Member Spotlight

Dr. Tonisha Pinckney, CFE

Author and CFE emphasizes the importance of educating your community

Dr. Tonisha Pinckney, CFE, is not only the founder of Revelatus Specialized Accounting & Consulting, LLC, but is also a lecturer, adjunct instructor, a former director of criminal justice undergraduate and graduate programs, assistant dean and a published author. Dr. Pinckney’s extensive work volunteering in her community and spreading fraud awareness education bolsters her core philosophies. “I feel it is my duty and purpose to mitigate the impact of victimization in communities. With education comes responsibility,” she said. “As Certified Fraud Examiners (CFEs), we are empowered by our education and must responsibly use it to educate those who would not ordinarily have access to our services.” 

How did you become passionate about fighting fraud? 

My passion for fighting fraud is connected to my passion for fighting injustice, protecting potential victims, helping survivors and victims, learning more about offender typologies and helping to “set things right.” I have always been the “you can’t do that to people” type of person. I learned that fraud, though I did not know what it was called at first, is just another form of injustice. 

When I was in my late teens and early 20s, my identity was stolen at least twice. Having someone steal your identity when you are just learning you have an identity is earth-shattering. But luckily the individuals and agencies who helped me straighten up the situation and regain control of my life and identity did a phenomenal job. Those experiences stayed in the back of my mind, causing me to question how the perpetrators gained access to my identity and why I was deemed a suitable target — or whether it was all arbitrary. Identity theft also hit me harder than many victims because I was already a survivor of two sexual assaults. The anger of someone stealing my identity after having my body violated created an anger in me that I cannot describe. I can say that it also ignited a passion. 

A moment of enlightenment came when sitting in an advanced auditing course at Kean University during undergrad. The textbook had several wrong answers or misstated questions. I was “that student” that could not help but point out the flaws to the professor and ask that my answer be marked as correct. The professor took me aside after class and asked if I ever heard of fraud examination and the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE). He discussed my experiences (personal and career), my ability to see the bigger picture and still remain focused on the details and my determination to “set things right.” All of a sudden, my anger, experiences and education came together. After graduating and while working in a great accounting firm, I earned my CFE. 

What is one of the biggest lessons you have learned since entering the fraud prevention field? 

Things are never as simple as they seem. “Trust, but verify,” attributed to former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, is true even in the anti-fraud profession. I found that those hiring you or leading the investigation can also be the offender. Sometimes the person providing you with the most information can do so because they are actually the perpetrator. I learned to form a trusting relationship with the client or team with an appropriate level of skepticism. We cannot take everything at face value. There is no ideal victim or clear-cut perpetrator. Not every company is interested in justice once the fraud is uncovered. So, yes, the biggest lesson I learned was that the person who engaged me is just as much a potential fraudster as those they claim to want me to identify. 

Connected to that lesson, I also learned that change cannot be forced. When telling the organization what changes need to be implemented or what steps should be taken, you cannot be forceful in your approach. I am not the victim. It is not my company. My anger on their behalf is not the same as the anger they feel. When I am engaged, I must also know when to disengage. That is how I gain closure in cases that seem to remain open. 

What steps led you to start Revelatus Consulting? 

Revelatus Specialized Accounting and Consulting, LLC was formed during a very difficult time in my life. I had been downsized from a firm, post-2008 crisis, and my younger son was diagnosed with a mental illness. I was not sure how to proceed and needed to regain control over my personal situation. Having just finished my masters in criminal justice and having started the forensic accounting and fraud investigation segment at my previous employer, the easy step was to continue what I was doing.  It was not my first attempt, so I knew the pitfalls and knew to focus on the long game. Revelatus gave me the opportunity to take on cases that fit my interests regardless of where I worked. Initially, it was not meant to be my sole source of income. 

I also created Revelatus, meaning “to reveal,” so that I can work with small businesses and startups. Working at the previous firm, I realized that many companies and individuals who needed my services could not afford the hourly rate. The hourly rate was an obstacle to their growth and sustainability. Through Revelatus, I am able to offer sliding scale fees and pro bono services in addition to my other work. It was important for me to humanize the client experience beyond the bottom line. It also opened the door to educating nonprofits and communities, working with individuals experiencing identity theft and serving a low-income or fixed-income population (including the military). 

