser is the subsequent damage.  

The day may begin with analysis of digital evidence and forensic imaging to track a payment fraud. This would follow review of documentation to identify a false third-party transaction. While reviewing these datasets to detect anomalies, there could be an ethical lapse reported elsewhere and a subsequent visit to understand the concern would follow. Next in the list would be prepping for a suspect interview in the next few hours, followed by a site visit to validate the ‘existence’ of a vendor or confirm if it is fictitious. Before calling it a day, a report needs to be drafted to conclude the assignment. In the meanwhile, the investigator could discover some evidence on another case and find a missing link in another suspected fraud.

Illustrative spectrum of investigations

Fraudsters may have turned increasingly adept in hiding their trails, but there is always one weak link which initiates the first step in another climb for an investigator.

With contributions from Geetanjali Singh

[1] The Pioneers of Financial Fraud, Investopedia