I'm a CFE

Sophia Pretrick, CFE

Investigative advisor at Pohnpei State Public Auditor — Federated States of Micronesia

Since becoming a CFE close to 20 years ago, Sophia Pretrick has been fighting fraud in the Federated States of Micronesia, where she grew up. Early in her career, Pretrick quickly became fascinated with how ubiquitous fraud was and the fact that preventing it could improve the lives of her fellow Micronesians. This year, the U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken awarded Pretrick with the newly created International Anticorruption Champions Award in recognition of individuals who’ve worked tirelessly to defend transparency, combat corruption and ensure accountabilities in their countries.

I was born and raised in Pohnpei, the beautiful island garden of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), but my parents are originally from one of the outer islands of Pohnpei called Mwoakilloa. FSM is part of Oceania, an island group located northeast of Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. The country itself encompasses 607 islands, which have been politically grouped into four states: Chuuk, Kosrae, Pohnpei and Yap. The national capital is Palikir on the island of Pohnpei.

I had an amazing childhood, and in contrast to kids in today’s virtual age, I played a lot of outdoor games, including hopscotch, red rover, hide-and-seek and tag, you’re it! I also remember watching shows like “Charlie’s Angels,’’ “The Bionic Woman” and “Wonder Woman.” We had one TV channel back then, and it was inspiring to watch shows from the ’80s and ’70s with women playing authoritative roles. I wanted to be like those women when I grew up.

I manage the Pohnpei State Public Auditor Office’s Compliance Investigation Division (CID) which specifically focuses on investigation of fraud, waste and mismanagement of the Pohnpei State government resources. We do everything from managing incoming complaints and tips to conducting investigations to proactively preventing fraud and corruption. The prevention part of the work includes conducting trainings and awareness for government officials, employees and educating schools about the impact of fraud and how to combat it.

I am currently under temporary detail assignment with the FSM Office of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program (OPUA) under the Department of Finance & Administration, which is U.S.-funded under the CARES Act. I am tasked to create a unit within the program to maintain integrity through prevention, detection and investigation of OPUA claims, which can involve fraudulent unemployment benefits. It’s a challenge to be doing administrative oversight on COVID-19 grants.

The majority of the investigations I conduct involve asset misappropriations such as payroll fraud, theft of cash on hand, false misrepresentations, procurement fraud, check forgery, etc. I’ve also conducted some major cases concerning corruption, misuse of authority and misconduct in the office. We mostly discover fraud through hotline tips, internal audits and administrative referrals. We conduct a preliminary inquiry to identify the jurisdiction and determine whether it is within the public’s interest, and if there is reasonable cause or potential criminal intent to pursue the case. If those criteria are met, we notify the Office of the Attorney General to assist with further investigations and prosecution. If our findings are administrative, we refer them to management to handle and do corrective measures.

I became passionate about fighting fraud early in my career when I started conducting investigations and reviewing the laws. I then realized that fraud was all around me, and that no country, government or organization is immune to fraud. I found it interesting that most people were unaware of fraud, and that it had become ingrained in the culture. Yet society pays a high price for this abuse and fraud. For instance, I was involved in a huge conspiracy case where funds were being misappropriated for personal benefit instead of being used for schools, health care and other public services. This led me to conduct and administer proactive and advocacy work on anti-fraud education and awareness for prevention purposes. I believe the public needs to be aware and educated on what fraud is and its impact.

The ACFE has helped me learn interviewing and interrogation techniques, how to gather forensic evidence related to financial crimes, and provide testimony and litigation support in court proceedings as well as other investigative skills. I have also learned that while you have to be mindful of the confidentiality and the sensitivity of the work, it is also necessary to communicate and disclose the fraud findings for deterrence purposes.

My former supervisor, George LaMont, who is a CFE, mentored and introduced me to the ACFE.  Becoming a CFE turned out to be the best decision I have made throughout my career. I was one of the first international members to take the CFE exam, the U.S. version, back in 2003. There was no international version at that time.

Aside from my Anticorruption Champions Award, my greatest achievement was working and educating young people through our joint efforts in advocacy and education. Seeing how they learned and worked with their peers was amazing to witness. Even if it takes a while, the program provides the foundation for a sustainable development of a corrupt-free society. My personal mottoes are: “Put God first in everything you do, and in everything you do, put forth your best effort. And always be humble."

I love running, which is a new hobby for me. About five years ago, I started walking with a group of women — Mile-a-Day Moms (MAD) — and the walks turned into runs. The adrenaline rush releases stress, and running, of course, is part of a healthy lifestyle. That is what I love to do in my free time, especially in the mornings to start my day!

Paul Kilby is editor-in-chief of Fraud Magazine. Contact him at pkilby@ACFE.com.