Career Center: Take Me to the Next Level
Sandrine Paquin-Lessard, CFE, CPA, CFF, CA
Montreal-based fraud examiner Sandrine Paquin-Lessard, CFE, CPA, CFF, CA, has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the anti-fraud field. The director of fraud prevention and detection for Cogeco Communications knew she wanted to fight fraud the first time she took a fraud-related class while studying to become a CPA. She quickly set her sights on securing a job in the field and hopped around a couple of firms before finding her perfect role at Cogeco. In her spare time she loves to surf and salsa dance.
How did you become passionate about fighting fraud?
In my last year of university, while I was studying for my CPA title, I had a short class about fraud investigation that lasted only one weekend. I immediately knew that fighting fraud is what I wanted to do since I found it more thrilling than general accounting/auditing, and I needed that excitement in my future job. I kept in contact with my teacher who was a partner in a forensic accounting specialized firm in Montreal. As soon as I got my CPA title, three years after all internships, I begged him for a job. I was pretty convincing and after a year he finally said yes. Then I moved to Montreal and started working in that field. It was the best decision of my life even though I was moving far away from my hometown and knew nothing about the reality of this career.
What steps led you to your current position at Cogeco Communications?
Life is full of surprises. I was pretty ambitious, jumping from one firm to another to have a better position and wanted to learn more and more. Going from Navigant to PwC to Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton (RCGT). Unfortunately, RCGT decided to close their forensic department and I needed to find something else. I started to look for different opportunities since I didn’t want to go back to another firm. I was contacted by a headhunter that offered me a 10 years’ experience job which, at that moment, seemed out of reach since I had only five years’ experience in fraud. I decided to apply anyway and had an interview with the VP of Internal Audit of the company. One week later I met with the CFO and that same day I was called back for the job. It was unreal — I was delighted even if the challenge was big for me.
Do you face any unique challenges in your role as the director of fraud prevention and detection?
I would say dealing with operations and management is a day-to-day challenge since our goals are very different and our realities are not always on the same page. Also, I am young and just started the position so gaining the trust of people in the organization is pretty challenging.
What is one of the biggest lessons you have learned since entering the fraud prevention field?
Anything can happen, even when you are close to the end, a new event can occur and change your investigation path from one way to another. Nothing can be taken for granted.
What is a memorable case or project that you have worked on?
When I used to be a consultant for the department of investigations on organized financial crime of the Sureté du Québec (which is Québec’s provincial police force), I worked on probably the most extended and exciting files — sometimes involving Ponzi schemes and tax evasion schemes.
One memorable case I had was a group of fraudsters who were diverting funds from many victims’ pension plans. It was under the guise of helping them pay their taxes when they retire (50% of the amount transferred) since these types of funds cannot be used before retirement or the age of 65 years old. Basically, they were offering a tax redemption scheme. This group of fraudsters uncovered a weakness in the bank’s process form to transfer the money and used it to transfer funds to other shell companies they created with fake identities and figureheads to receive the pension funds. Those accounts were only transitional, and the money was not put under the proper regulatory specifications for these types of funds, which requires a valid certificate to operate them.
They used this scheme for more than 10 years before getting caught. The estimated amount of the fraud was $14.5 million and affected about 350 victims, in addition to the government and the AMF (the equivalent of the SEC in Quebec). The challenge, in this case, was that they opened about 100 bank accounts in 11 different countries, so we had to deal with many other countries to obtain evidence (when possible, they used numerous tax haven countries). The fund movements between all these accounts were a real puzzle to understand and it was very meticulous work to be performed with thousands of documents and pieces of evidence. The lead fraudster who pleaded guilty ended up with a six-year sentence, which is actually a lot for the Canadian legal system, and a few months for his right-hand actors.
What do you like about being an ACFE member?
I am part of various associations, and what I like about the ACFE is it provides a variety of high-quality products as well as adapted training for the field I am working in. The resources available online are beyond what I expect — every time I doubt something is fraud related, I do searches on the site to find any article or document to help me solve my cases and I always find out tips and clues to help me out.
How has membership in the ACFE impacted your professional development?
To have the title makes a big difference. I get called by headhunters at least once a month to get offered new opportunities, and it gives me a significant advantage compared to other CPAs looking to work in fraud-related fields without this title.
What activities or hobbies do you like to do outside of work?
I am a very active person since it’s the only way to get my mind off of work. I am a surfer — I know it sounds weird for a Montreal-based person, but we do have amazing river surfing over here during the summer, and anytime I get the chance to travel to the ocean I do so. I am also a great salsa dancer. I love the music; it gets my mind free.
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