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Joseph Agins, CFE
Director, Ethics & Compliance Investigations
As the director of the Apollo Group's Ethics and Compliance Investigations, Joseph Agins, CFE, has witnessed first-hand how the economy's decline has affected the instances of fraud in the workplace. He has seen the extreme measures one will go to commit fraud to only end up with a little bit of extra money and a slew of problems. Although, as the number of fraudulent crimes rise, the education and training that Agins receives from the ACFE and other entities has helped to remain ahead of the curve and move up in the anti-fraud field.
Describe your job function (a day in the life of):
I support and report directly to Apollo's Chief Ethics & Compliance Officer. My primary role is the day to day management of the investigative staff and the investigative activities within the company. I provide oversight for the design and execution of all investigations that arise throughout Apollo and our subsidiaries such as the University of Phoenix. My team also manages our Apollo Ethics Helpline and we are also responsible for the overall trending and analysis of all internal investigations and the regular reporting of such information to Apollo Senior Management and/or the Board of Directors.
What made you decide to become a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE)?
About eight years ago a former colleague of mine turned me on to the ACFE and the CFE credential. This person was someone I had a great deal of respect for due to her expertise and length of time in the field. She was also very passionate about the anti-fraud profession. I knew that joining the ACFE and obtaining the CFE credential was something I seriously needed to consider if I wanted to continue advancing in the anti-fraud field. I eventually joined the ACFE, became involved in the local chapter and ultimately earned the CFE credential (although it took me a while). I could not be more pleased with my decision to join this association and earn this credential. My only regret is that I did not do it sooner.
How has earning the CFE credential benefited you in your career?
I believe the CFE credential is truly a must-have and is really the industry standard for anyone pursuing a career in the anti-fraud profession. It is certainly not the only credential, as there are a multitude of others out there all of which are great, I'm sure. However, it is my opinion and experience that the CFE is one of the most recognized and most respected of all of the credentials. So, from a resume perspective, having the CFE designation is a plus, but it is the education I received to become a CFE (and continue to receive as a member) that has really made the difference in my career. The CFE credential is important, but one should not stop studying and learning once they have earned it. The CFE is not like algebra or one of those disciplines so many never use again once learned. The CFE credential may help you to get a job in the anti-fraud field, but it is the knowledge that you receive through the process that will help you keep that job and move up.
What do you enjoy most about your career as a CFE?
I say this all the time and I truly mean it when I say I believe I have one of the best and most interesting jobs in the company." There are certainly other great jobs at all companies where CFEs work as well as others that may make more money. However, very few, if any, are involved in the multitude of interesting, important and challenging issues that we are involved in on a daily basis. I believe that I am paid a very fair wage for what I do and I also believe that if I continue to add value to the organization, I will be compensated accordingly. However, it is not really all about the money is it? I believe it is more about doing what you like doing, working with great people and working for a company you believe in and one with a strong ethical culture. I feel extremely fortunate to have all of these in this current phase of my career.
In your opinion, what are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities for CFEs today?
I think that one of the biggest challenges for CFEs today is the declining economy and the fact that because of this, more and more people will become desperate and resort to fraud as a way to make ends meet. No matter what the health of the economy, there will always be fraudsters, but the fraud certainly seems to increase the worse the economy gets. If this theory holds true, we can all look forward to more work as the economy continues to stagnate. Additionally, since times are so tough out there, many companies are also tightening the belt" and, as such, many may not have the ability to hire or keep the staff needed to effectively combat the increasing fraud. Therefore, this potential lack of resources will also pose big challenges for today's CFEs. However, with such challenges also comes opportunity and I believe today's CFEs have more opportunities than ever. Never, in fact, has the need been so great for those in our profession and never have we been so well equipped to meet the challenge.
What were some of the more challenging tasks you've personally faced as a CFE?
One of the more challenging tasks I have faced is earning and keeping the trust of business partners in the field. The first thought a manager typically has upon receiving a call from an investigator or someone from compliance is not always a happy one. I understand employees having such feelings and perceptions, but such perceptions are counterproductive towards our efforts and, as such, we work hard to overcome and change them. We always take into consideration that everyone is busy and has a business or department to run. We also understand that investigations are inherently difficult for those involved and take up valuable time and resources from the affected departments. So, we always try to maintain a customer service-based approach and try to be as understanding, transparent and inclusive of management as possible. This helps to gain the trust of management and to get their buy-in, which is key in most all situations. These are challenging tasks, but also expected ones. Ultimately, our efforts do correlate to the business objectives and I want to ensure our business partners understand this.
