An Interview with Joe Epps
“Forensic accounting requires a mind that can find creative approaches to problems like partially destroyed documentation, missing records or fraudulent evaluations.”
Joe Epps is a professor of forensic accounting at Arizona State University and Rio Salado Community College in Tempe, Arizona. He teaches courses in forensic accounting and white-collar crime, as well as financial forensics in law enforcement.
Professor Epps has a Master of Education from University of Phoenix and Bachelor of Science in Business and Accounting from California State University. In addition to teaching, he owns Epps Forensic Consulting, a private forensic accounting and forensic technology firm that offers its own financial forensics training program.
In your own words, what is forensic accounting?
Forensic accounting is a form of financial investigation that assesses value and losses and constructs financial records where none may be present. Government agencies may use forensic accountants to track down white-collar crimes or assess losses due to natural disasters, while private individuals or companies may hire forensic accountants to protect themselves from litigation or internal corruption.
What classes do you teach in forensic accounting?
I teach classes in forensic accounting, white-collar crime and financial forensics in law enforcement. My graduate-level forensic accounting course is for students who plan to get their certified public accountant (CPA) certification. Some of them may go on to obtain a forensic accounting certification. Since this field is so new, my course has to cover nearly every important aspect of the profession.
My white-collar crime course is part of the detective training program at Rio Salado Community College. I teach financial analysis and forensics to law enforcement officers who may have to use it in the field. Every police officer in Phoenix who wants to become a detective has to take my course.
I also teach a course through my firm called Financial Forensics in Law Enforcement (FFLE). This course trains every type of law enforcement official who needs to understand elements of financial forensics, including FBI and drug enforcement agents. My goal is to train these officers to identify the signs of white-collar crime and be prepared to perform the appropriate financial investigation.
How long have you been a professor of forensic accounting?
I have been a professor of forensic accounting in various academic and professional settings for more than 25 years, but I am just completing my fifth year with Arizona State University. Throughout my teaching career, I have also worked as a forensic accounting consultant in the field.
If a student said to you, “I am interested in studying forensic accounting,” what would your response be?
If a student expressed an interest in forensic accounting, I would encourage him or her to get as much education as possible and then go learn in the field. Forensic accounting is still so new that few universities offer specific courses or specializations for it. But just like accounting in general, the best way to learn about this field is to obtain a foundation in school and then get hands-on experience.
I would also tell students that one major benefit of pursuing forensic accounting is that they will learn to look at accounting and financial information in a completely new way. Unlike accounting, which has rules, regulations and methods that standardize the work, no two forensic accounting cases look the same.
In your opinion, what are the biggest hurdles or difficulties that students entering a forensic accounting program have?
In my opinion, the biggest hurdle that students entering a forensic accounting program is their expectation that forensic accountants get to work with complete information. My masters course in forensic accounting has students perform a case study with incomplete and in some ways contradictory information, and every term, my students complain that I have not given them everything they need to complete the project. But I remind them that working with incomplete data to close a case is in many ways the very essence of forensic accounting.
Another hurdle for students, especially those with accounting backgrounds, is the nature of the class material. Forensic accounting overlaps with other subjects, but only to a limited extent. So everything that I teach is new and often confusing for them.
A more general hurdle that students also have to overcome is a lack of forensic accounting classes and programs. Out of the 25 ranked graduate accounting programs, only 12 have any sort of forensic accounting course, and many of those courses focus almost exclusively on fraud. While fraud prevention and investigation is one aspect of forensic accounting, it is a relatively small part of forensic accounting. As a result, I think that students should look closely at their programs to make sure that they offer students the training they will need if they want to get into forensic accounting as a career and obtain forensic accounting certifications.
What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as a forensic accountant and what traits would hinder success?
The personality trait that I think would most help someone succeed as a forensic accountant is inquisitiveness. In my experience, forensic accountants need to be people who enjoy solving puzzles but do not assume that the first solution they find is necessarily the best.
