Machine learning increasingly is being used to discover fraud schemes. With this type of artificial intelligence (AI), the technology learns or improves in accuracy through experience, rather than through additional programming. If you already use AI in your business, you’re probably somewhat familiar with how machine learning works. But here’s a quick overview of its application in fraud detection.

New approaches needed

More and more, businesses rely on digitization to deliver the goods and services their customers want. Unfortunately, digitization also makes it easier both for cybercriminals and stakeholders, such as employees, vendors and customers, to steal. Preventing fraud in the digital age requires new approaches.

Machine learning is one such approach. Traditional rules-based fraud detection software flags transactions — such as purchase orders of a certain type or over a certain amount — that are suspicious according to static rules. On the other hand, fraud detection software that includes machine learning uses large sets of historical data to “learn,” or create algorithms about the patterns associated with new fraud schemes, enabling it to detect fraud in the future.

Step by step

For a machine to learn, its users must follow certain procedures. After the software is enabled to capture historical transaction data — and the more data, the better — the company using it reviews the data to ensure it presents an accurate picture of transactions. The software then applies algorithms to identify potentially suspicious items. This process creates the first fraud detection model. The software analyzes the same set of data repeatedly and produces new models for the company to review. The company provides feedback on each model to help the software develop better algorithms.

Through this process, the model learns what constitutes fraud and the number of false positives should drop significantly. In the end, the company selects the most accurate fraud detection model to put into production. 

Getting started

If you have the technical capabilities, you may be able to develop a customized machine learning program for fraud detection in-house. We can help if you don’t. Contact us.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

What can AI do for my business?

You’ve no doubt read articles or heard stories about how artificial intelligence (AI) is bringing sweeping change to a wide variety of industries. But it’s one thing to learn about how this remarkable technology is changing someone else’s company and quite another to apply it to your own. Here’s a primer on what AI might be able to do for your business.

3 technology types

AI generally refers to using computers to perform complex tasks usually thought to require human intelligence — such as image perception, voice recognition, decision making and problem solving. Three primary types of technologies fall under the AI umbrella:

1. Machine learning. This involves an iterative process whereby machines improve their performance in a specific task over time with little or no programming or human intervention. It can, for example, improve your forecasting models for determining which products or services will be in high demand with customers.

2. Natural language processing (NLP). This uses algorithms to analyze unstructured human language in documents, emails, texts, conversation or otherwise. Language translation apps are among the most common and dramatic examples of NLP. Communicating with business partners, customers and prospects in other countries — or simply people whose first languages are other than English — has become much easier as this type of software has improved.

3. Robotic process automation (RPA). Using rules and structured inputs, RPA automates time-consuming repetitive manual tasks that don’t require decision making. For instance, an RPA system can collect data from vendor invoices, enter it into a company’s accounting system, and generate an email confirming receipt and requesting additional information if needed. This functionality can help you better time vendor payments to optimize cash flow.

Chat boxes, data sensors

A couple of the most common on-ramps into AI for businesses are chatbots and data sensors. Chatbots are those AI-based instant messaging or voice-based systems that allow users to ask relatively simple questions and get instant answers.

Today’s customers expect to find information quickly and chatbots can provide this speed. However, it’s important to implement a system that enables users to speedily connect to a human customer service rep if their questions or issues are complex or urgent.

Data sensors generally don’t have anything to do with customers, but they can be quite valuable when it comes to your offices or facilities. AI-enhanced building systems allow for real-time monitoring and adjustment of temperature, lighting and other controls. This data can drive predictive analytics that improve decisions about the maintenance and replacement of systems, lowering energy and repair costs.

Upgrade prudently

Precisely how AI might help you run your business more efficiently and profitably depends on the size of your company and the nature of its work. You don’t want to throw dollars at an AI solution just to keep up with the competition. Then again, this technology may offer enticing ways to sharpen your competitive edge. We can help you perform a cost-benefit analysis of any technological upgrade you’re considering.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

You may suspect that an employee has stolen from your company. But without evidence of a crime, you’ll have a hard time pursuing prosecution. So if you discover a fraud, first call your attorney. Then take immediate steps to preserve the evidence.

