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Faculty Spotlight – Alexis C. Bell Current ACFE Board Chair – Part II

In Part I, we learned how Alexis C. Bell, a May 2017 Utica College graduate, got started in her fraud management career and made the decision to advance her education with a master's degree. Now we discuss her experience in Utica's Financial Crime and Compliance Management (FCM) program.

An Industry-Advancing Thesis

The title of my thesis was Investigative Challenges of Fraud in Microfinance Institutions — it covered the challenges of managing investigations in developing economies from a global perspective. While I found preliminary research on the general effectiveness of microfinance at a country level, I didn't identify any prior research on conducting investigations, much less the challenges of conducting them internationally.

The project ended up being a lot larger than I anticipated, but at the same time, it gave me the opportunity to go deeper into a topic that had never been written about before. It was a pioneer paper.

The abstract for it was submitted and selected for the annual American Society of Criminology (ASC) Conference in Philadelphia. I learned it was the first time a Utica College student's paper had been selected for presentation at the ASC. It was a definite honor. Dr. Choo, who was my committee chair, was there. It was such a great experience!

An Engaged Faculty Mentor

Dr. Choo provided great support during the entire 16-week thesis process. I could call him if I had questions. If I was traveling, I would email him and he would respond right away.

The ability to work remotely allowed me to do my thesis defense from Florida. My reviewers were in Utica, Tampa, Buenos Aires, Cairo, and Dubai, so we had conference calls for any in-depth conversations that needed to take place. As a result, I was given permission to present my thesis defense to the committee via live video feed.

From Writing Papers to Writing Books

The first book I wrote was in 2009. I developed an analysis to examine the movement of financial statements over a five-year period, which produced visibility into fraud risk by scheme for earnings manipulation scenarios. Now, I'm working on the third edition of the book that incorporates key updates to the model.

I don't know if you remember, but mortgage fraud was the fastest-growing fraud scam trend in the United States for a number of years. I conducted a case study on a 74-point indictment from Florida that I found very interesting. I developed a link analysis — a way to present relationships between people, events, locations, key documents, and times — for the case and wrote a short book on the topic. I've used that link analysis in my teaching a lot over the years, as it illustrates the ability to create a picture out of a complex financial case and present it to a jury in a way that they can easily understand.

The last book I wrote applies to a much wider audience and has nothing to do with fraud — though lessons from the fraud world were applied to the structure of the book's key framework. I took concepts I studied over the span of many years, combined them with more than 20 years of field experience, and applied them to relationships.

The first part of the book explains the scientific ways in which we differ. This understanding is the foundational tool necessary for letting go of judgments about each other. The second part explains the framework for conflict resolution inside of relationships, and how we can heal conflicts rather than ignoring them. At the end, there are exercises to practice what you've learned.

All of my publications can be found on the Fraud Doctor website.

Favorite Class? All of Them

I was familiar with the topics in most of my classes, except for the networking course, which was quite fascinating to me as a nerd. Cybersecurity is often thought of as being separate from fraud, but that is not the case at all. We learned about cryptography and other topics that really provided a foundation to better understand some of the things that we're seeing as cybersecurity practitioners in the field.

Preparing for the Certified Fraud Examiners (CFE) Exam

When I was in undergrad at Cornell University, I knew that I wanted to go into forensic accounting, but there was zero information in the career center about how to do it. Then I stumbled across the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) and became an associate member. At that time, all of the training for the fraud investigative methodology was coming from the ACFE.

To become a certified fraud examiner (CFE) requires, among other things, two years of experience working in the field, in addition to letters of recommendation and the four-part exam. To prepare, most people study a few hours a night over the course of a year and take the exam. When I started working in forensic accounting, I had been averaging 98 billable hours a week for years — it was impossible to study. So, in order to make time to prepare, I did something a little drastic that I don't necessarily recommend: I took a week of vacation from work and rented a hotel room where I spent each and every waking moment studying.

I had zero distractions from family, work, or other obligations. I was heads-down studying for a whole week. At the end of that week, I took the exam and passed.