It has been and continues to be, a challenge. Those who may be considering setting out on their own should consider the “why.” If the “why” is only about money, you have failed yourself and your business from the start. Days when clients lie or fail to pay, or when marketing and networking efforts seem to be for naught, the “why” is what keeps you focused and inspired. Fraud examination is very much connected to the human experience. We are dealing with people who are experiencing trust issues, hurt, disillusionment and anger. We deal with people who think they can fool the system (and us) because greed, jealousy and self-preservation are their north stars. Starting an anti-fraud education and prevention firm is a service not to be taken lightly. It is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I do not regret a moment. 

As CFEs, we are empowered by our education and must responsibly use it to educate those who would not ordinarily have access to our services. Dr. Tonisha Pinckney, CFE





New Jersey, U.S.

What is a memorable case or project that you have worked on? 

The case that comes to mind was from 2012 to 2015. The engagement began as a high-end bookkeeping role. The organization happened to be a church and they used Excel spreadsheets to keep track of donations and expenses. The organization wanted a construction loan and needed the records in Quickbooks for CPA review and statement as to sustainability. An additional request was for projection exploring the cost of the loan, potential increase in membership, increase in donations, ability to rent space and other income-producing factors. This work morphed into strategic planning services. 

While transferring the Excel spreadsheets to Quickbooks, I quickly began to find discrepancies. The bank statement dates did not coincide with information on the spreadsheets. The check numbers and amounts did not match invoices or bank statements. Amounts were rounded and then aggregated making “drill down” and matching extremely difficult. I raised the issues with the leaders of the organization, keeping an open mind. I was clear that the issue could be improper bookkeeping rather than fraud and suggested a deeper review. 

To properly ascertain the flow of cash into the organization, I visited the church’s morning and midweek services on random dates, performed official but casual interviews of key persons and began information gathering from external sources. I then decided to pause the investigation to do a fraud risk assessment, which yielded much-needed direction. Had this started as a fraud investigation, I would have performed a risk assessment at the onset. The assessment revealed extreme issues with lack of internal controls, segregation of duties, oversight, accountability and access to funds — just to start. 

Upon further investigation, I found that people in the church were removing money from the offering plate by schemes such as placing in a $10 bill to get change (only wanting to donate $5). The person would then remove $20 in various denominations. The person in charge of counting the intake was allowed to hold on to the cash, sometimes in her purse, until the end of the church service. She would often count the checks and only include minimum cash. The usher, who helped collect the offering donations, was also the secretary and the person who made the deposits. The bookkeeper was the person in charge of counting the money. The trustee, who had certain disabilities, placed extreme trust of the secretary and bookkeeper, disallowing close monitoring. This resulted in a letter from me to the pastor/CEO discussing the preliminary findings and the high likelihood of fraud. 

In the end, it seemed everyone was stealing except the pastor. The pastor did not take a salary and only accepted minimal reimbursement of expenses due to the declining funds and donations. The bookkeeper’s son, the church drummer, stole checks from his mother’s car and used them for small purchases. The secretary and bookkeeper, both paid $200 per month for services, colluded to withdraw large amounts as “advances on future salary” without ever paying back the amounts. In many cases, those embezzling funds did not reveal to their colluders that they were taking additional amounts. 

In one instance, I found that someone wrote a check to their home energy provider using the church checks. The checks had the correct amount and invoice number. However, the account number on the check did not match the church account. When the energy company received the check, the payment was applied to the individual’s energy account rather than to the church’s energy account — resulting in loss of electricity for the church. 

The engagement had several levels, lasted almost three years and resulted in no arrests or sanctions. The church did implement several changes that included: clarification of roles and functions, internal controls procedures, donation changes (no more passing of the donation plate), accountability, reduced access to checks and credit cards, changing the bookkeeper and the secretary, training of the trustees and much more, as was outlined in my final report. I am now a consultant with the church as an ongoing service provider for CFO duties. One of those duties is to advise on matters related to how funds are used and by whom. Eventually the “problem” staff left the organization — perhaps because their cash cow was put to rest. The impact on the church, the community it served and the morale of the parishioners was detrimental, but the church is now surviving, growing and working toward long-term sustainability. It was sad to see an organization that was capable of being the light in a struggling inner-city community nearly fail due to the greed of a few and the trust of many. 

You are incredibly active in your community through your work at Community House of Prayer in Newark, New Jersey, and in your extensive roles in many academic programs. Why do you think it’s important to get involved with your community and in the education sphere? 

Community involvement is a part of who I am. I cannot imagine sitting on the sidelines watching things happen. Many of us take to social media to complain. I do that, but I also work to make a difference. As someone who has been victimized in many ways, I feel it is my duty and purpose to mitigate the impact of victimization in communities. With education comes responsibility. As Certified Fraud Examiners (CFEs), we are empowered by our education and must responsibly use it to educate those who would not ordinarily have access to our services. We can speak about subjects such as elder abuse to law enforcement, legislatures, banks and other decision-making entities, or we can go to nursing homes, retirement facilities and family resource centers to educate and advocate. 

I see way too many minorities, low-income, elderly and differently-abled individuals victimized because lack of knowledge made them suitable targets. I work with victims to choose paths that can protect them and their assets (now and future). We should not wait for a victim of domestic violence to have their identity stolen before we let them know what they could have or should have done. We do not have to wait until a new minority business owner loses all they have due to credit card or occupational fraud. We can wait and charge them large fees to address the problem or we can campaign to educate new business owners in minority communities to consider fraud risk when starting their business. 

Education is power, but the educator is only powerful if they share the information. To me, educating and advocating for and within the community is a necessity, not an option. We have a duty to fight fraud whether or not the person can afford our services. Of course, we cannot do so to the detriment of our own business or livelihoods. (I learned that the hard way). My suggestion is to incorporate pro bono, education/awareness and advocacy work in everything that you do. When you finish an engagement, think about how you can use what you learned or the income you received to assist those who could not afford or do not have access to those services. Lack of knowledge is not only lack of power; lack of knowledge is a barrier to equality, equity and inclusiveness. 

How did you first begin authoring books and do you have advice for any would-be authors? 

My first book “I AM MORE – The Journey” was released in 2009. I did so as a way to help other survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Writing has always been an outlet for me. I write prose and poetry related to everyday topics: leadership, personal and professional development, emotional triggers, victimization, offending, relationships and more. 

“My Turn to Lead: Fundamentals of Leadership and Influence for New and Emerging Leaders” was written after leaving a hurtful and volatile workplace. After that experience, several mentees and social media connections suggested that I compile lessons on leadership. The book includes lessons I drew from key leaders and authors in various industries. There is a plethora of leadership books, but “My Turn to Lead” is written to give confidence to the individual who is told they will never be a leader, are ill-equipped to lead or do not have a suitable mentor. It is meant to educate and inspire. 

Being an author is not easy, unless you are someone who truly has something to say. Doesn’t everyone have something to say? Not necessarily — everyone has a voice, but not everyone has something that they feel others should know. I suggest future writers develop a plan, find their voice and audience through speaking engagements and blog writing, create a space dedicated to writing, and care less about how many books you sell. Yes, like all authors I want to sell books, but I also do it for the joy. 

How has the CFE credential impacted your professional development? 

Likely, I would not have earned my masters in criminal justice or my doctorate in criminal justice and criminology had I not studied for the CFE credential. The study process, especially the four main areas, opened my eyes up to the interdisciplinary nature of financial crimes. I wanted to understand more about the rationalizations and justifications of crime in general and fraud specifically. Also, it gave me an opportunity to have more than one career or stream of income. Even as a professor, I can teach business, accounting, leadership, criminal justice, financial (white-collar) crimes, criminal justice, criminology, profiling, behavior and other courses connected to the theories of victimization. The CFE was not just a cumulative credential, it was a gateway. 

What activities or hobbies do you like to do outside of work and volunteering? 

I absolutely love comedy, church, video games, cooking, writing poetry, eating (I love eating), and making people smile and laugh. Since writing is a job and a hobby, I get to play around with various writing styles and topics. I even have a pseudonym that I use to have a little fun with my writing. In short, regardless whether I am the president of a board of trustees, business owner, mother, author, speaker, educator or advocate, I enjoy life. Taking time for myself and my family gives me the strength to forge ahead. 

ACFE membership is open to individuals of all job functions, industries and levels of experience who are interested in the prevention, detection and deterrence of fraud. If you want to level up your anti-fraud career, we can help.

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