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How to Become a Forensic Accountant

How to Become a Forensic Accountant

High-profile financial crimes might be what first comes to mind when thinking about forensic accounting. However, the rapidly growing field of financial forensics covers a range of industries and incidents. In this blog post, we’ll share some resources, insight, and guidance related to how to become a forensic accountant.

What is Forensic Accounting?

Forensic accounting is a specialty field focused on investigating financial fraud and other suspicious financial activity. Professionals in this field combine their accounting knowledge with strong investigative and analytical skills.

According to the Corporate Finance Institute, forensic accounting often entails preparing for litigation “related to insurance claims, insolvency, embezzlement, divorce, fraud, skimming, and any type of financial theft.”

As we continue in this blog post, we’ll cover forensic accounting careers - and how to become a forensic accountant - in more depth.

Forensic Accounting Jobs and Salaries

According to research from the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), more than 47% of forensic accountants saw demand increase for their services in 2019. Specific areas of growth included family law and shareholder or contract disputes.

The salary for a forensic accountant, like all other career paths, depends on many things: education and certifications, experience, geography, and specific position to name a few.

Forensic Accounting Salaries

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t track individual accounting specialties, but we can use this data to get a general idea of what accounting and auditing professionals earn.

According to the BLS, the annual median wage for accountants and auditors in 2020 was $73,560. They also give a breakdown of average salaries for accountants in a few industries, including:

  • Finance and insurance, $78,600
  • Accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping, and payroll services, $73,180
  • Government, $72,260

Using compensation data from its users, Salary.com reports that the forensic account salary range in the United States is between $65,156 and $84,811.

What Does a Forensic Accountant Do?

Forensic accountants can work in a range of settings, from public accounting firms to federal agencies like the FBI. While their duties and responsibilities will vary based on employers and positions, some typical tasks may include:

  • Conduct forensic research, including tracing funds and finding hidden assets
  • Perform internal or external audits
  • Assess financial losses
  • Valuate financial damages
  • Prepare and write reports
  • Collaborate with law enforcement personnel
  • Serve as an expert witness in court cases involving financial crimes

Forensic accounting-related positions come in an array of titles. As you explore forensic accountant jobs, you might find openings for roles such as:

  • Auditor, forensic
  • Forensic accounting consultant
  • Forensic accounting, commercial damages manager
  • Forensic accountant - senior analyst
  • Forensic account/auditor, Medicaid fraud control unit
  • Forensic and financial services, senior manager
  • Forensic and fraud risk manager
  • Forensic and integrity services
  • Fraud investigator
  • Director of forensic accounting
  • Director, risk and investigations
  • Senior forensic accountant
  • Special agent, accounting and finance

We looked at salaries, duties, and even some sample job titles. To dig a little deeper into the question of “what does a forensic accountant do?” let’s take a closer look at the role financial forensics plays in a few sectors.

Where Do Forensic Accountants Work?

Public Accounting Firms

Public accounting firms often have entire teams dedicated to risk management or fraud investigation. In fact, some accounting firms are completely devoted to financial forensics. For example, RWH Myers specializes in insurance claim preparation. Quantifying commercial damages from natural disasters for its clients is a major responsibility of its forensic accounting team.

Insurance Companies

Many insurance companies employ forensic accountants in their claims departments. For example, a job description for a forensic accountant for Traveler’s claim division says the employee will “leverage your accounting background and storytelling ability to get to the bottom of fraud allegations….”

Law Enforcement Agencies

Forensic accountants contribute to a variety of criminal investigations at various stages. For example, they may help determine the scope of a financial scheme - or they might help discover whether or not a crime even occurred.

The FBI employs hundreds of forensic accountants at both its Washington, D.C. headquarters and at more than 50 field offices across the nation. The FBI career website hosts a wealth of information about how financial forensic professionals aid in federal investigations, including this description: “We dig through faulty foundations to determine the who, what, when, where, why, how, and how much on all financial aspects of a case. We package the financial facts for our law enforcement and judicial counterparts and, if necessary, provide testimony on our findings.”

Law Firms and Legal Organizations

Financial forensics is used in legal settings for both criminal cases and civil matters, especially when quantifying damages is part of a dispute. We already shared a few criminal examples in the previous heading. For example, on the civil side, Investopedia explains how forensic accountants may help locate hidden assets in divorce cases or help determine the economic results of breaches of contract or trademark infringement.

Forensic accountants also work for financial institutions, consulting companies, and government agencies, as well in finance, risk management, or legal divisions of large corporations.

Forensic Accounting Qualifications and Requirements

Financial forensics is a specialty in the accounting and auditing field. This means the question of “how to become a forensic accountant?” actually starts with becoming an accountant. In this section, we’ll look at the educational and other requirements for entering this in-demand profession.

Experience and Education for Forensic Accountants

According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE), most forensic accounting positions require up to three years of general accounting experience. This typically means most people moving into financial forensics already have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in accounting, finance, or a closely related field.

Additionally, while not a requirement, many forensic accountants were CPAs first, which means they’ve also completed the necessary education and certification requirements. Further, some financial forensic experts have had professional experience or additional training in the criminal justice system.

In his article, “A Successful Career Transition to Forensic Accounting,” for The CPA Journal, Eric A. Kreuter shared his transition from a tax and audit-focused CPA professional into the world of financial forensics. In the article, Kreuter explains his previous experience in both auditing and human resources came in handy during investigations. He also shares advice with aspiring forensic accountants: “Emerging candidates should consider additional education and training opportunities,” he explains in The CPA Journal. “Many of the courses in my advanced education inform me better in my present work, including how best to manage a team.”

Forensic Accountant Skills, Abilities, and Characteristics

In general, forensic accountants are expected to be ethical, honest, and objective with strong attention to detail. Aside from education and experience, employers often look for specific skills and abilities in candidates for forensic accountant positions.

The FBI career website states, “Intuition and curiosity are the bedrocks of an FBI forensic accountant.” And Kreuter, in his article for The CPA Journal, recommends that future forensic accountants strengthen their Microsoft Excel skills, as well as their writing skills.

The ACFE adds that working knowledge of various white-collar crimes, such as money laundering and securities fraud, is important.

Getting an Online Forensic Accounting Certificate

Earning a graduate certificate in financial forensics is an ideal way for an accounting professional to gain the specialized skills and knowledge they need to transition into a career as a forensic accountant.

Champlain College Online’s forensic accounting program is designed for busy working professionals, and it covers courses such as:

  • Business Analysis Using Financial Statements
  • Advanced Fraud & Forensic Accounting
  • Information Gathering, Preservation, and Analysis
  • Legal Principles of Digital Investigations

Several accounting industry organizations offer continuing education programs and professional certifications. For instance, the Certified Financial Forensics credential from AICPA is geared toward CPAs looking to demonstrate their expertise in financial forensics. Certifications like this can give you an edge when applying for forensic accounting jobs.

To learn more about earning your graduate certificate in financial forensics online at Champlain, visit our program page.

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