FraudJournal Blog

July 30, 2013

The Cost of Over-Trusting


I recently worked a fraud case that involved a bookkeeper and a small but over trusting business owner. Often, these individuals who are entrusted with the keys to kingdom, are truly key to the success of small businesses. They are the watchdogs of the kingdom. They are there when you need them, they keep the facts managed and ‘ticked and tied’ for future reference. So what goes wrong?

In this case it was an emotional trigger. But often it can be, as one of my colleagues put it, the result of ‘the can that got kicked down the road.’ In other words, they were kicked to the curb for cause and picked up by another. This is catch-22 for fraud fighters and law enforcement. Does a company be made whole and move on, do they prosecute and hope the fight will provide the return of both funds and recovery or do they forgive and forget. I have seen the latter, but in about two to three years, the problem recurs and the battle restarts. It is expensive to dig into the archives of financial data and find the smoking-gun for court or mediation. It easy to outspend the loss easily; especially if the fraudster wants to put up a fight. I have seen this process kill a business as much as the fraudster’s theft.

Most of you who become the triage workers of fraud, are called in at the most dire times. The funds are missing, the staff are up in arms or in total shock, and the frenetic pace begins to solve for ‘x’. The saddest part of this is that the cost goes to the heart; deeply.  After all, how could this have happened on their watch? It can get ugly and fast. But it can be the rally cry that unites and brings amazing change and recovery to a business too. This is where the dynamics of the culture of a business really show.

An interesting statistic that was bounced around during a recent conversation with colleagues is the magic number for long-term entrusted employees and contractors that embezzled seems to be around the ten to thirteen year mark. That isn’t to say that a long-term employee or bookkeeper will always go to the dark side, but the cases keep showing up at around that mark of entrusted access to the financial details of the company.

So what is the moral of this post you ask? The moral is that it is the level of trust, not that you trust. Trust is an imperative part of running a successful business. But the rules of fraud are ‘trust but verify’. Whether your family, friends or business; you need to trust at some level. There are no hard-fast rules to avoid fraud. At some point, in some way, you will become exposed to fraud either personally or through others. But you can make all effort to reduce your risk by creating the ‘tone at the top’; by leading by example. Those around you will notice that you take a ‘vested’ interest in your affairs, both at home and at work. They also know that to hide the fraudulent activities requires greater stealth and complex methods to avoid detection. Unless they are in need of a mission with impossible thrills, they will think twice about theft. And the business owner, participating regularly in the financial activity, will notice those subtle changes that trigger their inner red-flags and respond accordingly. In this case it would have been the timely review of the bank statements that would have triggered questions early on.

But remember too, many who come into a serious need, whether perceived or real, will steal to survive. It is human nature to survive at all costs – however most of us have a loadstone of truth that prevails. But these triggers often include gambling or other addictive issues, a burden of medical needs, family financial crashes or a perceived shame. The perception of shame could be feeling below the financial level of others, not having stories to share around the water cooler. Many embezzlers have large egos that require a certain level of attention to life style, and will generously share their loot to impress others.

In retrospect, most victims of fraud and can and often do trace back to the beginning event that most likely was the root cause of theft. But hindsight is always the more painful way to learn a lesson. So those of you in the trenches, take time to educate your friends, family, peers and local business community on the cost of over trusting. Help them put into place those necessary internal controls that establish boundaries and steps of precaution. Wave that hypnotic watch and have them repeat, “Trust but verify, Trust but verify” until you know they get it deep into the psyche.

Stay safe friends and educate, educate, educate.

 

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April 13, 2013

What Makes a Fraud Investigator a Professional – Experience or Education


Fraud Fighters Become Cool!

As the economy continues to sequester most of us, fraudsters seem to be engaged in an all out frenzy of activity. Today you can’t seem to get away from reports of economic losses caused by embezzlers, identity thieves and scams on the vulnerable. This has resulted in a public outcry of “not on my watch.” And the response is government agencies, such as the IRS and FBI, are hiring people proficient in IT and financial fraud. Companies now search for individuals trained in fraud-risk-compliance. So who are the next wave of fraud professionals? Where are they coming from? And, how does this effect those of us already in the trenches?

