The Fraud Examiner

CFE Syndrome: The Short Leap from Examining to Paranoia

Annette Simmons-Brown, CFE

Government Analyst, State of Florida


“Second Year Syndrome” is the malady of medical students who experience the symptoms of the disease that they are studying at the time. If they’re studying skin cancer, suddenly that zit becomes melanoma. If they’re studying arthritis, their joints start to ache. If they’re studying narcolepsy, they suddenly feel they’re about to fall asleep. (That last might be attributable to being grossly overworked, but you get the idea.)

I’ve been a Certified Fraud Examiner for more than six years now and I worked in the field of financial crime prosecution longer than that. I can testify that our Association’s version of Second Year Syndrome, “CFE Syndrome,” is real, it is alive, and it can permanently take over your life. CFE Syndrome is the belief that the CFE is about to become the victim of the type of fraud scheme she is examining at the time, and it can turn the most reasonable, common sense-driven CFE into a sullen, twitching bundle of suspicion.

Here are a few examples of how my work as a CFE has shaped my approach to my own affairs and my social relationships:

  • When you work in financial crime prosecution, you’re going to see a lot of embezzlement cases. The loss amounts can range from a few thousand to several million dollars. In 2015, after having worked literally dozens of embezzlement prosecutions and becoming pretty jaded, I was assigned a case in which the office manager of a large property management company deftly embezzled more than $1.3 million. Through a variety of standard tactics, she issued checks to herself from the company’s main account and trust accounts for the client properties, executed online transfers to herself from these bank accounts, used the company credit card for personal purchases, intercepted tenant payments and lapped the books, and so on. The weekend after the embezzler was charged I got a call from my sister, who along with her husband also runs a property management company, telling me about some softball game my nephew won. I responded by panic-coaching her to immediately look over all of their business accounts, bank statements, credit card statements, invoices and outvoices, and DON’T TRUST ANYONE ELSE TO DO THIS! I know my sister was staring at her phone trying to see the nutjob who was trapped inside it, but I am proud to report I managed to imbue her with my wholesale paranoia, and she went and performed her own audit. At least that’s what she texted me.

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