David Lawler, Partner, at Forensic Risk Alliance
Whistleblowing: The disclosure by a person, to those in authority, to a regulator, or to the public, of mismanagement, corruption, illegality, or some other wrongdoing.
It is a given that all companies – once they grow beyond a certain size – will have problems. This is as true for banking and financial service companies as it is in any other sector. It is often the case that as soon as a single proprietor is unable to control directly all aspects of a business’s operations, employees will find ways of bending the rules. In most instances these transgressions are fairly minor and amount to purely internal matters – a bit of petty pilfering from the stationery cupboard here; an inflated expense claim there.
Sometimes, however, things get more serious, and laws are broken that come within the remit of regulators and prosecutors: employees in far-flung locations may pay bribes to get things done, break health and safety regulations, or deliberately overcharge governmental customers. These problems are clearly far more consequential to a company than missing stationery or inflated travel expenses; they can lead to the criminal prosecution of the company itself. Although few companies are likely to match J P Morgan’s $13billion fine, the roll-call of companies with $100 million+ fines, a compliance monitor watching their every move for three years, and debarment from government contracts is increasing and the number of prosecutions growing as regulators from different jurisdictions target the same company.
Banks and financial services companies need to get themselves into a position where they are able to deal with problems in-house, handling such issues internally – before they become of interest to a regulator. They can do this by promoting internal whistleblowing, in the hope that external whistleblowing is never needed. What distinguishes a good financial sector company from a poor one (or a great company from a good one) is not the extent to which it has problems, but its willingness to learn about, understand and quickly put right those problems that it does encounter.
The US experience of rewarding external whistle blowing
For many years the US has had a mechanism whereby whistle blowers could share in the bounty. Citizens with inside knowledge of fraud being committed by contractors against the government can file what has become known as a qui tam lawsuit on the government’s behalf, receiving a share of the recovery as their reward. Such claims have been filed by people with inside knowledge of false claims that have typically involved healthcare, military, or other government spending programs.
More recently, the US Securities and Exchange Commission’s little-used Whistleblower Bounty Program was extended to cover people coming forward with evidence of any type of share fraud. Specifically, the new ‘Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act 2010’ now means that individuals coming forward with information about frauds or bribery stand to receive between 10% and 30% of amounts close to $1.5 million recovered by the SEC through subsequent enforcement actions. The SEC decides the final amount based on the originality and value of the information provided and how directly it led to the financial penalty being levied against the defendant.
We are already seeing an increase in enforcement activity in the US, as, for the first time, individuals who come across evidence of suspected fraudulent or corrupt behavior have a real financial incentive to report it to prosecutors. Given the large fines in foreign bribery cases in recent years, there could be some big rewards for those prepared to speak out. On October 1, 2013, the SEC announced that it expects to pay more than $14 million to a whistleblower. (All of the SEC’s previous awards had been below $50,000.) Last September, a former UBS banker who blew the whistle on widespread tax evasion by US citizens using the bank’s accounts received a $104 million reward from the US Internal Revenue Service.
Coupled with legal protection under Dodd-Frank from retaliation, such game-changing whistleblower bounties are creating real interest and fear in Wall Street, as headline grabbing amounts create a cottage-industry in employees actively looking at opportunities to whistle blow.
Is there a UK analogue of Dodd-Frank ‘bounties’?
No – not yet. But deep in the detail of the Home Office’s ‘Serious Organised Crime Strategy’ paper published in October 2013, is the Governments desire to consult on incentivizing UK whistleblowers, including “provision of financial incentives to support whistle blowing in cases of fraud, bribery and corruption.” i
Of course, most employees don’t in any case blow the whistle to the regulator for money, or out of ill will toward the company. Most tried or wanted to report wrongdoing internally, but simply didn’t know how to, got turned away, or worse. UK banks and financial services companies operating in the US will start to experience employees and counterparties whistleblowing into US authorities, and because of the information sharing that goes on between global regulators and prosecutors, UK companies will begin to feel the knock-on effects.
With the increased implementation of Dodd-Frank ‘bounties’, it is even more important that companies get the message across that they take employee concerns seriously, to encourage any would-be whistleblower to report directly to the company, and not to the government.
