50 minus 9: Can I give you a lift?

Posted: 8 August 2014 in life, don't talk to me about life, personal
Tags: ,

Came across this xkcd cartoon earlier and it reminded me of a favourite tale from my long ago career as a practising accountant:

NB For any Americans reading, all references to ‘flats’ may be read as ‘apartments’, and all references to ‘lifts’ may be read as elevators.

Many, many years ago, when I first started out in accountancy, I was working for a company with a lot of property clients… a lot of them. About 80% of the firm’s business came from auditing property businesses, which included companies with several blocks of flats. Now when you have a company that owns lots of properties, they usually employ third party property agents to look after the property, maintain the lifts, etc.

So with one company, very early on in my career, I’d done the audit, all the invoices looked correct, everything looked fine. I took the file into the audit partner and he held it in his hand, as if weighing it, and simply said “Nope.” When I queried it, he said “Lee, I’ve been doing this job for twenty years. I know when enough work’s been done on an audit file. This isn’t enough. Finish it off and then bring it back.”

I left his office thinking less than charitable thoughts about him and racked my brains wondering what more I could do. To be brutally honest, I was wondering what extra photocopying I could do to increase the file’s weight without actually involving me doing a lot more work.

While looking at the file, I noticed the invoices for lift maintenance and had a brainwave. The contracts for maintenance are always bulky! I quickly checked the previous three files and there was no contract in there, so yeah: it justified inclusion. I called the agents and asked them if they could send me a copy of the lift maintenance contract. The guy at the other end of the phone said he’d bang a copy in the mail to me (this was way, way before scanning, PDFs and email) but probably not for a few days. The block of flats weren’t that far out of the way home for me, so I called the caretaker/manager of the building, thinking I could stop in on the way home, grab it, copy it at the office and return it the following day. I’d spoken to him several times before; he was a nice chap and I’d been told by previous years’ auditors that he’d do small favours for us without a problem.

The following telephone call ensued:

Me: Hi, it’s Lee Barnett from the auditors.
Caretaker: Hello, Lee – what can I do for you?
Me: Quick favour; can I drop by tonight and pick up your copy of the lift maintenance contract? I promise I’ll return it tomorrow night – just need a copy for the file.

= pause =

Caretaker: What lift maintenance contract?
Me: The maintenance contract for the lifts. With [checks name of maintenance people in file and reads it out].

= pause =

Caretaker: We don’t have any lifts.
Me: I beg your pardon?

Yeah, turned out (a) they didn’t have any lifts, (b) the managing agents had been supplying fake invoices, (c) it had never been picked up before, (d) it wouldn’t have been picked up by me, (e) it was picked up solely because the audit file didn’t weigh enough.

First case of outright fraud I’d discovered during an audit. It wasn’t the last, but you always have fond memories of your first, don’t you?

  1. Alex Jones says:

    Sweet feeling to uncover a fraud :-)

  2. Elayne Riggs says:

    Great story – I might circulate that ’round the KPMG offices!

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