The COVID-19 pandemic has often made the due diligence process for business acquisitions more complex and time-consuming. But if you’re buying a company, it’s critical to dedicate your full attention to this part of the M&A process — not only to confirm that the selling business is as valuable as you believe it to be, but to protect against fraud. Plan early to engage a fraud expert to review financial statements and other documents for signs that you could be dealing with a dishonest seller.

Subtle warning signs

When reviewing a seller’s financial statements, forensic experts look for subtle warning signs of fraud. These include excess inventory, a large number of write-offs, an unusually high number of voided discounts for returns, insufficient documentation of sales and increased purchases from new vendors. Another suspicious sign is increased accounts payable and receivable combined with dropping or stagnant revenues and income.

Fishy revenue, cash flow and expense numbers and unreasonable-seeming growth projections warrant further investigation to determine whether financial statements represent fraud or they’re evidence of unintentional errors or mismanagement. The latter is common in smaller companies that don’t have their statements audited by outside experts or that may not have adequate internal financial expertise.

Systematic manipulation

To determine whether unusual income numbers indicate systematic manipulation, experts often consider whether owners or executives had the opportunity to commit fraud. A lack of solid internal controls makes financial statement fraud more likely. Regulatory disapproval, customer complaints and suspicious supplier relationships can also raise red flags. If warranted, a forensic expert may perform background checks on your target company’s principals.

It’s important to note that some accounting practices adopted to present a business in the best light may be perfectly legal. However, if your expert finds evidence of intentional fraud — particularly at the executive level — you’ll probably want to rescind your acquisition offer. In less serious cases, you may simply need to make purchase price adjustments or even change the deal’s structure.

Negotiating protection

An indemnification clause written into the purchase agreement can protect you if a seller lies about matters that affect your acquisition, such as fraud. But negotiating these clauses can be tricky since sellers tend to push for a narrow definition of “fraud” and for limits on liability. The fact remains that if a seller has committed fraud, it’s better to uncover it before the M&A transaction goes through.

Contact us with your questions about M&A fraud and for help evaluating your potential business acquisition.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

New year, new fraud to watch out for

Whew, you made it through 2020! But don’t rest easy yet. Unfortunately, fraud perpetrators enjoyed a profitable year, and there are signs they may continue to feed off Americans as long as the pandemic is active. Here are several scams to watch for in 2021.

PPP fraud

Struggling small-business owners have welcomed last month’s 11th hour extension of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). They aren’t alone: Fraudsters skilled at falsifying loan applications are also likely rubbing their hands in anticipation.

The Justice Department has brought charges against at least 80 individuals for stealing $127 million from the first PPP. Law enforcement expects to charge more (likely many more) con artists as evidence is uncovered. Indeed, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis claims that at least $14 billion in PPP loans were improper. Not all of these cases were outright fraud, but there’s evidence that some business owners and lenders ignored PPP guidelines.

To help prevent further misuse of these loans, $50 million has been allocated to the Small Business Administration for PPP fraud prevention and audits. To avoid unnecessary scrutiny or legal trouble, business borrowers should make sure they understand all eligibility requirements for PPP loans and are qualified before applying.

Vaccine cons 

Consumer scams related to the pandemic also are still going strong. Even before COVID-19 vaccinations gained FDA approval, fraudsters conned many Americans (primarily via email and online ads) into paying for nonexistent cures and preventive treatments.

This past month, the FBI and several other federal agencies warned that perpetrators are now advertising COVID-19 vaccine “early access” for those willing to pay a fee or submit medical and other personal information. Make no mistake: These are fraud schemes. To receive a vaccine, visit the Food and Drug Administration (fda.gov) or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov) websites or consult your physician to learn when you will be eligible.

Pet scams

Fraudsters took note when many Americans adopted pets to provide companionship during the pandemic. The Federal Trade Commission is warning about fake ads picturing puppies, kittens and other pets for sale or adoption. The fraudsters typically first request an amount that sounds reasonable up front. Once they receive that, they ask for more and more … for vet bills, health certificates, shipping and anything else they can come up with. Needless to say, there are no actual pets.

You can avoid falling for such scams by performing extensive due diligence. For example, get the name and address of the seller (and verify them) and arrange for a videoconference to see the pet in the possession of the seller. Even better, adopt an animal from a shelter you can visit in person.

Staying safe 

There are a lot of fraud threats out there these days. For help combating consumer and business fraud, contact us.

© 2021 Covenant CPA