Creativity, another essential trait, helps students use incomplete information to fill in gaps. Forensic accounting requires a mind that can find creative approaches to problems like partially destroyed documentation, missing records or fraudulent data. Finally, forensic accountants must be excellent listeners and interviewers. We learn what we need to know by asking good questions and listening closely to the answers.
The trait that will most hinder success, however, is intellectual laziness. At my firm, we hire only academic performers who have proven that they are intellectually rigorous. A forensic accountant cannot afford to slack off, miss vital details or leap to incorrect conclusions.
What courses in forensic accounting are most important for a student to take?
The most critical courses in forensic accounting are those that cover fraud prevention and investigation, litigation, business valuation and economic damages. These are the areas in which forensic accountants most commonly work.
Outside of forensic accounting, what courses would you recommend to a student?
Outside of forensic accounting, I recommend that students get a bachelors or masters degree in accounting so that they have the foundation they need for this type of work. Forensic accountants typically use auditing, as well as a knowledge of accounting practices, to reconstruct financial information.
What skills can students expect to gain while studying forensic accounting?
Students studying forensic accounting can expect to gain good communication skills, first and foremost. A major part of a forensic accountant’s job is to interview others, communicate complicated ideas in writing and even present findings in a courtroom.
Analytical skills are another primary component of forensic accounting programs. I think that forensic accountants, more than many other professions, have to develop the ability to conceptualize relationships between multiple factors, even if they appear completely unrelated on the surface.
Can you give a few study tips that would help a forensic accounting student succeed?
Yes, my study tip for forensic accounting students who want to succeed is that they should get as much firsthand experience as possible. Students need to network with professionals, research local forensic accounting firms and request internships. I think that students who have a genuine interest in forensic accounting should value experience just as highly as any of their formal education.
For a student who is not interested in an academic career, what is the optimal level of education needed for a job in the field of forensic accounting?
For a student who is not interested in an academic career, the optimal level of education for a job in this field is a masters degree in accounting. There are now some programs offering bachelors and masters degrees in forensic accounting, and those programs may be an excellent step. Almost all forensic accountants now need to obtain a public accountant certification, which requires 150 academic hours, or 30 hours more than a bachelors degree program typically provides. A masters degree will give students those 30 extra hours so that they can take their CPA exams.
What is the job outlook for students with degrees in forensic accounting?
The job outlook for students with degrees in forensic accounting is very good. The FBI is looking to expand its number of forensic accountants, since corporate and personal fraud is on the rise. Companies are also starting to invest in forensic accountants to protect themselves from litigation and tax issues. I think that the average starting salary for a forensic accountant is around $50,000 a year, but most firms pay according to merit rather than years of experience.
How can undergraduate students prepare themselves if they are interested in studying forensic accounting at the graduate level?
Undergraduate students can prepare themselves for studying forensic accounting at the graduate level by doing well in their undergraduate courses. Forensic accounting firms weigh GPA just as much as graduate schools do, so in my opinion, students have additional incentive to perform well in their studies.
I also think that students should try to take as many accounting courses during their undergraduate studies as possible. A bachelors degree in accounting is not typically required for admission into a graduate program, but certain courses in accounting usually are.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in studying forensic accounting?
My advice for students who are interested in studying forensic accounting is to start reading now about this broad and complicated field. Forensic accounting encompasses a wide range of knowledge areas and skill sets. A forensic accountant may specialize in litigation, white-collar crime, divorce cases or even insurance claims.
I also caution students who thrive on repetition that forensic accounting will not be for them. An auditor may perform the same task over and over for years on end, using the same skills and procedures. But no 2 days look alike for a forensic accountant. Each case requires different skills and fresh approaches. I have been working in this field for more than 25 years, and I still encounter cases that stump me at first. It is the years of experience that allow me to find ways to resolve even the most complicated case.