Published: November 16, 2022
The world of fraud is complex and expansive—so much so that doctoral dissertations could be written on the subject. To truly understand fraud, we must examine these four key angles:
- The scheme: The many strategies people in the world of accounting and finance have used to commit these white-collar crimes.
- The fraudster: The psychological reasons why someone chose to commit fraud. The Fraud Triangle—rationalization, opportunity and pressure—is a helpful model for examining how fraud occurs.
- The victim: The factors that resulted in an organization becoming a fraud victim, such as the reasons why management trusted the fraudster without question or oversight, a false perception that fraud couldn’t occur in the organization, or rationalizing the fraudster’s behavioral changes that were actually red flags.
- The whistleblower or person who found it: The factors that resulted in someone recognizing a potential fraud, as well as the circumstances or reasons why someone might be prevented from speaking up or blowing the whistle.
While we may never be true experts in all aspects of fraud, we can work to better understand each of these elements. That’s why to round out the 2022 International Fraud Awareness Week, the Office of the Washington State Auditor has put together a list of our favorite movies, documentaries, shows and podcasts to help you understand the many complex sides and angles of fraud.
Your friends, family and colleagues might think you’re just jumping on the true-crime band wagon, but engagement with real fraud stories helps us better understand and, therefore, better defend ourselves against fraud. So, grab your bucket of popcorn and cue up these suggestions for your weekend entertainment marathon.
Documentaries and movies
Summary: This documentary tells the story of how bookkeeper Sandy Jenkins embezzled $17 million from Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas.
Takeaway: This documentary emphasizes the importance of segregating duties, paying attention to employee lifestyle changes, and how committing fraud can become an addiction. Similar to the 2017 documentary All the Queen’s Horses, Fraud Fruitcake shows how asset seizure, which is a common form of restitution in fraud cases, unfortunately only returns pennies on the dollar to the actual money stolen.
Note: This documentary was previously available on Discovery + and Amazon Prime Video. Watch these streaming services for future availability.
Summary: Anyone can have a previous life they don’t want to be known. This six-episode series shows how fraudsters deceive in their new lives and how their pasts eventually catch up with them.
Takeaway: When governments report employee credit card frauds to SAO, one of our first questions is if they have taken the credit cards away from them. Sometimes we want to see events singularly—someone has committed the fraud, and it’s over now that we’ve caught them. In reality, fraudsters often continue committing fraud. They will pick a new scheme, find a new victim, or even keep working the same scheme until they have been prevented from doing so. Aside from being an entertaining, engaging, and fascinating series, Imposters also shows that fraudsters don’t always stop after their first con.
Money, Explained, Netflix
Summary: This series explores money from several angles—how we spend, borrow and save it, as well as the many minefields involved.
Takeaway: Why do we continually fall victim to fraud? The first story in the series titled “Get Rich Quick” offers a great look into how and why we fall victim, as well as the history of con artists.
Documentaries and movies about whistleblowers
While many fraud stories involve some element of whistleblowing, these documentaries and movies feature some of history’s most notable whistleblowers. Just as we think we’d never commit or fall victim to fraud, we also probably believe we’d never shut down a whistleblower. And yet, as these documentaries and movies show, several people attempted to suppress or retaliate against these whistleblowers. Some did this intentionally, some thought the whistleblowers were just causing trouble, and others were just following their superiors’ directions and didn’t understand their role.
These stories highlight the importance of having safe and effective methods for employees to report concerns. They also allow us to see the behaviors of those fighting against the whistleblowers, in hopes we don’t become those fighters ourselves.
Whistleblower case: Wirecard
Recommended media: Skandal! Bringing down Wirecard, Netflix
“It’s time for whistleblowing to be more accepted,” said Pav Gill, the whistleblower who helped expose corruption at German fintech Wirecard. The company allegedly inflated financial reporting for its Asian payment operations through “round-tripping” schemes, where they moved money from the books of one subsidiary to another to make it seem like one was generating a profit.
This whistleblower story is definitely a scary one; Gill faced a barrage of intimidation tactics from the company, including a demand that he go on a business trip for no apparent reason. He eventually received a tip call warning him not to go on the trip, as he wouldn’t likely return from it. Shortly after refusing to go on the trip, Gill was forced to resign. Gill said being a whistleblower still comes with the stigma of being a “snitch,” which needs to change.
Whistleblower case: Eric. C. Conn’s Social Security fraud
Recommended media: The Big Conn, Apple TV+
This four-part series covers the largest Social Security fraud in U.S. history, carried out by attorney Eric. C. Conn. This story shows corruption, manipulation, and rationalization by both the fraudster and those around him. More notably, though, it contains an alarming account of the two whistleblowers who caught onto the scheme and alerted many agencies. They were not only ignored, but retaliated against, stalked and harassed.
You can also learn about this case through Apple’s companion podcast, The Big Conn.
Whistleblower case: Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos
Recommended media: The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, a documentary by Alex Gibney, and The Dropout, Hulu
The Theranos story gives us a glimpse into the mind of a fraudster who was willing to do anything to achieve an unachievable goal. We also see the people around her—from business leaders to politicians and celebrities, and how they all fell for her façade.
The real jaw-dropper in the Theranos story is watching the whistleblower, Tyler Shultz, face ridicule from his grandfather George Shultz, a Theranos board member and former U.S. Secretary of Labor, Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of State. In both the documentary and Hulu dramatization, it’s fascinating to see how Shultz was unwilling to accept an inconvenient truth, that someone he trusted was lying to him, and that he was unknowingly part of a fraud.
Dateline, Episode: “Kill Switch,” Oct. 12, 2021
Summary: After a man goes overboard on a romantic cruise with his wife in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, investigators think it wasn’t an accident. While this story has the quintessential murder true to Dateline, it starts with a classic accounts payable fraud—a phony vendor.
Takeaway: This is a great case study in deception. You’ll also hear elements common with fraud victims, such as wanting to keep the fraud quiet to prevent tarnishing your reputation. You’ll also hear how the subject used her family in covering it all up—something SAO’s Special Investigations Team has seen in some of Washington’s fraud cases.
Fraud Fighter Podcast, Episode: “Fraud Prevention Before Internal Controls – Steven Dawson,” Sept. 9, 2020
Summary: Fraud-fighter Steve Dawson explains his career as a public accountant and fraud examiner, and why he thinks the most important fraud-prevention internal control is “increasing the perception of detection.”
Takeaway: This podcast episode is chock-full of insights into fraud prevention and detection—from cybersecurity and the Business Email Compromise (BEC) scheme to prevention strategies. Akin to a conversation about the Fraud Triangle, Dawson explains the three-step thought process fraudsters take when considering whether to commit fraud, and how increasing the perception of detection in your organization can help fraudsters decide against it.
Fraud Eats Strategy, Episode: “The Anatomy of a Ransomware Attack,” Part 1: Aug. 25, 2021, Part 2: Sept. 1, 2021
Summary: This two-episode podcast features cybersecurity experts talking through one of the largest and most well-known ransomware attacks—Norsk Hydro.
Takeaway: This podcast is a great introductory lesson into all aspects of ransomware, including social engineering, crisis response, paying ransoms and more.