Business opportunity or scam?

The investment “opportunity” could be anything from a new nutritional supplement to a foolproof method for “flipping” houses. But if the investment or product is advertised as “easy money” or promises immediate high earnings, beware. Although there are plenty of legitimate business opportunities out there, there are also plenty of fraudulent schemes that exist for no other reason than to steal your money.

Simple or complicated

These schemes can be relatively straightforward. For example, one New York state man was convicted of enticing investors to sink $10,000 each into a vending machine distribution business he promised would be profitable — even though it was set up to fail.

But they can also take the form of complicated pyramid schemes that generally offer no actual product or service and are sustained by constantly recruiting new participants. Often, these schemes are couched as “clubs” or “gift programs” and promoted through social networks. Whatever they’re called, they usually end the same way: When the pyramid collapses, only the “founders” walk away with any money.

FTC safeguards

To assist potential investors, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has established a Business Opportunity Rule. Among other things, the rule requires sellers to produce a disclosure document and to detail any earnings claims in a separate statement.

Sellers also must disclose prior civil or criminal litigation involving claims of misrepresentation, fraud, securities law violations, or unfair or deceptive business practices; outline any cancellation or refund policy; and provide references nearest to the potential buyer’s location. Furthermore, the disclosure document must be written in the language in which the buyer and seller discussed the opportunity. For more about the rule, visit ftc.gov.

Practical tips

In practical terms, you can protect yourself by studying the disclosure document, earnings claim statement and proposed contract, looking for potential loopholes that might benefit the seller at your expense. For example, are start-up costs particularly high? Is the seller required to buy back inventory you’re unable to sell or would you be out-of-pocket?

Other tips to protect your money:

  • Research the seller’s history and reputation online and check for complaints with the Better Business Bureau. (Note that the absence of complaints doesn’t necessarily mean the seller is aboveboard.)
  • Find out if there’s an actual market for the business’s products or services.
  • Talk to current investors or participants and ask tough questions.
  • Ask your legal and financial advisors to review any documents you don’t understand, including the contract.

When to walk away

If you suspect a business opportunity is fake, turn it down. Then report it to your state attorney general’s office, your county or state consumer protection agency, and the FTC. But if you’re unsure about the legitimacy of an offer, contact us. We can help you evaluate it.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Fraud experts have long suggested that the presence of three conditions, known as the “fraud triangle,” greatly increases the likelihood that an employee will commit fraud. Over the years, this conceptual framework has been expanded to become a “fraud diamond.” Understanding these models can help you protect your business.

Classic shape

The classic fraud triangle consists of:

1. Pressure. An individual experiences some type of pressure that motivates the fraud. Pressure can come from within the organization — for example, pressure to meet aggressive earnings or revenue growth targets. Or, the pressure could be personal, such as the need to maintain a high standard of living or pay off debt from credit cards, medical bills or gambling.

2. Rationalization. Perpetrators must be able to mentally justify their fraudulent conduct. They might tell themselves that they’ll pay back the money before anyone misses it, or reason that:

  • They’re underpaid and deserve the stolen funds,
  • Their employers can afford the financial loss,
  • “Everybody” does it, or
  • No other solution or help is available for their problems.

Under the fraud triangle theory, most employees who commit fraud are first-time offenders who don’t view themselves as criminals but as honest people caught up by circumstances.

3. Opportunity. Occupational thieves exploit perceived opportunities that they believe will allow them to go undetected. Poor internal controls, weak management oversight and ineffective or nonexistent audits all create opportunities for fraud. The opportunity leg represents the best avenue for preventing fraud because it’s within your organization’s control.

New dimensions

More recently, experts have proposed a conceptual framework that includes a fourth leg, “capability.” A capable individual is someone who may have the job position, intellectual capacity, confidence, resilience to stress and guilt, and ability to coerce and cajole others that make committing fraud easier.

A similar model to this diamond shape is MICE (Money, Ideology, Coercion and Ego). MICE retains the original three sides of the fraud triangle but shares the opportunity leg with a second triangle that also has sides for criminal mindset and arrogance.

Proponents of this model argue that perpetrators with characteristics matching the original fraud triangle are “accidental fraudsters.” This means that they wouldn’t commit fraud in the absence of motivation. Those on the side of the additional criminal mindset/arrogance/opportunity triangle are predators, or pathological fraud perpetrators. These individuals require only opportunity. This is another reason why focusing on the opportunity side is the best way to prevent fraud in your organization.

Designed to help

It’s important to remember that employees who seem to display fraud triangle or diamond characteristics won’t necessarily commit a crime. The models are designed to identify risk and eliminate fraud opportunities. Contact us for more information about protecting your organization from fraud.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

With the year underway, your business probably has a strategic plan in place for the months ahead. Or maybe you’ve created a general outline but haven’t quite put the finishing touches on it yet. In either case, there’s a time-tested approach to refining your strategic plan that you should consider: a SWOT analysis. Let’s take a closer look at what each of the letters in that abbreviation stands for:

Strengths. A SWOT analysis starts by identifying your company’s core competencies and competitive advantages. These are how you can boost revenues and build value. Examples may include an easily identifiable brand, a loyal customer base or exceptional customer service.

Unearth the source of each strength. A loyal customer base, for instance, may be tied to a star employee or executive — say a CEO with a high regional profile and multitude of community contacts. In such a case, it’s important to consider what you’d do if that person suddenly left the business.

Weaknesses. Next the analysis looks at the opposite of strengths: potential risks to profitability and long-term viability. These might include high employee turnover, weak internal controls, unreliable quality or a location that’s no longer advantageous.

You can evaluate weaknesses relative to your competitors as well. Let’s say metrics indicate customer recognition of your brand is increasing, but you’re still up against a name-brand competitor. Is that a battle you can win? Every business has its Achilles’ heel — some have several. Identify yours so you can correct them.

Opportunities. From here, a SWOT analysis looks externally at what’s happening in your industry, local economy or regulatory environment. Opportunities are favorable external conditions that could allow you to build your bottom line if your company acts on them before competitors do.

For example, imagine a transportation service that notices a growing demand for food deliveries in its operational area. The company could allocate vehicles and hire drivers to deliver food, thereby gaining an entirely new revenue stream.

Threats. The last step in the analysis is spotting unfavorable conditions that might prevent your business from achieving its goals. Threats might come from a decline in the economy, adverse technological changes, increased competition or tougher regulation.

Going back to our previous example, that transportation service would have to consider whether its technological infrastructure could support the rigorous demands of the app-based food-delivery industry. It would also need to assess the risk of regulatory challenges of engaging independent contractors to serve as drivers.

Typically presented as a matrix (see accompanying image), a SWOT analysis provides a logical framework for better understanding how your business runs and for improving (or formulating) a strategic plan for the year ahead. Our firm can help you gather and assess the financial data associated with the analysis. Call us at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA