Forensic accountants specialize in analyzing and investigating financial statements and reports for signs of irregularities, which may indicate fraud. In fraud cases, forensic accountants will reconstruct the events and activities involved in financial wrongdoing. Forensic accountants also create presentations in support of legal cases, and may be called upon to testify in court regarding their findings. Common tasks for forensic accountants include auditing records, investigating inconsistencies, tracing assets, and interviewing individuals who created, contributed to, or reviewed records under analysis. Forensic accountants may also do electronic discovery and records preservation.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the average salary of all accountants and auditors at $61,690 per year, though it does not report the salary of forensic accountants specifically. However, data from well established accounting and finance firms indicates that the salary potential for forensic accountants may be higher; Robert Half Finance & Accounting reports the starting salary for a forensic accountant ranges between $69,000 and $102,000 per year.2 As new laws changing the way that companies’ financial reporting must be done take effect, the job growth in accounting and auditing is expected to outpace growth in most other fields. This can lead to opportunities for qualified forensic accountants looking to start a career.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has employed accountants since its inception in 1908. The first "accountants" were actually bank examiners, 12 of whom were part of the FBI's first group of 34 employees. Currently, forensic accountants comprise 15 percent of the bureau's special agent staff. Two types of accounting career paths are available within the agency: special agent forensic accountants and non-agent accountants associated with the bureau's in-house business management and financial administration.
The FBI created the accounting investigative support position in 2009, naming it forensic accountant. The need for specialized accounting professionals in the FBI to conduct thorough analyses of personal and business records of suspected criminals increased after the terrorist activities in the U.S. in 2001. Forensic accountants are tasked with "following the money"; they recreate financial reports, analyze financial activity and contribute to establishing the financial profiles of criminals or criminal groups suspected of conducting illegal activity.
Forensic Accountant Education and Training:
The FBI requires its special agent forensic accountants to hold one of four certifications: Certified Public Accountant, Certified in Financial Forensics, Certified Fraud Examiner or Certified Internal Auditor. Accountants receive these professional designations upon successfully completing an exam in each area, after they have received a bachelor's or a master's degree. Forensic accountants also undergo an intensive six-week, FBI-sponsored training course that prepares them for internal programs and testifying as expert witnesses in criminal cases.
Besides hiring forensic accountants, the FBI has a variety of non-agent accounting positions in its Finance Division, which are divided among general accounting, budgets and procurements. In these roles, accountants perform the same duties as accountants in any organization. FBI non-agent accountants provide the bureau's day-to-day accounting and finance needs, such as budgeting, purchasing, biweekly payroll activities, department financial statements, vendor selection and contract reviews.
Non-Agent Accountant Education and Training:
Non-agent accountants are required to have experience in finance, accounting, management or economics. Individual positions within the organization offer specialized in-house training to understand the bureau's way of doing things. To advance within the bureau's structure, accountants must have a four-year degree with an emphasis in accounting or related disciplines. Applicants new to the organization with a combination of experience and education are welcomed, but supervisors, typically hired from within, must have certification as a public accountant or internal auditor.
The FBI uses the government's General Schedule to assign salaries by a series of grades, which are adjusted for the cost of living in a specific area. A position in New York or California has a pay structure that is different from a position in Kansas or Illinois, due to regional cost of living standards. Accountants start at varying pay ranges depending on position and location. For instance, accountants are considered at a GS-11, or GS-12 pay scale with salaries ranging from $64,720 to a high of $100,859 for the New York, Bridgeport, Newark metropolitan region. Comparatively, the pay for the GS-11 or GS-12 in the Indianapolis, Anderson, Columbus locality pay region ranges from $57,669 to a high of $89,858 in the top step of the salary range.