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Business controls reduce employee theft

October 05, 2020 6494

Quick Summary:

One of the most common types of theft in the dental office is staff embezzlement. A recent survey by the ADA found that 48% of respondents had been the victim of embezzlement. Learn what behaviors to watch for and what accounting and employee controls to have in place to help protect the practice.

Being the victim of theft is bad enough, but when that theft is perpetrated by a trusted member of your dental team, it’s especially harrowing. Unfortunately, theft within dental practices is surprisingly common and it’s on the rise. 

One of the most common types of theft in the dental office is staff embezzlement. A survey released in February 2020 by the American Dental Association found that 48% of respondents had been the victim of embezzlement — a 13% jump from a decade prior. Surprisingly, 46% of responding practice owners had been victimized more than once. 

One case reported to The Dentists Insurance Company involved a practice owner who oversaw two offices that were largely operated by associate dentists. He hired a bookkeeper to work for both offices. The owner became aware of possible wrongdoing after receiving a call from the bank alerting him of suspicious signatures on his company checks. Apparently, the bookkeeper had attempted to intercept the alert from the bank, but she could not successfully answer the account security questions. The bank called the office again after the employee abruptly ended the call.

The insured learned that the employee had been using a signature stamp on the checks to provide herself bonuses and cash advances. She listed herself as an employee on the payroll of each office to receive duplicate paychecks. She also used her company credit card to make personal purchases for herself and pay expenses for her husband’s business as well as taking cash advances at a local casino. The employee then used company checks to pay credit card bills, which she allowed to incur late and over-limit fees.

The owner filed a police report and the employee was prosecuted and ordered to pay restitution. As the former employee no longer had assets or a job, the dentist was not able to recover any funds beyond those covered by insurance.

Employee Controls
Dental practices are typically tight-knit workplaces built on trust and camaraderie. Practice owners put their trust in their staff, especially those who have employed many years. However, long-term employees are the most likely to be engaged in theft or embezzlement. The ADA survey found that nearly 40% of employees accused of stealing had been with the practice for four years or more. These are typically employees who handle accounts receivable, accounts payable and banking functions, said Jennifer Duggan, a California attorney specializing in business and employment law.

“The prototypical thief is a long-time employee who is extremely familiar with the financial aspects of your business,” she said.

The telltale behaviors to watch for include the following: 

  • Possessiveness about duties and reluctance to cross-train. Dishonest employees must keep illicit activities hidden so they typically refuse to delegate duties or share responsibilities. They can also be territorial about their workspace.
  • Coming in early/working late. “Ever-present” employees aren’t always just hard workers. This can be a warning sign, as thieves need time in the office away from prying eyes, often before staff has arrived in the morning or after everyone has left at night. 
  • Refusal to take vacation. Illicit activity often surface when the perpetrator takes extended leave and another employee fills in. Asking to cash in vacation or skipping it altogether is a red flag. 
  • Complaints about finances. Frustrated employees who are always short on cash or those facing unexpected expenses are the most likely to commit fraud. Another red flag is an employee who appears to live well beyond their means.

Other best practices, such as conducting dentist-to-dentist reference checks before hiring and cross-training employees for multiple duties, can help prevent dishonest behaviors. 

Accounting Controls
Implementing accounting controls thwarts potential employee embezzlement. Unfortunately, many dentists inadvertently put their practices at risk for fraud by trusting a single employee with financial responsibility or not reviewing accounts payable and receivable. 

Cases reported to TDIC show instances of employees deleting appointment and ledger entries, endorsing patient checks to personal accounts, forging payroll checks, modifying payroll, misappropriating credit cards and using signature stamps without authorization. In some instances, employees have even redirected funds from dentists’ merchant account to their personal accounts or issued phony refunds to a personal account.

In more sophisticated schemes, employees fabricate fictitious vendors, create nonexistent employees, receive kickbacks from patients or from vendors for awarding company contracts or even coerce subordinate employees to carry out theft. 

“Simply reviewing your bookkeeping structure and implementing accounting measures will greatly reduce the probabilities of falling victim to employee theft,” Duggan said. “Instituting controls also communicates to employees that you are paying attention and discourages even the thought of stealing.” 

Other accounting controls to include:

  • Delegate financial tasks among employees, such as opening incoming mail and data entry for deposit and receivable information, to minimize opportunities for an employee to manipulate account information.
  • Separate job functions of reviewing monthly bank statements, entering online payments and preparing monthly bank reconciliations. If you have multiple authorized signers, separate the job functions of preparing the checks and signing the checks reduces risk. 
  • Request that the bank mail statements to your home or personal email address and review statements regularly for unusual accounts-payable names or inconsistencies. 
  • Secure company checks in a location accessible only to authorized employees.
  • Require supporting documentation (a vendor invoice or credit card statement, for example) for every check you sign and review it to ensure expenditures are justified. 
  • Run an accounts-payable history to review invoice numbers and amounts. 
  • Provide specific instructions or guidelines to your bank that include a list of approved vendors and authorized signers. 
  • Watch for an increase in patient refunds, adjustments or bad-debt write-offs. An unusual number of accounts turned over to collections or a decline in the gross income or practice profitability is suspicious. Discrepancies between accounts receivable records and patient statements should also be suspect. 
  • Watch for increases in patient complaints regarding their accounts, which could indicate fraudulent activity or the need to develop a policy clarifying account procedures. Reviewing and responding to patients’ concerns personally is recommended. 
  • Hire a practice software specialist to ensure security controls and work with a consultant to oversee changes in systems.
  • Run an audit report on patient accounts to look for an unusual amount of transactions where an account payment is posted and then the payment is reversed after the deposit has been processed. 

TDIC policyholders can access more guidance on employee embezzlement, including methods, prevention strategies and recovery tips, through the Embezzlement Reference Guide. 

TDIC Commercial Property insurance provides Business Owner’s policyholders coverage for employee dishonesty losses occurring within their practice. If the loss also involves the misappropriation of your identity, TDIC offers identity-theft recovery for the individual dentist under its Professional Liability policy.

If you suspect you may have been the victim of embezzlement, contact your professional insurance carrier immediately. TDIC policyholders have access to trained analysts who will discuss the situation and next steps, including best practices for documenting the fraud. 

TDIC’s Risk Management Advice Line is a benefit of CDA membership. Schedule a consultation with an experienced risk management analyst or call 800.733.0633.

Reprinted with permission from the October issue of the CDA Journal.