The Better Way of Applying Benford’s Law for Fraud Detection

Applying Benford’s Law on large collections of data is an effective way of detecting fraud. In this article, we?ll introduce you to Benford’s Law, talk about how auditors are employing it in fraud detection, and introduce you to a more effective way of integrating it into an IT solution.

Benford’s Law in a nutshell

Benford’s Law states that certain data sets – including certain accounting numbers – exhibit a non-uniform distribution of first digits. Simply put, if you gather all the first digits (e.g. 8 is the first digit of ?814 and 1 is the first digit of ?1768) of all the numbers that make up one of these data sets, the smallest digits will appear more frequently than the larger ones.

That is, according to Benford’s Law,

1 should comprise roughly 30.1% of all first digits;
2 should be 17.6%;
3 should be 12.5%;
4 should be 9.7%, and so on.

Notice that the 1s (ones) occur far more frequently than the rest. Those who are not familiar with Benford’s Law tend to assume that all digits should be distributed uniformly. So when fraudulent individuals tinker with accounting data, they may end up putting in more 9s or 8s than there actually should be.

Once an accounting data set is found to show a large deviation from this distribution, then auditors move in to make a closer inspection.

Benford’s Law spreadsheets and templates

Because Benford’s Law has been proven to be effective in discovering unnaturally-behaving data sets (such as those manipulated by fraudsters), many auditors have created simple software solutions that apply this law. Most of these solutions, owing to the fact that a large majority of accounting departments use spreadsheets, come in the form of spreadsheet templates.

You can easily find free downloadable spreadsheet templates that apply Benford’s Law as well as simple How-To articles that can help you to implement the law on your own existing spreadsheets. Just Google “Benford’s law template” or “Benford’s law spreadsheet”.

I suggest you try out some of them yourself to get a feel on how they work.

The problem with Benford’s Law when used on spreadsheets

There’s actually another reason why I wanted you to try those spreadsheet templates and How-To’s yourself. I wanted you to see how susceptible these solutions are to trivial errors. Whenever you work on these spreadsheet templates – or your own spreadsheets for that matter – when implementing Benford’s Law, you can commit mistakes when copy-pasting values, specifying ranges, entering formulas, and so on.

Furthermore, some of the data might be located in different spreadsheets, which can likewise by found in different departments and have to be emailed for consolidation. The departments who own this data will have to extract the needed data from their own spreadsheets, transfer them to another spreadsheet, and send them to the person in-charge of consolidation.

These activities can introduce errors as well. That’s why we think that, while Benford’s Law can be an effective tool for detecting fraud, spreadsheet-based working environments can taint the entire fraud detection process.

There?s actually a better IT solution where you can use Benford’s Law.

Why a server-based solution works better

In order to apply Benford’s Law more effectively, you need to use it in an environment that implements better controls than what spreadsheets can offer. What we propose is a server-based system.

In a server-based system, your data is placed in a secure database. People who want to input data or access existing data will have to go through access controls such as login procedures. These systems also have features that log access history so that you can trace who accessed which and when.

If Benford’s Law is integrated into such a system, there would be no need for any error-prone copy-pasting activities because all the data is stored in one place. Thus, fraud detection initiatives can be much faster and more reliable.

You can get more information on this site regarding the disadvantages of spreadsheets. We can also tell you more about the advantages of server application solutions.

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How DevOps oils the Value Chain

DevOps ? a clipped compound of development and operations – is a way of working whereby software developers are in a team with project beneficiaries. A client centred approach extends the project plan to include the life cycle of the product or service, for which the software is developed.

We can then no longer speak of a software project for say Joe?s Accounting App. The software has no intrinsic value of its own. It follows that the software engineers are building an accounting app product. This is a small, crucially important distinction, because they are no longer in a silo with different business interests.

To take the analogy further, the developers are no longer contractors possibly trying to stretch out the process. They are members of Joe?s accounting company, and they are just as keen to get to market fast as Joe is to start earning income. DevOps uses this synergy to achieve the overarching business goal.

A Brief Introduction to OpsDev

You can skip this section if you already read this article. If not then you need to know that DevOps is a culture, not a working method. The three ?members? are the software developers, the beneficiaries, and a quality control mechanism. The developers break their task into smaller chunks instead of releasing the code to quality control as a single batch. As a result, the review process happens contiguously along these simplified lines.

Colour KeyDevelopersQuality ControlBeneficiary

This is a marked improvement over the previously cumbersome method below.

Write the Code?Test the Code?Use the Code
?Evaluate, Schedule for Next Review?

Working quickly and releasing smaller amounts of code means the OpsDev team learns quickly from mistakes, and should come to product release ahead of any competitor using the older, more linear method. The shared method of working releases huge resources in terms of user experience and in-line QC practices. Instead of being in a silo working on its own, development finds it has a richer brief and more support from being ?on the same side of the organisation?.

The Key Role that Application Program Interfaces Play

Application Program Interfaces, or API?s for short, are building blocks for software applications. Using proprietary software-bridges speeds this process up. A good example would be the PayPal applications that we find on so many websites today. API?s are not just for commercial sites, and they can reduce costs and improve efficiency considerably.

The following diagram courtesy of TIBCO illustrates how second-party applications integrate with PayPal architecture via an API fa?ade.

Working quickly and releasing smaller amounts of code means the OpsDev team learns quickly from mistakes, and should come to product release ahead of any competitor using the older, more linear method. The shared method of working releases huge resources in terms of user experience and in-line QC practices. Instead of being in a silo working on its own, development finds it has a richer brief and more support from being ?on the same side of the organisation?.


The DevOps Revolution Continues ?