An effective internal ‘speaking up’ mechanism
Individuals are more likely to take action with respect to unacceptable behavior if there is a formal policy in place which offers near-absolute confidentiality, and explains exactly ow the subsequent investigations will be dealt with.
For companies subject to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, this anonymous reporting requirement must also be extended to third parties. Accordingly, companies often establish an anonymous telephone hotline or use an internet-based mechanism for anonymous communications and to encourage employees to express concerns. Having a clear, easy-to-use whistleblowing procedure in place, and making sure that employees know about it, will go a long way towards encouraging them to turn to their employer first when something is amiss.
There is, of course, the potential for misuse, and to use whistleblowing to settle or escalate private arguments. It is therefore extremely important both to safeguard the confidentiality of the whistleblower, and to investigate properly all allegations made. This is often best achieved by whistleblowers being able to get in touch with a designated member of the compliance department, or even the board. While many individuals will be reluctant to go directly to their boss (who might be involved), it can sometimes be easier to go to the very top.
Finally, remember that whistleblowing is not easy. For most people, fear is a more common cause of corrupt behavior than greed. People want to avoid conflict, and speaking up can taint a person’s career, even if their suspicions are vindicated, so many individuals just keep quiet. It takes courage to report wrongdoing. Even the terminology used can send an important message: so start with changing the name. ‘Speaking up’ has a far more positive connotation than ‘whistleblowing’.
David Lawler is an expert forensic accountant with over 20 years’ experience in white collar and anti-corruption investigations, insolvency litigation, and in valuing and appraising troubled, declining or formative businesses. He quantified and reported on gain and disgorgement analysis for a number of international companies charged with breaches of the FCPA by US enforcement authorities. David also performs intensive reviews and tests of the FCPA/anti-corruption systems and controls in place at overseas branches of several multinational energy and mining companies, including extensive compliance audits in South America, West Africa and Asia. David frequently serves as an expert witness on profitability, viability, and value, and assists companies to appraise and tighten their financial controls and procedures, including regulatory compliance programs.
David is the author of the textbook, ‘Frequently Asked Questions in Anti-Bribery and Corruption’ published by John Wiley & Sons in March 2012. Prior to joining FRA, David trained as a Chartered Accountant with Deloitte, before moving to set up the London forensic capability at Kroll, and then at Begbies Traynor.
Editor’s note on FRA:
Forensic Risk Alliance (FRA) is a consulting firm with offices in the US, UK, France and Switzerland. It helps businesses to resolve complex and high-risk financial, legal and regulatory challenges. Its people provide independent, conflict-free advice and litigation support services, often in the local language as its team speaks virtually all of the world’s key business languages, including most European languages as well as Arabic, Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese, Malay and Bahasa Indonesia. FRA collects and analyzes data for use in legal disputes and investigations (often cross-border) in a number of areas, including litigation, fraud, bribery and corruption investigations. The company has extensive worldwide project experience in Latin America, Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. FRA is one of only ten companies in the world approved to carry out validation audits for the EITI (Extractive Industries Transparency) Initiative which evaluate how well a country’s government conforms to the EITI’s standards of transparency in reporting revenue received from the extraction of natural resources. Members of the FRA team also provide expert witness testimony in court when required and have recently contributed two chapters to the Serious Fraud Office’s book ‘Serious Economic Crime – a boardroom guide to prevention and compliance’.
Top 8 Tax Scams to Watch Out For
It is tax time and that means finding the best way to file your taxes and to get a refund of any amount you’ve overpaid. Unfortunately, tax time also means plenty of scammers are thinking of new and clever ways to try and get their hands on your money or on your personal information (which they can use to get money).
Those who specialize in IRS tax scams are clever and can be very convincing. Your first line of defense is to always know what to be looking for in terms of common tax fraud in order to avoid being another victim.
8 Most Common Tax Scams
Protecting yourself from IRS tax scams can be tricky if you’re not aware of what the threats are. A good tax scam seems legitimate, and that is what makes them dangerous. Always be on the lookout for the eight most common tax scams, including:
- IRS Phone Scams
- Fake IRS Emails
- Fraudulent Tax Preparers
- Fraudulent Tax Refunds
- Fake Charities
- Set Up Offshore Accounts
- Empty Promises
- Frivolous Returns
To know what exactly you need to watch out for, let’s look at them in more detail.
