Private Investigators and Certified Fraud Examiners

CFE Adds Status, Income To PIs

By By Sarah J. Carson, MBA, CFE, with Cynthia Harrington, CFE, CFA

Private investigators and Certified Fraud Examiners have always used their unique skills to help each other in fraud examinations. However, many PIs now are realizing the value of adding CFE to their names. 

Growth of the private investigative profession might be considered a 24-hour Le Mans endurance race, compared to the drag-race speed of the expansion of Certified Fraud Examiners. Private investigation has been a noble source of income since the 1800s and today the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 43,000 private detectives and investigators work in the U.S. alone. But in 18 short years, more than 17,000 professionals achieved the CFE designation and the growth curve remains sharply angled up.

Some professionals see the need to pursue both paths. They've found many similarities between them and some very important differences. To date, 339 CFEs list PI as their primary occupation. My dual roles as a private investigator and CFE could illustrate the need for both.

In the beginning, my motivation to add the CFE to my name was purely business. I became a CFE in 2002 to become more professionally attractive to a large group of potential clients for the firm I own and operate. Through a referral, one day I was presenting my firm's services to a regional head of KPMG's forensic consulting practice. He thought I would be a suitable hire except I didn't come from the realm of federal agency investigators, a background expected by their clients. And one doesn't argue with clients about their expectations. His advice to me at the time was to get the CFE. It's the only other background his clients would consistently accept.

The market's perception of the benefits of the two professions affects the kind of work I get. The market assumes that one might find a PI doing financial investigations but rarely a CFE doing surveillance on a suspected spouse. Frances Zuniga, CFE, EA, and president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the ACFE, describes the differences. "Few PIs have an accounting background so they come to me for that," says Zuniga. "And I don't want to go dumpster diving and I don't want to do surveillance so I work with PIs for those things." (However, a prospective CFE does have to study investigation techniques, one of four major categories, to pass the exam and earn the certification. The investigation category includes such topics as analyzing documents, interview theory and application, covert examinations, accessing information online, and others.)

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