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Fraud Investigation Programs Trending in Colleges

Release Date:  Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Many universities are offering programs in fraud examination and forensic accounting.

by Andrea Lannom
West Virginia Media

Two relatively new degree programs are trending across college campuses and even in tough economic times, this field is expected to grow.

Many colleges in West Virginia are offering programs in forensic accounting and fraud examination and according to a report released Oct. 7 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, although government employment has trended down, employment in professional and business services has increased.

In fact, the BLS states in its 2011 handbook that the job market for accountants, auditors and forensic science technicians are expected to increase. However, the BLS additionally states that graduates should expect “keen competition” for investigator jobs.

But it’s not just accountants who can reap the benefits of these programs, said University of Charleston Director of Public Relations Scott Castleman.

In fact, students majoring in these fields can become internal auditors, compliance officers, law enforcement agents, government employees, documents examiners, digital analysts, and even special agents in the FBI.

However, there could be a few challenges in the market. Richard Riley, a WVU accounting professor, explained that students could run into an experience trap, however.

“Prior, they hired tax people, auditors that had at least two to three years of experience,” Riley said. “Overall, the field is hot and even hotter if you have experience but that’s the way any new specialization emerges. Once higher education catches up and provides graduates that can be hired, they will gravitate toward hiring those people.”

Several of the state’s universities have reported increased enrollment in these programs but what makes these fields so fascinating?

“Students can work toward becoming certified fraud examiners which would allow them to go out in the field and do the stuff you see McGee do on NCIS,” said Andrew Wessels, Mountain State University director of public relations.

Plus, some students can get a hands-on experience of what this degree field can offer. Imagine this.

Allegations of fraud have surfaced, incriminating a prominent business. Investigators are then given the tasks of checking through tax returns, cancelled checks and interview statements from detectives. After hours of pouring through data and following a scant paper trail, evidence is finally found to prove that fraud has occurred.

Students must then pitch this evidence in a final report to prosecutors and the National White Collar Crime Center.

Although this may imitate real life, this scenario is something students run through in West Virginia University’s fraud investigative program.

Riley explained that this hands-on experience not only sets the university’s program apart from others but it also gives students vital pieces to their resumes.

“It gives feedback on our program and gives students confidence that they stood up in front of the IRS, criminal investigation personnel as well as attorneys to defend cases,” he said.

The university also has announced plans for the first Ph.D. program with emphases in forensic accounting and fraud investigation. Riley also explained that WVU has several graduate programs as well as an online facet.

The reason these programs were created was because of several high profile frauds that occurred in 2001.

“There were numerous high profile frauds at that point in time and we had the realization at the same time that we didn’t have enough practitioners in the area,” Riley said.

Other schools such as Mountain State University, University of Charleston and Marshall University are offering fraud investigative programs as well.

MSU has established the new degree programs of forensic accounting and fraud examination, which are offered both online and on the Beckley campus.

The forensic accounting concentration serves students pursuing bachelor’s in accounting. The fraud examination concentration is open to everyone but is mainly targeted toward those pursuing a bachelor’s of science in business administration or an associate of science in accounting.

“For the (BLS) 2011 handbook on occupational outlook, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is estimating a 10-year job growth rate in these two areas,” Wessels explained. “It’s more than 20 percent which is pretty much double the national average for most occupations.”

The University of Charleston has offered programs in fraud investigation for four years now, Castleman said.

More recently, the university offers an executive master’s of forensic accounting. Castleman said this executive master’s degree is one of six in the entire nation.

The university also has plans to offer a hybrid online program for the first time this January. Classes are kept small, however, with an average of 15-20 students per class.

“What we’re noticing is that we’re getting students from Texas, D.C., all over the place,” he said. “Some were flying every other week from Houston to participate in this program.”

Although Marshall University doesn’t have a specific degree for forensic accounting or fraud examination, the institution does offer an accredited two-year master’s degree program in forensic sciences.

There are four areas of emphasis including DNA identification, digital forensics, crime scene investigation and forensic chemistry.

The first forensics class was offered in 1995 and since then Marshall has graduated more than 220 individuals in that program.

Most similar to the fraud investigation programs at other schools, the digital forensics concentration focuses on identify theft, where to look for stored digital information, search and seizure and investigative skills.

“The people with this expertise are sought after both in government, academics and corporate America,” he said. “With everything moving toward electronic information, the investigation skills are really sought after. This is something that will grow by leaps and bounds over the years.”  

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