1. IRS Phone Scams
If someone calls you claiming to be from the IRS, it is almost certainly one of many IRS phone scams. The IRS will never call you to demand money for back taxes or to confirm your personal information, so be immediately alert. Never give personal information over the phone, and don’t head to the bank to follow the demands for money.
If you do wind up on the end of an IRS phone scam, don’t become flustered by aggressive tactics by the fake “agent”. They are good at sounding threatening and demanding information or payments. Remain calm and ask for contact information. Tell the scammer you’ll call them back with the information. Either the scammer will give you fake information or he will work to avoid leaving any information at all. Regardless, don’t call him back. Simply report the call to the local police or the IRS.
2. Fake IRS Emails
Another very common fake IRS scam is phishing, or sending fake IRS emails, in a ploy to gather personal information. Fake emails will look authentic and will ask you to click on a link or to log in to a fake IRS website. The purpose of these emails is to simply gather your personal information to be used for other fraudulent purposes.
Just like with IRS phone scams, you should be immediately wary if the IRS appears to send you an email. The IRS does not contact citizens through email. All official IRS communication will come through standard mail. If you do find a fake IRS email in your inbox, forward it to the IRS. The IRS investigates these scams and has a dedicated email address for this very purpose: [email protected].
3. Fraudulent Tax Preparers
Some scam artists show up in a suit, open a storefront and offer to prepare your tax return for you. These tax preparers appear by all accounts to be absolutely legitimate, and many go to great lengths to convince customers of their years of experience and authenticity.
As a fraudulent tax preparer, however, the person is not legitimate. The scam artist can use your tax return in many ways for his own benefit. He can inflate your refund and skim off the top. He can charge outrageous fees for filing on your behalf. He can file your return correctly this year and gather all of your information to make a fake return for his benefit next year.
If you are going to have someone else prepare your taxes, be sure to look carefully through tax service reviews. Tax service reviews are available on many different websites that offer feedback on companies and services. These reviews will give you a very good idea about the legitimacy of the business and the reliability of the preparer. If a company doesn’t have any tax service reviews on any website, like e.g PissedConsumer.com, or BBB, that may be a sign that it’s a pop-up company that will disappear as soon as the scammer has what he wants.
4. Fraudulent Tax Refunds
Another very popular tax scam starts well before the tax season. To file a fraudulent tax return, the scammer must gather all pertinent personal information including a social security number. He then uses the information he gathered to file a fake tax return on your behalf. Naturally, he’s not going to send you the refund he’s claiming – that goes into the scammer’s pocket.
The best way to prevent a fake tax return is to guard your personal information close at all times. If nobody is able to steal your identity, they can’t file a tax return. Another good step is to file your own tax return as early as possible. That way, even if your information was stolen somehow, you will get your refund correctly and the IRS will be alerted when someone files a second return using your information.
5. Fake Charities
Charitable donations are tax-deductible if you’re itemizing your deductions. This creates possibilities for scammers to take advantage of others who are looking to reduce their tax burden and increase their refund by making donations. Fake charities can take on many shapes and forms.
Some may appear conveniently around tax time or be affiliated with fraudulent tax preparers. The claim is that by donating to a fake charity you will help others and reduce your own tax liability. Instead, you’re giving someone free money and you won’t be able to deduct the donation as it’s not a real charitable organization. Other fake charities involve you in a scam by promising to give you back your donation as soon as the tax return is filed, for example. It goes without saying that claiming a donation you didn’t actually make is tax fraud and highly illegal.
At the advice of his tax preparers, a famous country singer Willie Nelson moved some of his money into tax shelters and charities to help reduce his tax bill. The IRS grew suspicious of the moves and investigated. In one of the most famous IRS cases in the United States, Willie Nelson was hit with a tax bill in the millions when his charities and shelters were found to be invalid.
