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Training students to be accounting cops.

Financial crimes are grabbing headlines internationally; interested accounting graduates now have an opportunity to prevent and fight those crimes in various government agencies. For example, President Bush announced the creation of the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, the Securities and Exchange Commission vowed to step up enforcement and the IRS's Criminal Investigation Division (CID) opened 500 new special agent positions in March 2004. The Federal government is positioning itself as a major and growing employer of accountants. In particular, the agents sought by some of these agencies (and the CID in particular) need strong accounting backgrounds (at least 15 accounting hours, plus additional business-related courses), strong communication skills and a willingness to undergo criminal justice training.

To interest students in this type of work, IRS agents have spoken to on campus accounting societies in general terms, censoring the confidential stories that students would probably find most exciting about IRS employment. Consequently, students did not leave with a real sense of an agent's work. In response, the CID developed a creative new event for on-campus administration, during which students of junior standing or above can actually sample the work of financial cops. Students learn that choosing this type of career requires both patience for tedious book work and tolerance for unexpected risks.

Hands-on Crime-Solving

IRS agents, along with faculty and staff, lead interested groups of students through scenarios that can be described as "financial-crime snack theater": although each act is planned overall, the students are left to deal with ad-libbing and some built-in surprises. Created and tested about a year ago by the CID in Michigan, this event took place at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and was the first of its kind held outside of Michigan. About 24 students from roughly seven different majors participated. After a brief introduction and instructions, the students broke up into four multidisciplinary groups of about six students each. Each group solved a different hypothetical crime with financial implications. Typical crimes include drug dealing, identity, theft, money laundering and tax evasion. To solve each case, the students used many different techniques and skills, such as interviewing witnesses, legally searching and seizing, "dumpster-diving" for evidence, staking out, tailing suspects and working undercover. By using hidden cameras and microphones, students in different groups could observe each other and imagine how they would handle a similar situation. The teams then reunited to share their experiences.

Faculty from several departments (e.g., criminal justice, economics, finance and accounting) also participated. They were briefed on their roles in advance and were instructed not to reveal information not directly asked for by the students.

The cases were extensive. Thus, no student did every task, but instead relied on the skills of others to solve a case, as in the real world. Also, by seeing, listening and acting the role of agents, students experienced the career possibilities in a way that speeches and articles alone could not convey.

How to Host an Event

Developing extensive crime scenarios and recruiting faculty and students to participate in an event take planning. If a university wants to be a host, a faculty member can take several steps, beginning with contacting the local CID office.

Develop an IRS partnership: The CID provided fabricated composites of cases that resemble common elements of real crimes (without tax payer confidentiality concerns) including a cast list, supporting documents and a CID facilitator for each group. The CID also brought nonaccounting props, such as bulletproof vests and surveillance equipment. The Corpus Christi campus granted access to facilities and provided modest financial support. It also recruited and prescreened students to ensure that they had sufficient class standing, a grade-point average that would make them eligible for this type of career and the interest and ability to commit to a seven-hour event.

Recruit students: Students were recruited primarily from the accounting and criminal justice departments, but also from other disciplines. Multidisciplinary groups of students are necessary, because cross-training is essential to solve and successfully prosecute financial crimes. For example, during the Corpus Christi event, a communications major was best at interviewing witnesses that had a tendency to ramble or avoid answering a question; an accounting student was good at solving the crime's financial aspects. The accounting students were able to pull together criminal evidence, but had difficulty in making an actual arrest and needed help from criminal justice majors with searches and seizures.

In the weeks leading up to the event, job opportunities in similar fields (e.g., the state comptroller's office) were forwarded to participating students. Two weeks before, a preliminary meeting was held to brief students and answer questions; students were then photographed for the fake credentials needed for the exercise. About 10% of the scheduled participants dropped out at this point. Articles about the profession were distributed in advance to inform and interest students.

Alert local and campus press and police: Cadres of armed "strangers" coming on campus with props, students tracking suspects to faculty vehicles and arrests of faculty members make great photographic opportunities, provided the press is careful not to photograph real agents and to make clear at every opportunity that the crimes are only simulations. For the Corpus Christi event, the campus and the IRS issued a press release and a media alert and ensured that campus police were informed and would not inadvertently help or interfere with the exercise.

Line up facilities and necessary "scenery": Participating campuses will need 12-15 classrooms for about 10 hours each. The classrooms are converted into different scenes, depending on the cases. For example, for the Corpus Christi exercise, scenes included two simplified residences, two offices, a conference room, a casino, a bar, a post office and a magistrate's office. To convert these rooms, faculty can consult the campus drama department, or use classroom furniture and bring props from home.

Solicit faculty and student volunteers: An event requires 8-10 students for about an hour each to convert classrooms to and from scenes. Volunteer students can also play a role as "extras." For example, for one scenario, they played bar patrons. As to faculty, some wanted only to observe, while others played casino dealers, informants, suspects and postmasters. By participating, the faculty was given a chance to talk with special agents and learn specifically about recent overall changes in the field.

Student Views

Student feedback at the Corpus Christi campus was very positive. (The most telling feedback was a team of students who wanted to work through a break.) After finishing their cases, students were asked to complete a survey that measured their attitude toward the exercise on two dimensions: "Was this event beneficial?" and "Was it fun?" Attitude measures comprised multiple components, which were sorted and averaged to form the two basic questions. Overall, the event was highly rated.

Students were also asked to comment on the best aspects of the exercise and to suggest how to improve it. They enjoyed the teamwork and the tasks performed, liked working with and questioning actual agents and found the exercise valuable. As to improvements, students wanted more of everything--participants, cases and opportunities for each student to go undercover, tail a suspect and make an arrest, for example.

Not all students wanted to enter this career after participating in the event, but that in itself is worth knowing before interviewing for a position and committing to a six-month training course. However, the event acutely excited several students who otherwise had not seriously thought about this line of work. As a result of the feedback, the Corpus Christi Accounting and Business Law Department would tentatively like to make the exercise a yearly event.


The IRS is expanding this CID program. At press time, it is planning to hold a similar event at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA, in November 2004, and is looking for other tentative university partners. To present an event, faculty members can contact their local CID office. They can also reach the author via e-mail (see Editor's note) for copies of press releases, media alerts, local news articles, promotional photos, lists of materials, campus budgets, timetables and other materials.

Editor's Note: For more information about this column, contact Prof. Chambers at


Annette Nellen, CPA, Esq.

Professor, Department of Accounting & Finance

San Jose State University

San Jose, CA


Valrie Chambers, Ph.D., CPA

Assistant Professor of Accounting

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi

Corpus Christi, TX
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Article Details
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Author:Chambers, Valrie
Publication:The Tax Adviser
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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