First, the next wave are a mixed set of young professionals and re-established professionals. Many are students who have been drawn in by television shows such as CSI, NCIS, Bones and the numerous real-life drama shows on forensics and assorted documentaries. Others are established professionals that are either looking forward to making a career change, enhancing their current position or putting out a shingle as self-employed. What was once a profession of unknown behind the scene investigators has become the “now” profession. I am often asked about fraud fighting and how to get into the field. Most of my answers tend to result in raised eyebrows or dropped heads of frustration once they learn that the road requires not just a degree, but years of work and life experience and a high level of intuition and common sense. It’s not glamorous and a win every time. There are no hero medals and it’s tedious and requires high attention to detail. Something which I find many young professional are frustrated with in the beginning.  If you Google what it takes to be an expert, you find it takes close to 10,000 hours of practice or work experience for anyone to become considered an expert in their field of choice.

Second, quite a few colleges challenge this by advertising they can get you there with a degree in forensic accounting, criminology or fraud expertise. Many students are now able to earn their business or accounting degree with an emphasis in fraud. Some earn a certificate or added credential/degree in fighting fraud. I endorse educating the masses on how to thwart the creativity of thieves but it does not replace experience.

Learning the theory of detecting, deterring and defending against fraud provides a good base from which to launch the beginning of a career through internships and mentored case work. Expertise allows one to think outside of the box because experience has repeatedly engrained their understanding to a level that is second nature while maintaining their ethics to work within the required rules and regulations. And with time and diversity of experience, either across the board or in a specific arena of understanding, there remains the levels of novice, advanced, master and expert.

I Have a Point – Honest…

Here is my point; fraud work is a field that requires not just classroom education but repeated experience, careful mentoring and the passion to roll up ones sleeves, get into the dirt of the devil’s activity and all the while remain clinical. It is about making a difference while serving the public.  As individuals seek out the next trend in careers, they look for what brings income while raising peer acceptance. Young professionals seek out the career goals that take them forward in both income and position. And those that are stymied by hiring freezes and worse sudden income loss seek out ways to reinvent or augment the current situation. This means that there are many more people focusing on the world of fraud fighting but lack the necessary level of skills. This concerns me.

This is not about being competitive. It is about the safety of the public including those impassioned to enter the field of fraud fighting. There is a high level of liability that fraud work brings. Technology growth is constantly challenging our knowledge base not to mention the ever-growing level of global connection. The subtleties of culture, ethics and business models come with job maturity and work diversity. Knowing when someone is being polite by not looking you in the eye verses being nervous and avoiding eye contact can change the way investigative interviews are conducted. One must also consider the sequestering  of public agencies and enforcement officers resulting in the near stuttering to a stop of processing growing crimes.

Grassroots Solution?

I would like to challenge state and local government agencies to consider establishing internships for professionals (with proper vetting of course), to handle the back load of financial crime work. I would like to see a community grassroots approach of the educational system with the work programs that allow work experience that offsets educational costs, which would provide serious young professionals the opportunity to gain real-life lessons-learned experience. By establishing a contractual agreement of a time period for and vetting, we could put many individuals into the field with both mature and novice experience together. Establishing a certification program that also requires work experience for credentials and a mentoring process that signs off on professional understanding will provide both work, education and strongly enforced ethical standards for work ethics and case work. It takes the overwhelming level of paperwork and case load to a more manageable level and helps ensure that new professionals are properly trained and given the diversity of case experience.

What are your thoughts? How would you provide a means to education coupled with mentoring and job opportunities while maintaining the high level of expected ethical standards? Sound off!

 

March 12, 2013

Should Forensic Accountants Be Considered Private Investigators?


I must say it is nice to see Forensic Accountants become acknowledged by the general public as a potential solution to detecting, defending and even more importantly deferring, as much as possible, fraudulent behavior in the workplace and home. Even shows such as NCIS have given a nod, however slightly, to Forensic Accountants (often noted as FA). Most Certified Fraud Examiners (CFE) have some working knowledge of accounting and this has become more emphasized in our annual training. And many private investigators have to review financial information in order to follow through with their engagements with clients. Which brings me to my question for the general fraud community, should Forensic Accountants become Private Investigators and licensed within their state as is required by some states.

While most states have specific regulations that professionals who “investigate” as a profession must be registered and licensed as private investigators, FAs and CFEs for the most part have not been included in this group. Recently, private investigators have raised their voices to urge any and all individuals that claim to or state they investigate be required to follow state law and become licensed as a private investigator.

