Friday, July 8, 2011

All Investigations Lead to...Porn?

It all started with a joke.

"All investigations seem to lead to pornography," quipped Ryan Hubbs, a senior manager for Matson, Driscoll & Damico, Forensic Accountants, chatting with a group of colleagues at an ACFE conference a few years ago.

Hubbs had spotted an odd pattern. Time after time, as he investigated claims of contractor fraud or embezzlement, he'd uncover a little something on the side, such as additional accusations of bullying or harassment or, most frequently, pornography downloaded onto an accused employee's computer.

His joke struck a nerve. "We started talking about it," he recalls, "and everybody else said, 'You know, I've had some cases where after we did the forensic analysis, we found the guy was also investigated for sexual harassment.'" That's when Hubbs started to wonder whether what he was seeing was mere coincidence, or correlation.

"The correlation is somewhere between zero and a hundred percent," Hubbs jokes, admitting that he's no social scientist. Plenty of people, he contends, have glanced at a sexy photo or two online without ever going on to commit fraud. He's reluctant to draw any absolute conclusions about correlation or causality.

But as a professional fraud examiner, he is a keen observer of human behavior. And in his fascinating lecture at the San Diego ACFE conference in June, he shared those observations and posed a question to fellow investigators: What if we could search out fraudsters by zeroing in on employees who download porn or have been reported for bullying or harassing co-workers? Is there a strong enough correlation between outright fraud and other "deviant" behaviors to use those behaviors as markers?

Hubbs defines deviant behavior as any practice that falls outside of the law, societal norms, or company policies. And although looking at girlie pictures might be considered a ubiquitous enough practice to fall within societal norms on one's own time, it's still not considered an acceptable work activity, and it carries with it certain risks to employers. "Not only do you have hostile work claims which can (lead to) lawsuits," he says. "But in doing these types of investigations over the years, I've seen some people continue to spiral down, from regular nudity to hard-core porn…and some individuals move into the child porn arena.

"Imagine if they save that onto the main server," Hubbs adds. "When the FBI comes in…they take the whole server."

Deviance is relative, Hubbs admits. "What is deviant behavior today might not be deviant behavior 20 years from now." And he says that most of us do things every day that might deviate from laws, norms, or workplace policies.

But a good investigator with strong instincts about human behavior and motivations, he asserts, might be able to sniff out financial malfeasance by focusing on patterns of behavior that reveal an employee's or contractor's…proclivities. If a person tends towards risky behaviors, like downloading thousands of pornographic images onto his work computer or texting inappropriate messages or images to co-workers, he might also take risks in other ways, like fudging expenses or rigging bids.

Hubbs's hypothesis has fellow investigators intrigued. He gets lots of questions he can't answer, because there's just not enough research out there yet to support his ideas with hard numbers. He's not offering a solution, just posing a challenge to his colleagues to observe and find out more.

"Look, I just kind of kicked this ball onto the court," he says. "You guys can take it any direction you want to go. This is an observation that I had over the years, and wanted to pose it to the rest of the populace to see if it's useful and what else can we learn from this."  

1 comment:

  1. I agree with this wholeheartedly. People who commit fraud aren't usually perfect angels who wake up one morning and decide to do it. It's part of a larger picture of deviant behaviour.

    If someone is acting inappropriately in one identifiable area (bullying, sexual harassment, etc.) it's probably a safe bet they're committing other anti-social or illegal acts as well.