Willie didn’t have the funds to make the payments, so the bill continued to grow until the IRS finally grew so frustrated they raided and seized all of Willie Nelson’s properties including a recording studio, a ranch, and his home. Even that wasn’t enough to pay the bill, so eventually, Willie made a deal with the IRS. He recorded an album and all proceeds from that album went directly to the IRS to whittle away his debt. Willie did file suit against the accounting firm that advised the tax shelters in the first place, but the two parties settled out of court.
6. Set Up Offshore Accounts
Some tax scams sound good but require your participation in illegal activities. For example, you may meet an unscrupulous tax “professional” who offers to help you move some of your money into an offshore account.
This sounds legitimate as many people use offshore accounts for valid reasons, but by moving your funds into an offshore account with the intent of hiding that income from the IRS, you’re committing tax fraud. Additionally, if you’re working with a shady professional, it’s highly likely that neither you nor the IRS will see your extra income ever again. And you can still wind up with a legal case with your money stolen and gone.
7. Empty Promises
The tax preparer who encourages you to sign a blank tax form is nobody you want to work with. These preparers encourage you to simply sign the form because he or she is going to work out the numbers for you so that you can get the highest possible refund. If you do this, you are almost certainly subjecting yourself to tax filing scams.
Signing a blank tax form is potentially worse than simply signing a blank check for a stranger. Not only are you at risk of losing your personal information and any refund you might be owed, but you are also at risk of legal action by the IRS for signing your name on a refund that is almost certainly going to contain false and fraudulent information.
8. Frivolous Returns
The IRS sees a ridiculous number of what they call “frivolous returns” every year. A frivolous return is a tax return that is filed with the intent of simply wasting time. These frivolous claims have already been thrown out in court, so filing a tax refund making a frivolous claim is simply opening yourself up to additional action by the IRS including fines of at least $5,000. The top “frivolous claims” include:
- Refusing to pay taxes on moral or religious grounds
- “Opting out” of paying taxes
- Invoking the First Amendment to “protect” you from taxes
- Claiming only Federal Employees pay federal taxes
- Claiming you have no income and therefore no tax liability (when you clearly do)
Top 3 Tips on How to Protect Yourself from IRS Tax Scams
Protecting yourself from tax fraud is a matter of being vigilant and mindful that there is always a possibility of something going wrong. Work with a trusted advisor or study up and file taxes yourself to avoid the uncertainty of allowing others to handle your financial matters. Often a bit of knowledge goes a very long way.
1. Know How the Tax System Works
One of the most common negative IRS reviews is that the tax refunds aren’t released immediately. In many IRS complaints, customers complain that they don’t get their refunds immediately.
While frustrating to wait, the IRS is usually very clear about processing times and has never sent refunds immediately after the filing window opens. The government doesn’t move quickly and reviews of documents and financial information submitted in your returns are necessary.
Additionally, relying on others to help you file your taxes every year can open you up to the possibility of fraudulent activities. Reviewing the tax codes and reading through the laws and requirements may not be exciting, but it will give you at least a basic understanding of how the process works so that you can look out for problems if you are trusting someone else with your information and money.
2. Always Read Carefully
The safest way to file your taxes is to do them by hand on the original IRS paper forms and to mail them using certified mail. Many people don’t choose to do this, however, as it can be very tedious and confusing if you do not know the tax system backward and forwards.
Instead, many filers rely on tax software and paid tax preparers. When using software or allowing someone to use the software on your behalf, it never gets too comfortable. There might be hidden fees in the software or glitches to overcome.
Reviewing choices carefully as the software takes you from screen to screen is a good way to avoid accidentally accepting hidden fees. Another option to avoid paying for fees you aren’t comfortable with is to simply abandon the return on one piece of online software and to try again with another – there are multiple tax return software options available.
3. Always Look for Tax Filing Scams
If you always expect to find a scam, you’ll never be surprised when one appears. Even tax preparers who have been in business for years can have some deceptive business practices that others assume are necessary or haven’t noticed them at all.
Tax time can be exciting if you’re entitled to a large refund, but it can be stressful if you don’t feel in control of the tax filing process. Educate yourself on the risks and tax scams that exist, and always exercise caution when choosing a method to file your taxes. Your personal information is closely tied to your money, so protecting both of them is often simply a measure of keeping your eyes wide open and using your knowledge to avoid traps and scams.
