Forensic accounting combines the investigative legal work of a detective or prosecutor with the numbers-based, analytical mindset of an accountant or financial manager. Because of its unique position between these two very different fields, there isn't always one clear path for how to become a forensic accountant. Add to this the number of different, sometimes overlapping forensic accounting certifications available for those who already have their degree, and it can be difficult to tell what kind of education and training you really need to pursue in order to qualify for forensic accounting jobs.
Can You Get a Forensic Accounting Degree?
While some schools offer courses that will let you get your accounting degree with a concentration in forensic accounting, most do not offer a bachelor's degree specifically in forensic accounting. This level of specificity is more commonly (though not always) found at the graduate level.
As with any advanced accounting job, you'll need to have a minimum of a bachelor's degree to pursue a career as a forensic accountant—and while accounting is the most common choice, a bachelor's in finance or business can also work. You also may find a business program that offers specializations in accounting or even forensic accounting. Experience or a degree concentration in criminal justice can be helpful as well, but this isn't required. Many forensic accountants also have a master's degree, which can help open up the potential of pursuing higher, management-level positions.
Most people have several years' worth of experience in entry-level accounting jobs before moving into a position as a forensic accountant. Since you typically must be a licensed CPA before qualifying for forensic accountant positions, many use their time in more general accounting roles to work toward this licensure.
Forensic Accounting Certifications
If you're researching how to become a forensic accountant, you've probably encountered at least a few of the different certifications available. Unlike CPAs or CMAs, forensic accountants don't have a single governing body that grants certification. This means that practicing accountants looking to shift their career into forensic accounting have several certification options to pursue:
Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE)2 – Issued by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, CFE credentials are designed to provide (and demonstrate) training in updated investigation techniques, data analysis practices, and recognizing common signs of fraud. While CPA licensure is not required, applicants must have two years of accounting experience before they're eligible to take the four-part CFE Exam, and all CFEs must complete 20 hours of continuing education per year to maintain certification.
Certified in Financial Forensics (CFF)3 – The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (or AICPA, the same organization that administers the Uniform CPA Examination) started offering this certification in 2008 for accountants who have already demonstrated a degree of specialization in one or more areas of forensic accounting through knowledge, skills, and experience. Applicants must be licensed CPAs with at least 1,000 hours of forensic accounting experience and at least 75 hours of completed forensic accounting continuing education credits in the past 5 years.
Master Analyst in Financial Forensics (MAFF)4 – The National Association of Certified Valuators and Analysts' Financial Forensics Institute offers MAFF certification in seven areas of specialization, including one in forensic accounting. Applicants are required to have one of the above certifications (which may include CPA licensure), and must also meet extensive prior-experience requirements.
Forensic Accounting Jobs
Whether you go straight to pursuing one of the above certifications or you work toward a promotion from an entry-level position, the following fields and industries are more likely to have forensic accountant openings:
Financial-services companies (like banking and insurance agencies)
State and local government agencies (like the IRS, FBI, and CIA)
Public and private law offices
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1American Board of Forensic Accounting, "Becoming a Certified Forensic Accountant," on the internet at http://certfa.org/becoming-a-certified-forensic-accountant/ (visited 10/7/15).
2Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, "CFE Qualifications," on the Internet at http://www.acfe.com/cfe-qualifications.aspx (visited 10/7/15).
3American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, "Certified in Financial Forensics (CFF) Credential," on the Internet at http://www.aicpa.org/InterestAreas/ForensicAndValuation/Membership/Pages/certified-in-financial-forensics.aspx (visited 10/7/15).
4National Association of Certified Valuators and Analysts, "Master Analyst in Financial Forensics (MAFF)," on the Internet at http://www.nacva.com/content.asp?contentid=147 (visited 10/7/15).