Safeguard paper documents

Place any hard documents related to the possible fraud in a safe location that’s accessible only to key people. The fewer who handle it, the better. Don’t make notes on any paper documents and, unless necessary, don’t let them be handled. Instead, make separate notations about when and where they were found and how you preserved them. A court case can be derailed if you don’t preserve the chain of evidence and can’t prove to a judge’s satisfaction that the documents haven’t been tampered with.

Handling paper documents is relatively easy as long as you approach the task with care. You can copy anything you need to continue operations and turn the originals over to a fraud expert or law enforcement for fingerprinting, handwriting analysis or other forensic testing.

Take care with technology

Digital evidence can be another story, especially if your IT staff isn’t trained to react to fraud incidents. Even if these employees are highly skilled at setting up and troubleshooting your computer applications, they’re unlikely to be fully aware of the legal ramifications of having a computer or mobile device used to commit fraud.

IT staffers could inadvertently alter or destroy evidence in the course of restoring a computer to normal operations. To avoid such mishaps, arrange for training so that these employees know how to respond to fraud incidents. They should be instructed to stop any routine data destruction immediately. If your system periodically deletes certain information &mdsh; including emails &mdsh; that process must be discontinued the minute you notify them that something is amiss.

If no one has a background in computer forensics, turn the investigation over to an expert as soon as possible. Forensic experts can identify and restore deleted and altered records, digital forgeries and files that have been intentionally corrupted. They also can access many password-protected files and pinpoint unauthorized system access.

Be prepared

If you’re unsure about how to handle fraud evidence, simply take steps to restrict access to it, then ask your attorney about the next step. Better yet, contact us before you discover fraud. We can help ensure you have the necessary training and procedures in place to preserve evidence if an incident ever occurs.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Cloud computing — storing data and accessing apps via the Internet — has been widely adopted by businesses across industry and size. Like many technological advances, though, new derivatives continue to emerge — including so-called multicloud computing.

Under this approach, companies don’t rely on a single cloud service; rather, they distribute their data and computing needs among several providers. Popular options include Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud Platform and Microsoft Azure.

Various advantages

The strategy offers various advantages. For example, like any cloud computing arrangement, it provides scalability. As your needs expand or drop, you can readily adjust your storage capabilities to keep a lid on costs.

Multicloud computing also is a way to hedge your bets. Every cloud provider has downtime at some point but, if you use multiple clouds, you can switch critical workloads and applications to a cloud that’s up and running. And it helps you avoid “vendor lock-in,” or getting restricted to a single provider’s infrastructure, add-on services and pricing models.

Improved performance is another factor. Using several providers based relatively close to you geographically means fewer “network hops” between servers. This reduces latency (the delay between a user’s request and the provider’s response), jitter, packet loss and other disruptions.

Many businesses prefer the “a la carte” nature of multicloud computing. Different providers may have different features that you need to meet your technical or business requirements. For instance, you might choose a pricier but more secure cloud for applications with sensitive data and a cheaper alternative for less sensitive data. Similarly, a business that relies heavily on Windows might use Azure for internal operations but tap AWS for its website and Google Cloud for machine learning.

Potential pitfalls

Some companies find themselves engaging in multicloud computing without ever deciding to do so. Unintentional multiclouds can result from “shadow IT,” whereby different departments or business units start using public clouds on their own accord and then one day turn to IT for help.

Whether multicloud computing develops from shadow IT or a conscious strategic decision, it comes with potential pitfalls. Managing multiple clouds can prove complex. You can use integrated suites of software known as “cloud management platforms” to administer multiple clouds. But these platforms tend to take a “least common denominator” approach, treating multiple clouds as a single cloud by focusing on storage, network and computing functions. As a result, you may find it difficult to leverage each cloud provider’s distinctively useful features.

Total costs

Last but certainly not least, you must consider the total cost of ownership of any multicloud strategy. Although the availability of alternative providers may increase your bargaining power, the cost of paying several vendors can go beyond the upfront prices and monthly fees. You may also incur additional fees for items such as licensing and integration. We can help you perform a cost-benefit analysis of any multicloud solution you’re considering.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Like most business owners, you’ve probably been urged by industry experts and professional advisors to identify the most important key performance indicators (KPIs) for your company. So, just for the sake of discussion, let’s say you’ve done that. A natural question that often follows is: Now what? You know you’re supposed to keep an eye on these metrics every day but … how?

