Accountancy boring? No way. Amy McLellan meets the sleuths chasing the missing assets

The latest soldier in the "war on terror" is not a super-trained marine or an undercover agent but an accountant. Or, more accurately, a forensic accountant. In a recent speech, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, acknowledged the role played by forensic accountants in tracing the financial transactions of terrorist networks, uncovering accomplices and piecing together command structures.

This kind of work is bread-and-butter stuff for forensic accountants, who use rigorous accountancy skills and a flair for investigation to sniff out fraud, uncover money-laundering and trace missing assets.

"Forensic accountants are really financial detectives," says Alex Brown of the Institute of Chartered Accountants' forensic group, and who has worked on cases involving Caribbean money laundering, Eastern European smuggling, Serious Fraud Office cases and major commercial disputes.

The work requires a different skill set from a typical number-cruncher. "You need to be able to work methodically through the material, which is laborious but has to be done because a whole case can rest on one document," says Brown. "But the other half of your mind needs to be working at a 90-degree angle, making connections between the documents and reading everything with a critical, inquisitor's mindset."

It's important to be able to think out of the box because the critical information may be missing or buried deep in a historical paper trail. The search for assets looted during the Holocaust was like "doing a jigsaw with no box and all the pieces are bits of blue sky", says Simon Bevan, the head of fraud and forensic accountancy at the leading firm BDO Stoy Hayward.

The day-to-day work of a forensic accountant involves interviewing key people, studying accounts and, increasingly, examining electronic documents.

The ever-growing volume of such documentation means that there is now a new branch of forensic accountancy. The specialist computing forensic expert will usually have a background in IT and will receive accountancy training on the job.

Forensic accountancy is booming: the number of cases handled by the forensics team at the "big four" firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC), for example, has tripled in the last two years. This is not because there is more fraud but because there is less tolerance of suspected fraud and computers have made it easier to spot fraudulent activity. New money-laundering and anti-terrorism measures have also increased demand for skilled forensic accountants. This means major accountancy firms are always on the hunt for talent - and are prepared to pay a premium to attract good people.

There are two routes into the business: you can either be recruited as a forensic accountant by one of the big firms and gain experience as you work towards an accountancy qualification or you can qualify as a chartered accountant and gain experience of general accountancy and audit work before transferring to a forensic department.

Most firms will look for a minimum number of UCAS points (280 at BDO Stoy Hayward), a good degree and evidence of numeracy skills. It isn't essential to have a degree in accountancy, however. PwC trainee Amy Hawkins, 24, has a background in biological chemistry. "I was attracted to forensic accountancy because, like science, you need to have investigative skills," she says. "I really like the sleuthing side of the job, where you're finding out whodunit and where the money went."

But it's not all excitement. The exams can be challenging: it takes three years to qualify as a chartered accountant and you have to be prepared to study after work and at weekends. There is often extensive travel. BDO trainee Ed Martin, 25, has already travelled to Indonesia and Taiwan on cases. The hours can be long and the workload, which on a big case may run into many tens of thousands of documents. But most forensic accountants thrive on the thrill of the chase.

"You may be working 15 hour days going through four different sets of accounts, which is really boring," says BDO's Simon Bevan. "But when you find that killer document it's a real reward for all your hard work."

The lowdown

Training

You will study towards a chartered-accountancy qualification while under a training contract. There are two main awarding bodies: the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales ( www.icaew.co.uk) and the Association Of Certified Chartered Accountants ( www.acca.co.uk)

Skills required

Very good numeracy. You also need to be methodical, lateral-thinking and good with people.

Pay

This starts in the mid-£20,000s and quickly doubles on qualification.

Recruitment

Big accountancy firms are always looking for talented individuals: see www.bdo.co.uk or www.pwcglobal.com.

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