These 5 Payments Trends Once Seemed Revolutionary. In 2021, They’ll Continue to Become the Norm
By Warren Hayashi, President, Asia-Pacific, Adyen.
The pandemic forced brands to transform their businesses in ways that are here to stay
After a year of such great uncertainty, attempting to predict the future may seem risky. But even as brands and retailers faced unprecedented upheaval in 2020, one constant has held true. The pandemic has accelerated trends toward digitisation—and that’s as true in payments as in so many other areas of business and society. The stark reality of needing to avoid close contact with others has driven transformations for retailers and brands in a matter of months that in the past might have taken years. In the process, behaviours and expectations have changed for good.
As 2021 begins, much uncertainty remains but we feel confident that the digital transformation of payments will only get faster. Even after the pandemic has receded and consumers have the option to go back to their old behaviours, many won’t. The rapid increase in e-commerce seen under COVID-19 will persist, especially among previously digital-hesitant consumers. Merchants can no longer assume that their digital customers are limited to younger, tech-savvy shoppers. As brands have shown flexibility during the pandemic, consumers have also come to expect the flexible arrangements to continue. On that note, these are the key trends in payments that should be top-of-mind for brands and retailers in Singapore and Asia Pacific in 2021:
- Contactless will extend its reach into every corner of retail
From the start, the pandemic forced merchants to find ways to minimize the amount of physical contact necessary to complete a transaction. Customers and workers alike sought to avoid handing over credit and debit cards, touching keypads, and handling cash. According to our 2020 Agility Report 58% of APAC respondents preferred to use contactless payment methods because of hygiene concerns.
Our data also showed that the use of services such as Apple Pay and Google Pay has significantly increased over the last year too. Research from Kantar reiterates this, revealing that the frequency of e-Wallets transactions in Southeast Asia rose from an average of 18% pre-COVID-19 to 25% post-COVID-19, indicating a shift from one payment method to another.
In the post-pandemic world, the transition to contactless will only become more widespread now that the bar has been raised among consumers for what checking out can be, from one-click payments to same-day delivery options. Not to mention, the value of QR codes has also been made apparent in anchoring a seamless experience, not just at point-of-sale but at multiple points along the customer journey too, such as viewing menus and placing orders. The pandemic may have driven the change in behavior, but the superior user experience will cement contactless as the new normal.
- The distinction between offline and online will fade into irrelevance
As countries went into different forms of lockdown, many shoppers were unable to enter brick-and-mortar stores throughout 2020. Unifying offline and online became an issue of survival for retailers, who quickly pivoted to make app-powered deliveries and self-pick up options a reality.
Even while most physical stores in Singapore have opened their doors to consumers again, the digital infrastructure will remain in place. Many shoppers continue to prefer the convenience of deliveries and expect the options to continue, and retailers will find they’re able to forge better customer relationships thanks to the rich data generated by digital transactions.
One of the biggest learnings for the industry is the need to rethink the traditional split between offline and online stores. With lines increasingly blurred, retailers will benefit from adopting a unified commerce approach where brand interactions on and across all channels are important.
- The membership model will reign in retail and also in food and beverage
The membership model is another emerging trend for 2021. Amazon Prime is a great example of this, where customers pay an annual fee that in effect encourages them to buy more from Amazon in an effort to ensure they’re getting their money’s worth from their Prime memberships. Quick-serve restaurants especially are seeking to seize some of that flywheel effect. In addition to improved incremental spend, membership programs enable QSRs to get to know their customers in ways that were never possible when they were just anonymous faces standing in line.
Meanwhile, subscription passes encourage loyalty and more frequent use. Our 2020 Agility Report found that 38% of Singapore respondents (compared to 27% in APAC and 22% in Europe) signaled their interest in using these for products, including food passes, to reduce the amount of times they need to shop. Expect to see more retailers offering memberships in 2021 as brands seek to own the customer relationship and the data that goes along with it.
