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Tackling fraud in higher education

Universities are taking up the mantle of fraud prevention for Fraud Week

Although it's a popular, romanticized notion to imagine universities and colleges as ivory-towered bastions of learning — untouchable by corruption — fraud also can spring up there.

Higher-ed staffs ostensibly are intelligent enough to work in academia, but they're often caught with their hands in the cookie jar. As reported in The Hoya on Nov. 8, 2013, a Georgetown University administrator embezzled close to $400,000 from the school. And in September, a former Harvard University computer manager was accused of stealing $80,000 from the school to buy iPads, Legos and TVs for his personal use. (See Fraud in the News in the November/December 2015 issue of Fraud Magazine.)

We also see arguably more sinister cases of fraudsters stealing money from students. According to University Business, one administrative assistant in the Emory University nursing school directed students to pay tuition to a PayPal account that wasn't controlled by the institution. She netted more than $300,000 before she was caught and was handed an 18-month prison sentence in July 2015.

In the 2014 ACFE Report to the Nations on Occupational Fraud And Abuse, the ACFE discovered that the education industry ranked fifth out of 23 different industries with reported fraud. Because of this high rate of fraud, a number of institutions are deciding to educate students and faculty on how to detect and prevent fraud.

Students in a fraud examination class in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University developed and implemented a fraud prevention checklist for their school in the spring of 2015. Led by senior lecturer John E. "Jack" Little, CFE, CPA, and student Jenny Mak, the class met with Cornell's University Audit Office and Cornell Human Resources to create recommendations to better prevent fraud. (For more information about the checklist, see the ACFE Insights blog by Little and Mak.)

International Fraud Awareness Week, Nov. 15-21, is an especially important time for students and faculty to get involved in preventing fraud in higher education. Melissa Giannetta, president of the University of Central Florida's ACFE student chapter, explained, "Fraud is an important subject to teach our students, because it is something that happens every day and is only continuing to grow. The more that we can prevent fraud from occurring, the more people that we can save from being  negatively affected by fraudulent behavior." The chapter will be hosting a showing of the movie about conman Frank Abagnale, "Catch Me if You Can," for students and will be publishing an article in an internal university publication.

Utica College will waive application fees for their online fraud and financial crime degree programs and will host a free webinar on identity theft, money laundering and fraudulent activities that finance terrorist operations. Other universities participating in Fraud Week include Purdue University, which will host a seminar during the week, and Georgia Regents University, which has arranged a lunch-and-learn event for employees.

Some administrators see Fraud Week not only as a time to make students aware of fraud, but also to prepare them for their lives after they leave the hallowed halls of academia. Tina Maier, CPA, CFE, CIG, associate director, university audit and co-advisor of the ACFE student chapter at the University of Central Florida, said, "Having an awareness of fraud better prepares students for the real world, helps them make the right decisions when faced with ethical dilemmas and improves their application of established skill sets. Employers want to hire employees who understand the importance of protecting the company's resources and assets and who have a working moral compass."

Visit the Fraud Week website to download free resources, see what supporters are doing and to learn more about how you can become involved in this anti-fraud initiative.