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Payroll fraud could be hurting your startup, here’s how to fight it

Payroll fraud is more endemic than many business owners realise, and this problem is not exclusive to small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

The 2016 ACFE Global Fraud Study revealed that 12% of fraud detection in small business came from an internal audit, whereas in larger enterprises this was 18.6%. For SMEs the detection of fraud is less frequent than larger organisations, however, it is still a high statistic to ensure companies are aware of the risks.

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One of the biggest tips for small business owners is to become suspicious if a member of your payroll department never goes on leave, arrives early and leaves late. This should raise a red flag as this person may be taking steps to ensure that nobody else does their job and cannot discover their crime.

While SMEs may not necessarily have internal audit departments, there are three main types of payroll fraud to look out for:

1. Ghost employees

The hardest type of payroll fraud to orchestrate and detect, but also potentially the most lucrative, is the engineering of a ghost employee. The employee that is created is either fictional or could be a real person who doesn’t work for the company he or she is being paid by.

The payroll administrator will add the ghost employee to the payroll and then the monthly salary will be paid. If it’s a wage employee, then this is more difficult to prove, but with electronic payments a payment trail is left and can be spotted.

I recently worked on one of my biggest fraud cases yet where an HR Manager defrauded the company. He orchestrated this by creating ghost employees where he made changes to 11 bank accounts. This went unnoticed by the company for 4 years and it cost them R6.8 million. This has had a massive impact on their business.

2. False wage claims

For employees who want to pay their monthly income, false wage claims are filed. Incidentally, it is also one of the types of payroll fraud where the employees experience less guilt. They could be adding extra hours to their timesheets for hours not worked, getting colleagues to clock in and out for them, or if they are sales executives, to exaggerate their sales figures to get paid extra commission.

3. False expense claims

The most prevalent type of payroll fraud is the submission of false expense claims. This type of fraud comes with an “everyone does it” mindset, where employees can see it is as being acceptable and not fraudulent. These include personal expenses being submitted as business expenses, expenses submitted for events or purchases that never happened, submitting duplicate claims and inflating claims.

In addition to the financial loss experienced by the business, this type of fraud has tax implications where a company may be unable to deduct tax or be liable for penalties if they don’t have the correct paperwork for the expenses.

Fighting payroll fraud

For business owners, identifying payroll fraud and then being able to collect the necessary evidence to be able to stop this from continuing is about putting checks and measures in place:

1. Proper separation of duties

One effective way to mitigate the risk of payroll fraud in your business is to assign responsibility for different payroll duties to different people. For example, different employee members should ideally be responsible for capturing payroll data; for adding and removing employees; and for verifying the pay run and signing off the payroll. This gives you a clear audit trail, ensures a clear line of accountability, and puts strong checks and balances in place. In this sort of environment, someone should quickly pick it up when there’s something unexpected happening in the payroll.

2. Invest in automated solutions

A robust payroll solution will reduce the possibility of human error in or tampering with your payroll – reducing opportunities for payroll fraud and enabling you to more easily provide accurate and timely information to SARS. Given the complex nature of payroll calculations today even in a small business, an automated payroll solution is essential if you want to make sure that the figures are correct.

3. Bank account and ID number verification

In order to identify ghost employees, you need to follow a few steps when you pay a person on your payroll – to ensure that the person exists, that he/she is the person you wish to pay, that the bank account you will pay exists, and finally, that the bank account belongs to the person you intend to pay. A good payroll solution will feature online ID number and bank account verification to enable you to do just that.

When payments made do not match the budget, this can immediately raise a red flag, an investigation can take place and the fraud can be stopped – before more financial harm is done to the business.

Since payroll is one of the biggest expenses in any business, payroll fraud or errors in capturing your payroll data can be costly. As the global market leader of integrated accounting, payroll and payment systems we at Sage are changing the way that millions of businesses track the movement of money through their business.

A reluctance to prosecute someone for payroll fraud will mean fraudsters get away with moving from company to company to commit the same crimes. This is why it is vital for such cases to be reported in order to reduce the growing risk.

Feature image: GotCredit via Flickr.

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