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HUMAN RESOURCES

Stepping on Light Fingers

Four tactics to use when someone is skimming money from your company.
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If your company has lax financial controls or relies on staffers to perform multiple jobs, putting the wrong person in charge could wreak havoc on your finances.

Consider the case of a hardware retail chain with annual sales of less than $10 million, whose owner began to sense he was not making as much money as he should. Then some customers started complaining that their payments were not being credited to their accounts promptly. The owner began to suspect his accounts-receivable clerk.

"It's a rare growing company that doesn't experience this kind of problem at some point," says Tom Taylor, a forensic accounting specialist in the Atlanta office of the Fairfax Group, a consulting firm. Taylor was hired by the retailer to figure out who was skimming cash. Here's what he suggests for business owners in the same boat:

· Don't immediately point fingers. Business owners run legal risks if they behave improperly.

· Decide on a preferred outcome. When he visits the scene of a suspected crime, Taylor asks owners questions like these: Do you want to simply fire the person or try to recover the money through a civil suit? Might the person pay back funds if confronted in a controlled situation?

· Keep mum. "Don't confide your suspicions to anyone at the company, since you won't really know who's involved until you've done a serious investigation," says Taylor. At the hardware chain, he collected evidence after hours. "Ultimately, we built a strong enough paper case that we were able to confront the clerk and recover about $33,000 that she had stolen."

· Don't work out a settlement without consulting a lawyer or forensics expert. An indiscreet conversation with your suspect could jeopardize your chances of a favorable legal outcome.

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