What types of fraud are you most concerned about at Apollo Group, Inc.? What kind of fraud-risk plan has been implemented at your company?
Any fraud or risk concerns me but the type of fraud I am most concerned with currently are those surrounding fraud with the Federal Student Financial Aid program. Within the past year or two the industry has seen a rash of organized financial aid fraud schemes targeting community colleges, tech schools and universities all over the country. As one of the nations largest Universities, and one that operates all across the country, we have a big footprint and, as such, have a good deal of exposure to these schemes. This type of fraud is especially concerning to me as such funds/programs are provided by the Federal government to aid those in need of assistance to help them pursue their educational dreams and goals. The fraudsters involved in such schemes have no intention of obtaining an education or bettering themselves in any way and are in it only for the money. We have an obligation to disburse these funds in a timely manner but must also do so responsibly. So, we must protect these funds but also try not to inconvenience or delay any legitimate students from receiving their funds. I see the rise in these schemes as a direct correlation to the declining economy. So, this type of fraud is especially concerning to all of us in the post-secondary education industry as well as the Federal government.
As far as a fraud-risk plan goes, we have an entire fraud team dedicated specifically to the detection and prevention of such organized financial aid fraud schemes. This team also works closely with the Department of Education's Office of Inspector General (OIG) by referring all identified or suspected schemes and providing information valuable to the OIG's investigation and ultimate prosecution of these offenders.
Please describe your most memorable case and its resolution (to-date if it's a fresh case). Feel free to use pseudonyms for suspects if the case is ongoing and no judgment has yet been made.
I still think about an investigation we did not too long ago into a mid-to high-level employee who had allegedly cheated the company on some T&E expense reimbursements. The report was anonymous, came in through our Fraud & Ethics Helpline and pointed us right to the fraud. We were able to substantiate the allegations and, as it turned out, the employee had fraudulently claimed multiple T&E charges for reimbursements that did not exist. We also audited all this employee's expenses and found nothing suspicious before or after this one period in which the fraud occurred. During the interview process we discovered the employee had some personal financial problems around this same time period. The employee resigned immediately and would have been terminated had they chosen to stay. The part that gets me is that this employee worked for the company for more than 10 years, was well liked, was good at their job and quickly moving up the ladder, made an excellent and enviable salary and lost all of that. It still gives me pause to this day when I think about what all this employee gave up for so little.
What is your personal motto?
I have several, but one of my favorites and one I have tried to adopt and always remember is a saying I once heard stating something to the effect of "the harder I work, the luckier I seem to get." Breaking into the fraud field was hard work for me 13 years ago as I did not have any previous fraud experience. Going back to school as an adult learner and earning my bachelor's degree was hard work for me while working full time as an investigator at JPMorgan Chase. Completing my Master's degree at the University of Phoenix was hard work while working full time at Apollo. And, studying for and taking the CFE exam while working and going to school full time in a Master's program was also hard work. However, it is the culmination of this hard work that has allowed me to be where I am at today. I feel very fortunate to be doing what I do at such a great company but I don't know that I feel lucky. I feel that I am at where I am at today because of some sacrifice, maybe a little luck and a lot of hard work. So, while luck and fate may possibly play into such outcomes, I can't control luck or fate. However, I can control how hard I choose to work and thus, how lucky I get.
What were some of the more challenging tasks you've personally faced as a CFE? What advice would you give to someone hoping to follow a similar career path as you?
Build your resume and knowledge by aligning yourself with associations such as the ACFE and obtaining credentials such as the CFE. It is through such associations that you will be able to learn, develop and maintain the skills you need to be successful in the field. Seek out those within your organization (or within those organizations you might wish to work for) that are currently working in the fields of Internal Audit, Compliance, Investigations or Ethics. Then, spend as much time bending the ears of these folks as they will allow or as you can stand. While we are all very busy, we are also all very passionate about what we do and about the field in which we work and thus, typically, love to talk about it. So, as someone wanting to follow a similar path you might consider leveraging this. I would suggest that anyone wanting to follow in such a path complete and continue their education. An advanced degree in accounting, business, criminal justice or even psychology can go a long way in making you a better anti-fraud professional and in today's world such an education is critical for one to continue to move up. In fact, there are many universities and colleges out there that offer specific programs such as Fraud Examination, Forensic Accounting, Economic Crime and Fraud Management. We also offer a multitude of related programs at the University of Phoenix. If I was someone considering a similar career path, such programs would certainly peak my interest.
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