Earning an accounting degree online can open the door to many different career paths. One lesser-known but especially intriguing accounting career is forensic accounting. Professionals in this role combine knowledge of financial practices with legal expertise and investigative skills to generate court-ready evidence.
Let’s look at what forensic accounting jobs entail and how an online bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Alabama at Birmingham can prepare students for this dynamic profession.
What is forensic accounting?
Forensic accounting is a specialty practice area of the accounting profession where financial experts can combine their accounting and auditing skills with their financial investigation abilities.
While the forensic accounting job title might suggest that the position is dangerous or that these professionals work around hazardous crime sites, the work is typically done in a traditional office setting.
According to the Forensic CPA Society, the term “forensic” references the fact that the work produced by these accountants is suitable for use as evidence in a court setting. Since a forensic accountant may be called in as an expert witness during a trial, they work to a standard that can hold up to the exacting demands of a court of law in the event that their findings are used in litigation or any other legal dispute.
What does a forensic accountant do?
Forensic accountants cultivate and employ a variety of skills to ensure they can effectively address the needs of their position. They draw upon a combination of generally accepted accounting practices (GAAP) and legal knowledge. Experience with tax codes, financial recordkeeping, complex sales transactions, and more come in handy. These professionals typically work for law enforcement agencies, consulting firms, and accounting firms — including specialized forensic accounting firms.
Forensic accounting work centers around the procurement and analysis of complex financial data. Responsibilities include:
- Practicing all forms of fraud investigation, from credit card fraud and insurance fraud to securities fraud
- Assisting with professional negligence claims and identifying GAAP violations
- Uncovering asset misappropriation, embezzlement, money laundering, and illicit trading
- Assessing damages from white-collar crime and other financial crimes to confiscate or recover misused assets
- Generating detailed reports to help resolve legal matters out of court
- Offering litigation support as an expert witness
While fraud auditors often undertake internal auditing responsibilities to anticipate and prevent fraudulent activities, forensic accountants are typically brought in based on active suspicion of fraud, theft, embezzlement, or similar malfeasance.
How much do forensic accountants make?
Across different specializations, accounting can be a well-paying field for qualified and experienced professionals.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), all accountants and auditors saw median annual earnings of $70,500 in 2018. There were nearly 1.5 million auditor and accountant jobs at the time, with employment opportunities expected to increase at a growth rate of 6%, which is on pace with the national average across all occupations.
A few top job sites offer more specific estimates of the average annual forensic accounting salaries in 2020:
- PayScale: $67,551
- Indeed: $78,547
- ZipRecruiter: $86,255
The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) listed a higher average salary in 2018. It reported average earnings of $104,500 for certified fraud examiners working as forensic accounting professionals and $82,938 for their non-certified counterparts.
In general, it is safe to say that the lowest compensated members of the profession make around $50,000 while top earners can see salaries upwards of $100,000. Actual compensation will vary depending on factors like location, skill level, and experience.
How do you become a forensic accountant?
Forensic accounting jobs call for a specific educational background, skill set, and professional experience. Let’s examine what it takes to become a forensic accountant:
Emerging professionals can enter the field of accounting with an undergraduate degree. Employers typically look for a bachelor’s degree in accounting or finance, such as an online Bachelor of Science in Accounting (BACC) from the Collat School of Business.
A master’s degree in accounting, finance, or forensic accounting may be advantageous, but it is not required for someone who wants to get a foot in the door. In addition to accounting experience and academic preparation, some familiarity with law enforcement or criminal justice can also come in handy.
An emerging forensic accountant must be proficient in technologies such as database management tools and accounting software. This is necessary for a variety of job-related tasks around managing, accessing, and reviewing electronic financial records. An understanding of how electronic systems can be used to obscure or misdirect stakeholders away from nefarious activities is also highly valuable.
In addition, forensic accountants need to cultivate strong communication skills. While all accounting professionals have to communicate information to clients, colleagues, and managers, forensic accountants must clearly document and explain highly complex findings in potentially tense professional and legal settings with internal investigators, high-level decision-makers, courtroom officials, and juries.
Graduates of accounting programs can start as general accountants with just a bachelor’s degree. After gaining one to three years of experience in a professional setting, early-career accountants can seek out forensic accounting jobs.
ACFE data suggests that certified forensic accountants can earn at least 30% more than their non-certified peers. Although it’s not always essential, many employers desire this demonstrated commitment to the field.
With the right coursework and industry knowledge, it’s possible to earn one of the following certifications:
- Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
- Chartered Accountant (CA)
- Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE)
Kick off your accounting career at UAB
Students who want to pursue a forensic accounting career can benefit from the award-winning faculty, flexible study schedule, and well-rounded accounting curriculum available through UAB’s online Bachelor of Science in Accounting program. Our accounting students have access to innovative online courses, 24/7 tech assistance, and support when it comes time to network and search forensic accounting jobs. To learn more, get in touch with an academic advisor today.