Every small business owner -- and there are thousands in the Florida Keys -- would like to think their employees are an honest and satisfied bunch who wouldn't dream of stealing from the person who signs their paycheck.
But that's not always the case, and accountant Steve Pribramsky recently became Monroe County's only certified fraud examiner qualified to both prevent and uncover fraud and other forms of business theft.
"A lot of people think the annual external audits they get each year will catch any fraud or theft that's going on," Pribramsky said Tuesday from his Key West office on Fleming Street. "In reality, those audits only detect about 3 percent of fraud instances."
In order to get the Fraud Examiners Certification, Pribramsky, who was already a CPA with a master's degree in accounting, attended about a year of classes and exams.
"I've put together a team of people who would come in to work on a case based on what we need," he said. "I've got CPAs, private investigators and IT people who can restore all the information to a hard drive that's supposedly been 'scrubbed.' Information entered on computers never really goes away."
One of the examples Pribramsky cited when describing the work of a fraud examiner, or forensic accountant, was the case of a medical center that rented a bunch of copy machines.
"When they were finished using them, the company took them back and then sold them to a company that sold them as used copiers," Pribramsky said.
The person who bought one of the used copiers later found micro-images of every single document that was photocopied on that copier.
"We're talking patient medical records, social security numbers, credit card numbers, you name it," he said. "It's one thing to steal cash, but information can be sold several times over."
Pribramsky said he anticipates his fraud clients will be the owners of larger, privately owned companies in the Keys, along with retail businesses that want to catch or prevent theft and other civil matters such as divorce.
In a divorce situation, when one party thinks the other is hiding money to avoid higher alimony payments, fraud examiners will restore and examine computer hard drives for unreported bank accounts and other expenditures.
"Usually, it will be the attorneys who bring me in to a situation," Pribramsky said. "Obviously, we'd like to come in on the front end to help businesses prevent theft. No matter how successful a business is, no one can survive waste, fraud and abuse."
When it comes to business theft, 42 percent of it takes place at the cash register, Pribramsky said.
"Cash is still the most widely stolen asset," he added. "Writing company checks to pay personal expenses is the next most common."
The most helpful thing a business can do is install cameras above the registers and tell the employees they're being taped, he said, relating one client's story:
A local restaurant owner was convinced one or more of his employees was stealing, and he decided to install cameras over the register, Pribramsky said.
The owner called a meeting to alert his employees of the cameras and of the fact they were being recorded.
"After the meeting, one of the waitresses came up to the owner and told him, 'I can't make a living this way,'" Pribramsky said laughing.
Despite the popularity of cash when it comes to theft, information is today's most valuable commodity and it needs to be protected, Pribramsky said.
"Anyone with confidential files such as donor lists, client lists, credit card numbers or medical files needs to protect themselves," he said. "All it takes is a cleaning company, or a delivery person or a vendor to come in, stick a thumb drive into a computer and in 30 seconds collect all the information that they can then sell."
"It's a whole lot cheaper to hire us beforehand, than after an owner has become a victim," Pribramsky said.
He has offices in Key West, as well as the Middle and Upper Keys and will meet personally with clients to determine their needs on a contractual basis.
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