The right technology has you covered. There’s a specific type of software — commonly referred to as a “business dashboard” — that allows business owners to create customized views of all their chosen KPIs. And these applications don’t just lay out numbers like a spreadsheet. They provide an easy visual experience that allows you to keep your eyes on the prize: a cost-controlled, profitable company.

Cloud-based knowledge

Business dashboards have been around for a decade or two in various forms. But today’s solutions have the advantage of being cloud-based, meaning the data driving them is typically stored on a secure server off-site. And you can access the dashboard from anywhere at any time on an authenticated device. (You can also still run a dashboard from your company’s own servers, if you prefer.)

If you’ve never used a dashboard before, you might wonder what one looks like. The name says it all. Ideally, a dashboard is a single screen of data — like the panel of gauges in your car — that displays various KPIs in the form of pie charts, bar graphs and other graphic elements.

A few must-haves

When shopping for a product, there are a few “must-haves” to insist on. The software should:

  • Support your chosen KPIs,
  • Present itself in a visually pleasing, logical manner that allows you to easily, intuitively follow those KPIs, and
  • Update itself in real time, enabling you to react quickly to sudden swings in your company’s financial performance.

Be wary of vendors that over-promise “otherworldly” knowledge of your industry or try to upsell you on bells and whistles. The simpler the dashboard, the better. There will always be more complex financial issues regarding your business that can’t be put into simple terms on a dashboard.

Also, the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) is causing many to question the long-term viability of business dashboards. AI gathers and shapes data so quickly, and in such massive amounts, that some experts argue that a business owner’s chosen KPIs can rapidly become outmoded.

Nonetheless, dashboard software is still widely used in many industries. Just be prepared to regularly reassess and, if necessary, update your KPIs.

Shop carefully

If you decide to invest in a business dashboard (or upgrade your current one), you’ll need to go about it carefully. We can help you set a budget and compare prices and functionalities to get an optimal return on investment.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

As more people use mobile phones, more fraud perpetrators target these devices. According to Javelin Strategy & Research, between 2017 and 2018 the number of fraudulent mobile-phone accounts opened grew by 78%. Schemes in which thieves open a phone account in your name and use it to access your bank account, sign up for credit cards and gain access to personal information are only some of the recent fraud trends. Fraudsters have plenty of ways to defraud consumers through their phones.

Why they’re vulnerable

One of the reasons mobile phones are so vulnerable is that phone security hasn’t kept pace with traditional computer security. Mobile devices rarely contain comprehensive security measures, and mobile operating systems aren’t updated as frequently as those on personal computers.

Yet users routinely store a wide range of sensitive information — including contact information, emails, text messages, passwords and identification numbers — on their phones. Geolocation software can track where phones are at any time, and various apps can record personally identifiable information. Hackers can target a phone and use it to trick its owner, or the owner’s contacts, into revealing confidential information. Or phones can spread viruses to computers — a big problem for companies with “bring your own device” policies.

How thieves get in

Sometimes attackers obtain physical access to a device. More frequently, a hacker achieves virtual access by, for example, sending a phishing email that coaxes the recipient into clicking a link that installs malware.

Apps can be dangerous, too. A user might install an app that turns out to be malicious or a legitimate app with weaknesses an attacker can exploit. A user could unleash such an attack simply by running the app.

What you can do

Encryption is probably the most highly recommended defense against mobile phone fraud. When data is encrypted, it’s “scrambled” and unreadable to anyone who can’t provide a unique “key” to open it. Two-step authentication is also advisable. This approach adds a layer of authentication by calling the phone or sending a password via text message before allowing the user to log in.

Phone owners should always activate PINs or passwords, and other options such as touch ID and fingerprint sensors if available. Conversely, users should disable Bluetooth and Wi-Fi when not in use, and set Bluetooth-enabled devices to be nondiscoverable.

Also request a freeze on the credit information that’s used to open a mobile-phone account with the National Consumer Telecom & Utilities Exchange. This is a credit reporting agency fed by data supplied by phone companies, pay-TV companies, and utility service providers.

Evolving threats

In only a decade, mobile phones have completely changed our daily lives. Unfortunately, fraud has kept pace with technology. To protect your personal information, you need to be aware of the constantly evolving threats.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Nowadays, data drives everything — including the very buildings in which companies operate. If your business is considering upgrading its current facility, or moving to or constructing a new one, it’s important to be aware of “smart” buildings.