I agree that investigative work requires knowledge of state laws and regulations to keep both investigator and the general public safe from unqualified professionals looking to merely increase revenue and try out new trends of services. CFEs are required by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) to maintain training and must pass a 4-part exam and submit recommendations prior to being allowed to take the exam. This includes: Investigation, Financial Transactions, Criminology, Law.

Having said this, many CPAs have become FAs in order to build a more diversified portfolio of services such as fraud prevention, fraud risk consultations and forensic accounting. I do have concerns with CPAs who provide forensic accounting services that are not CFEs. Not because they are educationally lacking in work financial knowledge or work experience, but there are legal ramifications to consider when performing investigative accounting. The rights of both sides of the case, claimant and defendant, have legal rights of process and must be acknowledged according to the rules and regulations of the law.

And so I ask, “Should Forensic Accountants and Certified Fraud Examiners be considered Private Investigators”, and if so, “Should Private Investigators be required to be certified in bookkeeping or accounting 101 before handling financial case work”? There is the opportunity to collaborate in wonderful ways, but do we think this will be the end result or is this a turf war? The question has some merit. What do you think?

 

August 22, 2011

Is Ethics Hard-wired or Learned


I was reading a posting in LinkedIn by Fernando A., in the ACFE group, titled “Pants on Fire! Children and Lying“. The link led to a site called delanceyplace.com 8/18/11 – children and lying. The article a study into the frequency of children telling lies and whether this was indicative of a future problem. It seems that children who lie well are cognitively more advanced and are able to hide their tracks better. They tend to grow up and be more capable of dealing with complex situations, such as employment that requires quick problem solving or outside of the box thinking. The article suggested they might become bankers; I wondered about other financial positions that have recently been in the headlines for manipulation of funds and factual information.Then I thought about the recent trends in education for forensic accounting and fraud investigation. And what about learning to understand the federal tax code and recent gloable accounting issues.

Today’s generation is faced with making choices for more than which college to attend or job for a career. They have become a self-monitored social network of information and ideas. They want their lives to have impact, their efforts to matter, and their path to move at the rate that technology limits them. And I ask myself, what were they like as children? How did they interpret whether to help each other to obtain the advancement they rationalized as necessary to reach either their own goals or their family’s goals. I mention family because so many children now have been pushed through the process of high grades for college and then a better future. Does all of this push to succeed on a fast track impact their view of ethical standards?

Last week I was talking with a college professor who teaches at North Seattle Community College. They have created a new Certificate of Fraud to help students prepare for a career in fraud fighting. One of the topics discussed was about how students’ views of ethical behavior is changing nationwide. Does this generation of students feel differently about sharing information and taking risks that a previous generation might see more black and white. And if so, will that impact how they investigate fraud?

I don’t have an answer, but it poses the question of whether the “perceived need” to commit a fraudulent act will need to be redefined into less black and white and into more levels of grey. I hope not, but as those of us currently in the trenches age, and others come into the roles of leadership, what do they interpret ethical behavior to mean.

So now I am back to whether or not ethics is hard-wired or learned at an early age and how does that affect the fight against fraud. Employers are already being challenged by young professionals on what they expect as employees. Perhaps this generation of young professionals will need to show the veteran fraud fighters what they see as the solutions to a potential fraud wave looming in the future. Elder abuse and exploitation, cyber crime, and white-collar crimes will continue to rise as there is a shift in which population is taking the lead.

My vote is on this upcoming generation of professionals to take everything to the next level with technology and all its trappings. And I still ask, what were they like as children? Were they good liars too?

April 11, 2011

Fighting Fraud By Connecting and Detecting Globally


As the world gets smaller from people traveling more, gaining greater access to information via the internet, movies, television and cellphones, we seem to be sharing at a rate that astounds and thrills the number crunchers. We now share everything from secrets to solutions, inventions to investigations, and things that shouldn’t be mentioned let alone take place. This includes new ways and means to commit fraud including establishing complex webs that challenge the best of us in fraud investigation, as well as ways to counterfeit almost every product manufactured. But as fraud fighters, we are learning how to use that to our advantage. As much as the internet causes us to throw our hands up in the air in frustration we also have shouted loudly with joy when a fraudster unwittingly leaves a trail for us to follow. And we thank them for that.

