Cindy Greenman, CFE
For me, one thing that came about during the pandemic is that my husband and I love watching movies together. We both have our favorite genres. He prefers the shoot-’em-up action thrillers. I enjoy comedies and dramas. But I especially enjoy a movie that involves parts of my career in the anti-fraud profession.
Hollywood is no stranger to glamorizing the world of fraud. There are many films and television shows out there that cover this topic, and often they are criticized for their portrayal and romanticizing of crimes. Some critics have suggested that these types of portrayals have led to copycat criminals. There is even a film festival in New Zealand focused solely on fraud. The NZ International Fraud Film Festival only includes movies based on scams, forgery, tax evasion and corruption.
Recently, on an ACFE Community discussion post, a question was posed: What is your favorite fraud movie?
Well, here are the results of that post, as well as me posing this same question on the ACFE LinkedIn page. I list these in no particular order, only that they are the top five mentioned in both surveys*.
All the Queen’s Horses (2017)
This documentary was the project of professor Kelly Richmond-Pope. She recounts the story of Rita Crundwell who managed to embezzle more than $53 million from her small hometown while working as the city clerk for over 20 years.
As a professor myself, I assign this documentary to all of my auditing students as well as my forensic accounting students. Some of the main lessons from this documentary are that 1) people see what they want to see, until it is right in front of them and they can no longer deny the truth, 2) smaller organizations are often the most at risk, and 3) the “we’re all family” type atmosphere makes it more difficult to distrust or question our coworkers.
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Even though the movie is nearly 20 years old, it’s still one of the top-rated movies on financial fraud based on the true yet hard-to-believe story of Frank Abagnale. Even before Abagnale turned 19 years old, he was worth millions of dollars. Eventually, he poses as a pilot of a major airline, a surgical doctor, a prosecuting attorney and other professionals without a high school education.
This movie demonstrates that age is meaningless. Abagnale started his crimes at 16, stealing his father’s credit card. It wasn’t until many years later that he was convicted of cashing over $2.5 million in bad checks. The movie illustrates how confidence is truly the key.
The Accountant (2016)
In the movie, the accountant is much more than a number cruncher. He has Asperger’s syndrome, which is on Autism spectrum, and the film portrays him using his disability to quickly decipher the books for crime bosses. The movie has many twists and turns and keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. It is an action thriller with an accounting backdrop.
Lessons we can learn from this movie are:
There’s more than meets the eye. Auditing is more than a desk job.
Do your due diligence when selecting clients and be prepared for anything.
Accounting can be fun and exciting!
The Wolf of Wall Street
This film is based on the true-life story of Jordan Belfort, a financial broker who became enormously wealthy by committing fraud and stock market manipulation. The movie portrays the extravagant lifestyle of Belfort as he drinks, drugs and sexes his way through his early 20s, giving the SEC and FBI ample opportunity to investigate. A little-known fact: Belfort went to federal prison for 22 months where one of his “cube-mates” was Tommy Chong (comedian, actor, activist). It was Chong who convinced Belfort to write his life story, which eventually served as inspiration for the film.
As CFEs, we all know doing our own research is best. This movie gives us good reason to keep believing that is true. Their use of a “boiler room” and aggressive sales tactics shows that everyone should complete their own research and ignore the hype. It also tells us, as investigators, to watch out for those aggressive, cocky wheelers and dealers. In fact, one of the six most common behavioral red flags of fraud, according to the ACFE’s Report to the Nations, is a general “wheeler-dealer” attitude.
Wizard of Lies (2017)
Like many of the films on this list, this one is also based on real-life events. The drama is based on the life and crimes of the late Bernie Madoff, who founded his own company on Wall Street in the 1960s. Over many years his company turned into one of the largest investment funds in the world. His arrest in 2008 revealed the truth behind his multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme, the largest in history.
The investigator in all of us, as CFEs, should learn a few things from this particular piece of history.
Never give up on a hunch. There were a few people who knew something was not right with Madoff’s numbers and kept at it.
Sometimes we have to swallow our pride. If it doesn’t make sense to you, it might not make sense to others either. Swallow our pride and ask others to explain it to us. Madoff used complicated quantitative analytics to keep investigators from getting too close.
*The survey results are not scientific in any way.
SOURCE: ACFE Insights – A Publication of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners