Whose hand is in your till?

An accountant gone wild pleaded guilty to stealing more than $1 million from his clients. Here's what you can do to protect your own books.

EMAIL  |   PRINT  |   SHARE  |   RSS
google my aol my msn my yahoo! netvibes
Paste this link into your favorite RSS desktop reader
See all CNNMoney.com RSS FEEDS (close)

Peter Sober (left) and Susan and Wayne La France regret the day they gave their accountant electronic access to the books of their architecture firm.
Embezzlement safeguards Embezzlement safeguards Embezzlement safeguards
5 things you can do to protect your business from an accountant gone wild.

(FORTUNE Small Business) -- When a local accountant offered to do the books for Lake Architectural in Marcellus, N.Y., Peter Sorber, co-founder of the three-year-old firm, was overwhelmed by managing his growing business and was happy to accept the offer.

The accountant, Brian Baker, ran a self-named firm as well as another business: B&B Payroll & Bookkeeping Service, both based in the nearby Syracuse-area town of Manlius. He had been in business for eight years and came highly recommended, according to office manager Susan La France.

Sorber, who now has 11 employees, granted Baker full electronic access to his firm's checking account. He gave the accountant control of Lake's finances, from managing its payroll to business planning. Baker even offered to do the personal tax returns of its employees.

After an initial consultation in November 2006, however, Baker became maddeningly hard to reach. "It was getting close to tax time," says Sorber, 53, "and we were not able to get hold of him."

Last June, La France received a call from a large payroll concern in the area, saying that Baker had not filed Lake's first-quarter employee taxes and that Baker had called the payroll service in to help his clients sort out the matter with tax officials. La France immediately checked Lake's accounts and discovered that more than $7,000 had been removed by Baker.

In March, Baker pleaded guilty to one count of first degree grand larceny, admitting he stole more than $1 million. Over 15 local businesses were affected. Baker and his lawyer, Kevin McCormack, had no comment.

Dr. John Callahan, 44, owner of Adult Primary Care of Fayetteville, N.Y., another business affected by Baker's actions, found Baker through a local radio advertisement.

"I thought it was good to support a local business," he says.

He never asked Baker for references. Callahan says that with all the tasks he was saddled with in starting his practice, he felt he didn't have the time. The businesses that hired Baker say they had no reason to suspect his ethics.

While few small companies can afford the independent audits and fraud-detection training common among big corporations, there are less costly ways to protect a business.

Paul Hense, an accountant based in Grand Rapids, has this advice: When hiring an accountant, request five references - and take time to check them. An outside accountant shouldn't handle payroll unless the accountant's firm is bonded by an insurance policy. If a bonded accountant makes a mistake or commits fraud, the client is usually covered. Owners should also consider adding embezzlement coverage to their umbrella insurance policies. To top of page

To write a note to the editor about this article, click here.

Find Business Answers
Ask a Question

Ask a Question

QMy dream is to launch my own business someday. Now that it's time to choose a major, I'm debating if I should major in entrepreneurial studies or major in engineering to acquire a set of skills first. Is majoring in entrepreneurship a good choice? More
Get Answer
- Spate, Orange, Calif.
10 of the most luxurious airline amenity kits When it comes to in-flight pampering, the amenity kits offered by these 10 airlines are the ultimate in luxury More
7 startups that want to improve your mental health From a text therapy platform to apps that push you reminders to breathe, these self-care startups offer help on a daily basis or in times of need. More
5 radical technologies that will change how you get to work From Uber's flying cars to the Hyperloop, these are some of the neatest transportation concepts in the works today. More

Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.