The best way each of us can reduce the risk of fraud is become educated, connect with each other and work together as transparently as possible. The more we leave the old ways of hoarding our tips and tricks, the stronger we become in unity. By now, most cities, counties and states as well as federal agencies are beginning to understand this and the old network of closed doors is opening up to free-share ideas and solutions. But even better than this is that a new level of young professionals have grabbed onto the possibilities and are both teaching and putting into place ways to be more efficient and effective in the fight against fraud. I applaud all of you who work to share your concerns and network to find solutions. In my effort to continue sharing, I have listed below some sites I have come across recently for you to review and share with each other. I by no means participate in them, or receive any benefit from them. Nor do I present them as the perfect find, but I do find the information to be interesting and provide some ideas to pursue for further consideration and self-education. Keep up the good fight and continue to stay true to your morals and ethics as we all continue to be challenged in life as times become more difficult and trying of faith and patience.

http://blogs.gartner.com/avivah-litan/2010/12/15/2011-threats-and-trends/

http://threatmetrix.com/threatmetrix-announces-fraud-prevention-trends-for-2011/

http://news.hostexploit.com/cybercrime-news/4794-changing-internet-fraud-trends-highlighted-in-ic3-2010-report.html

http://www.publishingtrends.com/2011/04/bloggers-weigh-in-on-the-kindle-swindle-and-new-fraud/

http://www.nlets.org/press/internet-crime-trends-the-latest-report

March 26, 2011

Potential for Elder Fraud on the Horizon


Hello Everyone. I know its been awhile. Today I would like to share concerns from various conversations with others in the elder care community. This group includes tax preparers, CPA’s, business litigators, caregivers, senior care facilities (both assisted living residential and commercial), and health care workers, and fraud investigators. Why?

Well, as most of you have heard that the number our seniors that have aging parents now needing to place them into assisted care and skilled nursing homes and facilities are increasing. Most locations have been able to accommodate the ebb and flow of family and friends seeking help for their aging parents, spouses, partners and family members. Recently I was visiting an assisted living facility and the executive director commented that he no longer has rooms for the growing number of requests he receives on a daily basis. In fact, he now has had to create a waiting list without any way of assuring the families of a time frame when their loved one can be cared for by skilled staff and in a safe environment.

Which brings me to the next point. Due to the huge and I mean that quite literally, huge upcoming increase in senior/elder care needs, locating affordable and qualified care will be in high demand. This creates a large pool of vulnerable adults open to be preyed upon by the fraudsters in the health care field. This includes medical billing, quality care and safe environments where abuse is not tolerated or able to take place, qualified and vetted personnel (as in proper background checks and monitored activity), not to mention reasonable costs for the care received.

One women in a caregiver support group was aghast when she found out that a facility wanted to charge her a very large administration fee, first and last months space/care fee, a cleaning deposit, and a slush fund for small care needs. This amounted to over $10,000 up front for the first month of care. Most families can barely cover the costs of taking time off to care for a loved one let alone the initial upfront costs to begin care. This was a residential home that was set up to care for six elderly residents, and was part of an LLC that included six other homes just like it. There are many of these homes that work very hard to take very good care of their residents. But this home was not well maintained and the individuals that ran the home allowed family members to come and go and hang around as if it was a normal family home, served only their ethnic foods and was not keeping up the care on the home. This was very disconcerting to the woman and she did remove her mother from the home and chosen to take care of her herself. Which is what many are choosing to do because the costs end up meeting the same as the income they were trying to earn in the first place.

Now, having said this, I know for a fact that a qualified care facility with little turn-over and properly maintained premises is not cheap. Paying the staff what they deserve for the hard work, and think about it, it is hard work otherwise we would not have the need for these types of residential and commercial care locations, are key to running a safe and clean environment. Familiarity or routine is key to helping the elderly feel safe and willing to participate in the care they need. One director told me it takes close to $2000 per new employee to get them properly trained at the level he felt was key to providing the care expected for the fees charged and to remain in compliance with state laws and regulations.

Which brings the next point. There are no standards for care and costs regarding taking care of our elderly citizens aside from the currently established medical and government codes and regulations on running a business or medical practice. That puts the burden on the family to research, vet out and locate places they can both afford and feel their loved ones are safe. This also means they are relying on the homes and facilities to do their ‘due-diligence’ regarding their personnel and policy and procedures.

