The Risk of Fraud in Small Businesses

As small business owners, we wear many hats. For example, a restaurant owner can also be the procurer of supplies, chef, maitre d’, waiter, and bottle washer. One hat many small business owners tend to not wear is the bookkeeper’s, and therein lies the risk of fraud. To many, the lack of bookkeeping knowledge, hatred or fear of numbers, the need to focus on growing the business, or lack of time, drives the need for employing a bookkeeper.

In the accounting world, there’s a term called “segregation of duties”. In a nutshell, this refers to having different people do different accounting functions. For example, the person receiving customer payments isn’t also the person writing (or signing) checks. The problem in many small businesses is that they can’t afford to have an entire accounting department (such as accounts receivable, accounts payable, payroll), so all the functions are performed by the one bookkeeper. The danger here is that you’re entrusting someone with your money (i.e. your checkbook), and if that person isn’t honest, embezzlement can be the result. It’s beyond the scope of this article to get into the numerous ways a bookkeeper can “rob you blind”, but the point is that regardless of how busy the small business owner is, she/he needs to pay very close attention to what the bookkeeper is doing with deposits and payments, as it’s possible for both money coming in and money going out to be diverted. Bank statements should be reviewed for irregularities when received, blank checks should never be pre-signed, internal financial statements (such as a balance sheet and profit & loss printed from QuickBooks) should be reviewed, and payroll needs to be monitored, both for false employees and for pay rates. There are too many ways of misdirecting company funds, and the small business owner needs to be mindful of the possibilities.

I hope you’ve found this article helpful, and that it’s got you thinking. Please contact me if you have any questions, and if you know of any real life “horror stories” involving employee fraud, please leave a comment.

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