- Installments will become an everyday way to pay
The twin forces of increased convenience and tightened household budgets have brought pay-by-installment options mainstream, a trend that will only grow in 2021. Machine learning algorithms have become more adept than ever at assessing risk instantaneously, making it easy to offer “buy now, pay later” options right at checkout. For small and mid-ticket items, shoppers know that, say, instead of paying $100 now, they’ll pay $25 per month for four months. That kind of transparency makes it easier for shoppers on the fence to commit, which appeals to merchants hoping to avoid the dreaded abandoned shopping cart.
In 2021, providers of “buy now, pay later” options themselves will start to diverge, as some focus on higher-end, multi-year agreements, while others seek to offer installment plans for shopping baskets as small as $50. For households increasingly accustomed to paying by the month for everything from streaming services to food delivery premium memberships, installment plans start to look like subscriptions that just happen to have a fixed end date.
- The checkout-less experience will draw shoppers back to brick-and-mortar
In 2020, the appeal of an in-store experience offering limited human contact took on a new dimension, accelerating interest in doing away with the checkout counter altogether. For instance, in Singapore, BHG is looking to expand its endless aisle offering. By using interactive screens in-store, customers are able to check on inventories across all of BHG’s stores and e-commerce platform and can opt to have items to be delivered directly to their homes. Post-pandemic, shoppers will still find appeal in the human touch. The physical store continues to be relevant, especially in Asia Pacific and eliminating checkout counters frees staff to interact with shoppers in a more personal way, while also making lines a thing of the past.
In 2021, more stores will find various ways to make checkout a less prominent part of how people shop in-store. Multiple providers are creating their own versions of checkout-less experiences, where instead of going to the counter, customers will scan their items with their phones’ cameras, pay via app, and head out the door—a combination of increased trust and decreased friction that helps cultivate customer loyalty. In the case of Love, Bonito in Singapore, if customers are unable to find a particular item in store, they can go to an iPad within the premises, buy it online and have it shipped to their homes.
Across the five trends, this paradigm shift in the retail sector is underpinned by the under-tapped potential of technology to elevate the customer experience. Looking ahead in the new year, we expect retailers to increasingly harness digital solutions. Not only does this streamline operations, it also gives retailers the flexibility to pivot in line with changing preferences, and provide a seamless consumer journey across multiple channels.
Bitcoin heads for worst weekly loss in months
By Tom Westbrook
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Bitcoin wavered on Friday and was heading toward its sharpest weekly drop since September, as worries over regulation and its frothy rally drove a pullback from recent record highs.
The world’s most popular cryptocurrency fell more than 5% to an almost three-week low of $28,800 early in the Asia session, before steadying near $32,000. It has lost 11% so far this week, the biggest drop since a 12% fall in September.
Traders said a report posted to Twitter by BitMEX Research https://twitter.com/BitMEXResearch/status/1351855414103715842 suggesting that part of a bitcoin may have been spent twice was enough to trigger selling, even if concerns were later resolved.
“You wouldn’t want to rationalise too much into a market that’s as inefficient and immature as bitcoin, but certainly there’s a reversal in momentum,” said Kyle Rodda, an analyst at IG Markets in Melbourne, in the wake of the BitMEX report.
“The herd has probably looked at this and thought it sounded scary and shocking and it’s now the time to sell.”
Bitcoin was trading more than 20% below the record high of $42,000 hit two weeks ago, losing ground amid growing concerns that it is one of a number of price bubbles and as cryptocurrencies catch regulators’ attention.
During a U.S. Senate hearing on Tuesday, Janet Yellen, President Joe Biden’s pick to head the U.S. Treasury, expressed concerns that cryptocurrencies could be used to finance illegal activities.
That followed a call last week from European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde for global regulation of bitcoin.
Still, some said the pullback comes with the territory for an asset that is some 700% above the 2020 low of $3,850 hit in March.
“It’s a highly volatile piece,” said Michael McCarthy, strategist at brokerage CMC Markets in Sydney. “It made extraordinary gains and it’s doing what bitcoin does and swinging around.”
Second-biggest cryptocurrency ethereum intially slipped to a one-week low on Friday before rising 6% late in the Asia session to $1,177.
(Reporting by Tom Westbrook; editing by Leslie Adler & Simon Cameron-Moore)
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