So here is my final point – the biggest potential for fraud is that the needs will over run the availability of qualified personnel to care and monitor our vulnerable adults. Recent economic conditions create a situation ripe for fraudsters to prey on the elderly either directly or through their caregivers as everyone gets stretched beyond their limits. So here are some ideas that I would like the fraud community to spark conversations on to build a grassroots approach to keeping our loved ones safe and out of harms way.

First, educate as many of those around you on what elder abuse looks like and who and where to report it. Each local city/county has an organization to connect you to the resources available. Second, if you know of someone you think is being targeted or IS unsafe, please reach out to the local law enforcement and ask for them to check in and verify all is well. They have access to governmental agencies for support. Third, ask questions if you need answers regarding the cognitive skill level of our seniors. Early signs may be there and steps need to be taken so they do not become pray to neighbors, family, and other commercial entities looking for easy targets. This includes those of you working in banks and stores.

Now for financial exploitation – this is going to be a very serious situation in the next years ahead. The generation of seniors that are now reaching increased levels of dementia were raised during a time when they understood they needed prepare for retirement. This means most of them have squirreled away some sort of funding to cover their final years. These savings have become an easy target for family, neighbors, and I am sorry to say fellow members of religious organizations to zero in on for support. Befriending the elderly can be easy because they believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt, which means most of them if they are lonely, and they usually are, end up trapped before they know and then have no means to reach out in time to protect themselves from the leeches they have welcomed into their homes and life. Not to mention, if they are in a state of dementia they will not remember what they recently did or agreed to at the time they were parted from their financial future.

Here are some sites to research and get your selves prepared to protect our seniors from harm:

http://helpguide.org/mental/elder_abuse_physical_emotional_sexual_neglect.htm

http://ctwatchdog.com/category/finance/elder-care

http://www.ncea.aoa.gov/ncearoot/Main_Site/index.aspx

http://www.apa.org/pi/aging/resources/guides/elder-abuse.aspx

http://www.calbankers.com/post/preventing-elder-financial-exploitation-how-banks-can-help

http://www.elderangels.com/

http://www.elderangels.com/

 

November 8, 2010

Fraud Victims – When Do They Get Their Day In Court?


I have recently received several responses from victims of fraud asking what it takes to get their cases heard in court. Their plea for help is painful to hear and all of us that investigate and work fraud cases understand that this is not  a small problem, that it is part of a bigger picture. So how do we answer these cries for justice when the there are so many obstacles to overcome?  Let’s talk about the obstacles in getting cases to court.

THE MANY FACES OF FRAUD

Fraud comes in as many forms and is committed by as types of perpetrators as you can imagine. Unless the perpetrators are strung-out drug addicts, they look just like you and me. They are our neighbors, friends, family members and business partners as well as con-artists out looking for a ‘mark’ or victim. They are rarely like the characters pictured in CSI, NCIS and other crime shows. And the timing from start of a case to asking the questions, getting the information and forensic reports back, getting the proper warrants and subpoena’s to get the fraudsters booked takes place is in not hours or days, but months of hard work and focus. Many investigators go out of their way to help fraud victims, but these are not the stories we hear about. This is especially true in elder abuse and exploitation cases, and crimes against children.

WHY DO THEY SAY THEY CAN’T HELP ME?

First, the levels of creativity and focus by fraudsters is undeniably surprising. Most of us that are in the trenches regularly mumble to ourselves that if fraudsters could focus their attention and creative problem solving skills towards the problems of humanity, we may just solve some serious world problems. But they don’t and have all day and lots of connections to find latest, greatest and often complex methods to get ahead of the rest of us. This means the battle to catch and try them involves constant learning, adapting current skill sets and gaining access to new technology. Ask any government office which version of software or hardware they are using and they hang their head and sigh.

The economy has not helped this situation at all. Most law enforcement departments are being hit with increased demands to process fraud cases, but are trying work them without an increase in manpower. I have heard some detectives have an ongoing case load of 15 cases on their desk at one time, and it’s growing. I recently spoke at a conference for law enforcement training about forensic accounting to give them the necessary steps to get ahead of the curve and understand the information they have to process in order to properly document and forward their cases to prosecution. It’s a start, but it’s costly and what ever money that is left over in the budgets is being funneled to keep the lights turned on.