Why the CFE Exam Matters

In my program cohort, I found that there were very few CFEs. I'd say 40 percent of my classmates were law enforcement officers getting ready to retire who wanted to transition into a corporate setting. Many others were transitioning their careers and went through the program at Utica College with the intention of taking the CFE after they earned their degree.

When I first started in this industry, there were no degree programs. The only way into the field was to get an entry-level position, learn on the job, and then study for your CFE exam. Now, anti-fraud degrees, like the pioneering programs at Utica College, are highly sought after by people who want to make this a career.

Earn the Degree, Prepare for the Exam

I view both the CFE and degree programs as predominantly learning theory vs. experiencing the real-world process. Studying for the CFE exam gives you the terminology and methodology needed to navigate the anti-fraud industry — especially for forensic accounting — as it delves into broad concepts and theories.

The financial crime and compliance management (FCM) master's program exposes students to additional aspects of the anti-fraud industry through case studies, short research projects, and academic writing and publishing opportunities that can help to advance their careers.

Over the years, I have observed more organizations requiring the CFE certification credential for anti-fraud professionals. Increasingly, it is required for anything above entry-level positions in the field. Likewise, the advanced degree is becoming required for career advancement to get to that next management level.

Getting Involved With the ACFE

Early in my forensic career, I got involved with the local ACFE chapter. The chapter is tasked with providing enough training hours for your CPE credits to maintain your designation.

I became the board secretary of the chapter and then the president. In December 2016, I won the election to be a member of the Board of Regents — that's the international board of directors for the ACFE. I was elected as the global board treasurer in February 2017.

It's an honor just to be a candidate for the overarching board, as nearly 80,000 Certified Fraud Examiners voted worldwide. To actually be elected was just amazing. It's a highly coveted position. You're only allowed to serve one two-year term in a lifetime, so you have to make an impact while you can. In February 2018, I was elected as the global chair of the board. It has truly been an honor to serve my fellow fraud fighters to advance the profession.

One of my favorite things about being involved in the ACFE's Board of Regents was the ability to meet every single person at headquarters — all 95 of them. I knew people by name and role through talking to them on the phone and through email over the years. It was an amazing experience to finally meet them in person and hear how passionate they all were about fighting fraud.

What struck me most was the fact that every single person I met loved their job and understood the impact they had in making the world a better place. I don't think everybody can say that about their job. I also absolutely loved that everybody was doing something on a daily basis for their job that required integrity.

The Future of the Industry

The ACFE has been in existence for 30 years and we are seeing membership grow globally. We've already reviewed and updated some of the standards for membership based on committee recommendations and feedback from members. We have adopted those changes because it's important for us to stay abreast of the changing world. We want to make sure our standards reflect that.

Organizations and multinational corporations are branching out to the rest of the world, beyond the borders of United States. As such, their internal anti-fraud programs have a broader reach as well. That impacts how we prevent, detect, respond to, and learn from fraud.

We must develop a deeper understanding of the cultures in which we build programs. This, in turn, impacts the technical training, governance structure, fraud risk assessments, data analytics, and communication strategies we deploy for those anti-fraud programs.

I attended the third-annual Middle East Fraud Conference last year in Abu Dhabi. It's promising to see more countries embracing the CFE designation. It's enlightening to meet fellow anti-fraud professionals and discuss both challenges and opportunities to identify areas where we can help each other in our common goal.

Teaching at Utica College

I'm honored to be here. It's exciting to think of the impact I could have on someone through education. Education took me from living in a car to being the board chair for an organization that developed the anti-fraud profession.

I teach FCM 612 The Manager in a Global Environment course. Dr. Choo selected me to teach that class because I've managed large anti-fraud teams at the global level for public and non-profit organizations. I hope to provide that real-world perspective as we go through the class.

Did You Miss Part I?

Check out Part I of this series on Alexis C. Bell to learn more about her experience leading up to when she joined Utica College's M.S. in Financial Crime and Compliance Management program.

You can also request more information to learn more about where this master's can take you, or call (315) 732-2940 or (866) 295-3106 to speak with a Program Manager.