Forensic Accounting

Forensic Accounting
A little past Eight AM, December 22nd, 2005

I'm the accountant ("Financial Secretary") for my Latter-Day Saint congregation, and at this time of year we do what's called "Tithing Settlement." I generate statements for ward members, they review them, and discrepancies are ironed out. To preserve confidentiality, I'm changing the names and amounts that will follow.

Sister Jones (the term "sister" is used instead of "miss," "mrs," or "ms" in the Church) called me last night and said that her daughter Andrea, who is not yet in first grade, was somehow credited for donating $450 in July of this year. Obviously, she'd gotten credit for someone else's donation.

It's a simple matter for me to dig out the receipts and deposit records and straighten this kind of thing out. It's important, too -- if only for tax purposes. SOMEBODY out there wasn't going to be appropriately credited for $450 in donations come tax-time. So I dug in, expecting to find a donation slip from Brother or Sister Jones for that amount. As I dug in I realized two things: 1) I'd made this mistake at least once before, with Sister Bennet and HER daughter, and 2) I'd made the mistake with the Bennets in the same donation batch. It must have been a bad day for me.

With the Bennets I'd found the receipt in question. With the Jones, however, I couldn't find a receipt. So with the help of the 1st Counselor (the Bishop's assistant) I went through the whole stack looking for a receipt for $450. We came up with nothing.

I did notice, however, that the receipts were not stacked in the order in which they'd been entered, and lots were facing the wrong way. Since we stack, hole-punch, and "rack" the receipts, this meant that they'd been originally stacked sloppily. And then I remembered... July 3rd WAS a bad day for me. I managed to knock the stack of receipts off the end of the desk, and had to scoop them off the floor. I also had to fish at least a couple out of the trash can at the end of the desk. I must have missed one.

So I decided to attack it from a different angle. How could I have entered the wrong name? The answer is simple -- I used name completion, and instead of typing the name and hitting [ENTER] I typed the name and hit [TAB], which, in this (icky) interface changes the field focus into the name list AND jumps down to the next name down on the list. If I then hit [ENTER] absentmindedly, I'd have the wrong name at the top of the virtual donation slip, and I might not notice.

So I pulled up the name completion list, and the name immediately above "Jones, Andrea" was "Johnson, Maxine". I then pulled up Sister Johnson's donation history, and found that she and her husband donated $450 per month on the first Sunday of every month, like clockwork. Except in July, that is. I then checked our deposit records, and found that the check numbers from the Johnsons bracketed the check number supposedly used by Andrea Jones.

I was really, really pleased with my detective work. I then called the Johnsons to verify that they'd donated in July, and then I adjusted our records accordingly.

The one unlikely bit in all this is that for it to happen this way I had to lose a receipt after entering it wrong. Slim odds? Maybe... but on thinking back, I recalled that I'd been a little flustered during my data entry, and knocked the receipts over while putting one on top of the stack. It's likely that the flustering was my subconscious saying "Hey! You entered that wrong!" while my conscious mind said "I'm in a hurry, leave me alone!" and then the very receipt I'd mis-entered was on the top of the pile when it tipped over, and was the first to hit the wastebasket.

That last bit isn't forensics. It's speculation. Still, I'm pleased. I'll probably be the Ward Financial Secretary for a couple of years at least, and I'm already good at it. I like being good at things.

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