That does not mean they are totally in the dark either. Most government agencies, offices and law enforcement personnel have begun to team up to go after fraudsters. The days of jurisdiction issues is coming to a close. Technology is allowing quick and efficient means of shared information. But it is starting in the areas of better funding and this means not all law agencies are going to be at the same level of technology and manpower. This also means it is going to take more than a village to catch a thief; it’s going to take counties, states and a nation to effect change. And don’t forget you the public. When the public cries out for justice; there is nothing more powerful than a grassroots movement to tell both politician and government that they are not happy with the situation on hand.

BUT I DID EVERYTHING TO HELP THEM AS ASKED!!!

In fraud cases, the victims are required to prove they are victims. This is because there are no physical signs that are tangible proof that a crime has occurred. A rape, murder or sexual assault has tangible evidence that can be processed and documented. But in financial crimes, evidence needs to be documented and verified by professionals. Officers of the law including detectives have not been trained (up until recent years) to work financial crimes. This is added training on top of their required training to physically and mentally deal with their original daily tasks. This is why they ask for victims to provide as complete and documented a case as possible. They are required to verify all that you provide before they can move it forward.

Recently, law enforcement agencies are starting to establish a ‘fraud department’. Most often this new department is manned by a detective or officer that is interested in financial crimes. This also means that funds now must be shared with a new department and all personnel must be educated on the protocol for financial crimes. This is not an easy task and can take a while to get all the necessary technology, training and directives in place. But I am seeing changes and the successes are getting noticed. Hopefully this will show the way for other agencies to begin changes necessary to take cases and move them up the system for prosecution.

YOUR DAY IN COURT

I wish I could say all victims will get their day in court. The courts are inundated by cases. Prosecutors are also overwhelmed. And anytime you involve professional experts, the process can get lengthened based on the complexity and level of detail the expert needs to present to educate judge and jury of the facts. Most jurors do not have any background on fraud or accounting for that matter, and the details need to be exact, simple to understand, and relevant; meaning no rambling on about debits and credits.

It is also expensive to take a case to court. The costs can be more overwhelming than the loss in some cases, and sometimes it destroys the victim more than the fraudster. But that doesn’t mean that prosecutor’s don’t want to take the cases or that detectives don’t want to process the cases. The bottom line lately, is just that. Time and costs are continuing to be obstacles. But again, steps are being taken to make change. In larger areas of population, both law enforcement and government agencies are collaborating on education and establishing standards of protocol to handle fraud cases. This is KEY to bring the necessary change and produce results. Nothing can happen without all agencies and personnel being on the same page to fight crime and provide its citizens the personal rights of safety and freedom from abuse.

YOUR COMMUNITY NEEDS YOU

Having said that, it is also up to the public to report crimes and to hold their own accountable. Often, fraudsters are able to move about society freely because they have been protected by those close by them, or because victims have not reported their crimes. As scary as it sounds, if you don’t file a report, it doesn’t get on the books and into the system. Often law enforcement will check with each other and if they find out they are familiar with that name or their system pulls up that name (even if they were not convicted), the officers have a suspect with a possible fraud pattern. It adds bite to their efforts to stop the thief.  And, there is nothing worse to hear than other victims come forward after the fact, when the fraudster could have been stopped years ago. In order to truly stop criminal fraud, there has to be a grass-roots effort. This includes to understand where the line of ethics and moral standards begins. This includes setting examples at home and work that casual theft, aggressive behavior, and entitlement are not acceptable in our society.

IN CONCLUSION

I realize this is a lengthy post. But I felt it necessary to let those that follow my blog and are victims of fraud, that we do hear the cries of frustration, anger and resentment. That we know there are cases not being handled as quickly, and sometimes, at all. And that what they hear are more than excuses; that there are real obstacles that are being hurdled as we speak, and that change is coming. We are all part of this problem and it will take all of us to resolve it. The public needs to send a message that entitlement is not a right or excuse to take another’s property or livelihood. That is comes with penalties. That as a whole, we the public, in this nation will not tolerate such behavior and empower those dedicated to detect, deter  and defend against perpetrators of fraud, the funding, manpower, and tools needed to protect and take care of our fellow citizens.

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