A smart building is one equipped with a variety of sensors that gather and track information about the structure’s energy usage and performance. With this data, the owners can better regulate the building’s energy consumption and, ultimately, save money.

Has this been the case in real life? The results of a 2018 Forbes Insights/Intel survey seem to indicate so. Of the 211 business leaders from around the world who responded, 66% answered affirmatively when asked whether smart building management technologies have produced a return on investment.

What’s out there

The name of the game with smart buildings is integration. Traditional building management and control systems don’t easily converge with today’s technology-driven and Internet-connected infrastructure. (This infrastructure is often referred to as “the Internet of Things.”) Sensor-collected data, however, flows directly to the management and control system of a building to automate everything from HVAC to lighting to security features.

Smart technology isn’t limited to new construction. When real estate developers renovate commercial space, it’s increasingly retrofitted with smart technology. By the same token, many large companies have renovated their own buildings to install data-gathering sensors. Doing so is an expensive undertaking but may be worthwhile if your business owns facilities in a prime location and doesn’t want to move.

At the same time, don’t assume every building will be completely automated. In the health care sector, for example, some facilities are finding that manual control of lighting and ventilation systems remains more effective because high traffic volume hampers computerized efforts to regulate energy usage.

Criteria to consider

The primary advantage of smart technology is simple. Over time, you should save money on energy costs by more accurately tracking and regulating usage — dollars that you can redirect toward more profitable activities. Any property you buy, however, must still fit a sensible budget and fulfill other functional criteria, such as being “right-sized” to your on-site workforce and perhaps coming with tax incentives.

When leasing, you’ll need to get specifics from the owner regarding the smart building in question. Was it built new with sensors or retrofitted? Are the sensors and data-processing equipment themselves up to date? You’ll also need to research local energy costs to ensure that the property owner is passing along the savings to you under a reasonable lease agreement.

Here to stay

Just as auto manufacturers no longer make cars without built-in computers, developers and contractors generally aren’t constructing buildings without smart technology. Bear this in mind as you shop for space. Whether you’re looking to lease, buy or build, we can help you weigh the pertinent factors and make the right decision. Call us today at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Turn on your computer or mobile device, scroll through Facebook or Twitter, or skim a business-oriented website, and you’ll likely come across the term “emerging technologies.” It has become so ubiquitous that you might be tempted to ignore it and move on to something else. That would be a mistake.

In today’s competitive business landscape, your ability to stay up to date — or, better yet, get ahead of the curve — on the emerging technologies in your industry could make or break your company.

Watch the competition

There’s a good chance that some of your competitors already are trying to adapt emerging technologies such as these:

Machine learning. A form of artificial intelligence, machine learning refers to the ability of machines to learn and improve at a specific task with little or no programming or human intervention. For instance, you could use machine learning to search through large amounts of consumer data and make predictions about future purchase patterns. Think of Amazon’s suggested products or Netflix’s recommended viewing.

Natural language processing (NLP). This technology employs algorithms to analyze unstructured human language in emails, texts, documents, conversation or otherwise. It could be used to find specific information in a document based on the other words around that information.

Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT is the networking of objects (for example, vehicles, building systems and household appliances) embedded with electronics, software, sensors and Internet connectivity. It allows the collection, sending and receiving of data about users and their interactions with their environments.

Robotic process automation (RPA). You can use RPA to automate repetitive manual tasks that eat up a lot of staff time but don’t require decision making. Relying on business rules and structured inputs, RPA can perform such tasks with greater speed and accuracy than any human possibly could.

Not so difficult

If you fall behind on these or other emerging technologies that your competitors may already be incorporating, you run the risk of never catching up. But how can you stay informed and know when to begin seriously pursuing an emerging technology? It’s not as difficult as you might think:

  • Schedule time to study emerging technologies, just as you would schedule time for doing market research or attending an industry convention.
  • Join relevant online communities. Follow and try to connect with the thought leaders in your industry, whether authors and writers, successful CEOs, bloggers or otherwise.
  • Check industry-focused publications and websites regularly.

Taking the time for these steps will reduce the odds that you’ll be caught by surprise and unable to catch up or break ahead.

When you’re ready to undertake the process of integrating an emerging technology into your business operation, forecasting both the implementation and maintenance costs will be critical. We can help you create a reasonable budget and manage the financial impact. Call us at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA