Career Questions and Answers

Advice on Breaking Into the Fraud Examination Profession

By Colin May, M.S., CFE;Mark F. Zimbelman, Ph.D., CPA

colin-may-80x80  mark-zimbelman-80x80.jpg Starting Out

Recently, I talked with a young man who was exploring a fraud examination career. It reminded me that others have asked me questions over the years about the field, and it may be helpful for others to see some answers. (I elaborate here on some of my original answers and add a few questions.) If you have another question you want to ask or an answer with another perspective, please email me. If we have enough, we will include them in a follow-up column. Email me at

I am a looking into a career in the fraud examination field, but I have several concerns about finding employment and whether I would be suited for this type of career. What is the job outlook in this uncertain economy?

Fraud is the most common crime in the world. Since 1988, the ACFE has worked to professionalize the anti-fraud field, so I believe fraud examination will continue to be in demand. One of our major tasks is to find ways to integrate the fraud examination mindset into companies, industries and jobs. For example, for several years, I conducted background investigations. By incorporating things like the fraud triangle, Dr. Donald Cressey's findings from his landmark study, "Other People's Money" and financial techniques from the Fraud Examiners Manual, I was able to introduce these skills and mindsets to a group that traditionally did not look at fraud the way we do. By doing that, I believe that we can all have job security in our different niches.

Is a law enforcement job for me? I do not think I would be good at arresting people or sending people to jail. My background includes stints in the financial services industry as a marketing representative and selling cable services over the phone.

Serving and protecting our communities as a federal, state, local, tribal or agency law enforcement officer is one of the most demanding, interesting and rewarding career choices. I enjoy it immensely. However, it may not be for everyone — the long hours, the physically demanding and difficult tasks and constantly dealing with other people's bad days can put a strain on any marriage or relationship and cause you to become jaded. However, there are other ways to contribute without carrying a badge. Forensic auditors and accountants are in high demand for their skills in understanding financial transactions. With your background in sales (and with a little training from interviewing guru Don Rabon), you could be an asset to any internal audit or fraud prevention department. And do not forget that most of our job as CFEs is to educate, prevent and deter fraud through effective internal controls.

If you are interested in a law enforcement career, check out the ACFE's Law Enforcement Partnership program. Agencies at all levels believe in hiring and promoting Certified Fraud Examiners. Check out the ever-growing list.

I have a very strong information technology (IT) background, and I am an accounting major. But I am really interested in computer forensics. What would you recommend?

I am a big fan of internships. Find an internship that can teach you the ins and outs of digital forensics. I am indebted to the late Jeff Gross, CFE, a former professor of mine, who was a computer forensics expert. He told me several years ago that I needed to "get smart" about computer forensics because almost all financial records are stored on computers today. Sadly, Jeff passed away recently, and I hope that he is smiling knowing that I practice daily what he preached.

How much does the fraud profession pay?


Let me say this to start out: Those of us with fraud examination skill sets are special; we combine four distinct "jobs" into one all-encompassing prevention, detection and investigation profession. Salaries range based on prior experience, education level, certifications, geographic regions and other factors, so it is difficult to answer your question exactly. Check out the ACFE's annual salary survey, the "Compensation Guide for Anti-Fraud Professionals." With the guide, you can match variables with others in your same profession, industry and experience. Each opportunity can be different.

I am changing professions after being laid off; how could I fit into the anti-fraud community? My experience includes stints in the gas and industrial chemical industries and selling financial services.


It sounds like you might be interested in a job that combines your previous positions with a firm that deals with those professions. That would be an excellent way to link your knowledge and experience with these technical areas. You will also need to develop the skills of the fraud examination profession; several colleges and universities offer various degree and non-degree programs that will teach you practical skills. I would also strongly advise that you take the CFE Exam Prep Course, which will expand your knowledge and develop your expertise. There are a lot of opportunities in law, accounting, consulting and management firms, and other professional services that support these industries. Also look in the legal, security or audit departments of any of these firms.

My accounting firm senior partner has asked me to lead a team in our new forensic and litigation group. I enjoy learning about fraud and watching for it in my audits, but I am not sure I would be any good at actually investigating it. Any advice?

From what I have experienced, I strongly believe in the power of "doing the job" to see if you actually like it and want to do it. For students and young professionals, I would suggest things like internships, co-ops, interviewing prospective employers and networking with others to learn about the job and industry. For career changers, I offer much the same advice. Think about trying to work a forensic case or doing an "externship" with a local district attorney's office or police department to try it out. Anything to gain valuable experience is the key.

I want to be a FBI agent. What should I do?

Having worked with G-Men and G-Women for a number of years, I believe the FBI is one of the finest investigative agencies in the world. So do a lot of other countries; just read the paper to see how often the FBI is asked to come to another nation to assist in a major case. The ACFE's founder, Dr. Wells, was once an FBI agent. I urge you to read his books and articles written in this and other publications that describe his experiences working cases.

If the FBI does not work out, I would look at other federal agencies. Congress appears to be looking at reducing agency budgets and that could include across-the-board job cuts. However, many law enforcement agencies, including inspector general offices, are looking for fraud examiners and financial crime investigators. Explore and see the numerous opportunities that exist.

I am graduating from college next year. I was in the career center a few weeks ago, and one of the counselors pointed me in your direction. I am majoring in accounting and have been thinking of pursuing a career in fraud examination since I started school. Last semester I did an internship with a forensic accounting company, but I was not sure if it was the right fit for me because I never actually came across any fraud cases, and the company I interned with told me that forensic accountants do not always deal with criminal cases. I'm going to get my master's in accountancy, but other than that, I am clueless as to what to do after graduation.

I certainly understand your frustration about the private-sector "forensic accounting" issues. Forensic accountants mainly work on civil actions, valuation disputes and other problems of a more commercial nature. I would suggest a few things: Are you a student associate member of the ACFE? If not, your $25 fee will be well spent. You will have full access to the especially valuable benefits of the job board and member directories. I would also point you in the direction of the International Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Analysts, which has a good reputation. I recently wrote an article for its journal. They also have a student membership section.

My goal is to get a job in the fraud field, and I want to get a master's degree that focuses on fraud investigation, but I'm afraid of changing jobs in this tight fiscal climate. What are your thoughts?


There are a number of steps that you should take — and begin early — to maximize your potential for employment. They include joining professional associations, attending local chapter events, networking with colleagues across the anti-fraud community and starting a student ACFE chapter at your college. I would also choose a program that has a strong reputation in the anti-fraud community. To endorse one particular program is not only difficult but unethical. But I would say this: Make sure your choice fits your needs and offers the academic, support and other resources you need. Good luck!

Colin May, M.S., CFE, is a forensic financial investigator with a government agency (the views in Starting Out are his own) in Baltimore, Md.  


Mark F. Zimbelman, Ph.D., CPA, Educator Associate Member, is the Selvoy J. Boyer Fellow and professor of accounting at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.  

Attention Educators!  

As the end of the fall semester approaches, consider giving your students extra credit for submitting original papers to the Starting Out column in Fraud Magazine. Research topics, case studies and opinion pieces dealing with fraud, forensic accounting and investigation are gladly welcomed. We will work with your students as we edit them. Please ask them to include the course, your name, their name and their email contact information and submit them to


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