We close with some important insights from an interview with Jim Stoneham. He was general manager of the Yahoo Communities business unit, at the time Flickr became a part. ?Flickr was a codebase,? Jim recalls, ?that evolved to operate at high scale over 7 years – and continuing to scale while adding and refining features was no small challenge. During this transition, it was a huge advantage that there was such an integrated dev and ops team?

The ?maturity model? as engineers refer to DevOps status currently, enables developers to learn faster, and deploy upgrades ahead of their competitors. This means the client reaches and exceeds break-even sooner. DevOps lubricates the value chain so companies add value to a product faster. One reason it worked so well with Flickr, was the immense trust between Dev and Ops, and that is a lesson we should learn.

?We transformed from a team of employees to a team of owners. When you move at that speed, and are looking at the numbers and the results daily, your investment level radically changes. This just can’t happen in teams that release quarterly, and it’s difficult even with monthly cycles.? (Jim Stoneham)

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Why Executives Fail & How to Avoid It

The ?Peter Principle? concerning why managers fail derives from a broader theory that anything that works under progressively more demanding circumstances will eventually reach its breaking point and fail. The Spanish philosopher Jos? Ortega y Gasset, who was decidedly anti-establishment added, “All public employees should be demoted to their immediately lower level, as they have been promoted until turning incompetent”.

The Peter Principle is an observation, not a panacea for avoiding it. In his book The Peter Principle Laurence J. Peter observes, “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence … in time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties … Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”

Let’s find out what the drivers are behind a phenomenon that may be costing the economy grievously, what the warning signs are and how to try to avoid getting into the mess in the first place.

Drivers Supporting the Peter Principle

As early as 2009 Eva Rykrsmith made a valuable contribution in her blog 10 Reasons for Executive Failure when she observed that ?derailed executives? often find themselves facing similar problems following promotion to the next level:

The Two Precursors

  • They fail to establish effective relationships with their new peer group. This could be because the new member, the existing group, or both, are unable to adapt to the new arrangement.
  • They fail to build, and lead their own team. This could again be because they or their subordinates are unable to adapt to the new situation. There may be people in the team who thought the promotion was theirs.

The Two Outcomes

  • They are unable to adapt to the transition. They find themselves isolated from support groups that would otherwise have sustained them in their new role. Stress may cause errors of judgement and ineffective collaboration.
  • They fail to meet business objectives,?but blame their mediocre performance on critical touch points in the organization. They are unable to face reality. Either they resign, or they face constructive dismissal.

The Warning Signs of Failure

Eva Rykrsmith suggests a number of indicators that an individual is not coping with their demanding new role. Early signs may include:

  • Lagging energy and enthusiasm as if something deflated their ego
  • No clear vision to give to subordinates, a hands-off management style
  • Poor decision-making due to isolation from their teams? ideas and knowledge
  • A state akin to depression and acceptance of own mediocre performance

How to Avoid a ?Peter? in Your Organization

  • Use succession planning to identify and nurture people to fill key leadership roles in the future. Allocate them challenging projects, put them in think tanks with senior employees, find mentors for them, and provide management training early on. When their own manager is away, appoint them in an acting role. Ask for feedback from all concerned. If this is not positive, perhaps you are looking at an exceptional specialist, and not a manager, after all.
  • Consider the future, and not the past when interviewing for a senior management position. Ask about their vision for their part of the organization. How would they go about achieving it? What would the roles be of their subordinates in this? Ask yourself one very simple question; do they look like an executive, or are you thinking of rewarding loyalty.
  • How to Avoid Becoming a ?Peter??Perhaps you are considering an offer of promotion, or applying for an executive job. Becoming a ?Peter? at a senior level is an uncomfortable experience. It has cost the careers of many senior executives dearly. We all have our level of competence where we enjoy performing well. It would be pity to let blind ambition rob us of this, without asking thoughtful questions first. Executives fail when they over-reach themselves, it is not a matter of bad luck.

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The Future is Smarter with a Smart Meter

Traditionally, electricity and water meter consumption was measured via analogue meters. Utility billing was based on actual consumption units obtained from the meter by meter readers. This entailed physical visits to the metering point. Lots of challenges came with meter reading; talk of customers feeling their privacy is intruded, meter readers encountering hostile customers, dogs, closed gates. The result was estimated bills that were most often than not very high.

Smart meters can be dubbed as the ?next generation? type of meters. Smart meters send wireless electronic meter readings to one?s energy supplier automatically. There are both gas smart meters and electricity smart meters. Smart meters come with in-home displays, which give someone real-time feedback on their energy usage and the associated cost.

Smart meters communicate meter readings directly to utility companies therefore no one has to come to your home to read your meter; and neither are you required to submit meter readings yourself. This not only reduces costs, but leads to more accurate electricity bills practically eliminating estimated bills. Smart meters signal the end of estimated bills, and the end of overpaying or underpaying for energy.

Whereas a smart meter in itself does not save you money, the add-ons (in-home displays) that come with the smart meters and which give someone real-time feedback on their energy usage helps them to reduce the unnecessary energy use and this ultimately leads to better oversight into how to lower utility bills hence better management of one?s energy use.

In summary, a smart meter is a technology that enables energy consumers to see their energy as they use it, a technology where energy is displayed as it is being used and wireless ratings sent. Adoption of smart meters would mean the end of estimated energy bills.

Smart meters are also promising a smart future where all energy consuming devices can be connected to the internet and centrally controlled using computers or smartphones. This means one is able to switch off lights and other energy consuming devices from a central point, hence make savings and this will enable them to have greater control of their energy use, hence more comfort, convenience and life will be cheaper for all. This is the smarter future we are all looking forward to.

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