My name is Amy Wilson. I am a wife, a mother, an accountant — and an ex-convict.
Early on as a struggling single mother, I wanted a better life for my children, so I went to night school at the University of Indianapolis and earned my bachelor’s degree. For the next 16 years, I worked hard to achieve a respected position in the corporate world. I started in my teens as a cashier at a car dealership. Next, I worked as a payables clerk for a major hospital in Indianapolis. Finally, degree in hand, I became a staff accountant for a large manufacturing firm. Seven years later, I was hired as an office manager for a small manufacturing business.
For most of my life, I was an overachiever, an attribute that eventually led to my downfall and put me behind bars, a convicted felon.
My slow decline into theft
Throughout my climb up the corporate ladder, I continued to overachieve. But my success bred arrogance and selfishness. I was a charmer when it suited me. My colleagues never suspected or detected the deeply-held negative traits I hid behind a mask of excellence, dependability and trustworthiness.
At home, my “in charge” persona fell away. I felt guilty for being away at work and school. Instead of being tough when my children needed it, I gave them everything they wanted and rarely held them accountable. Consequently, my son was often in trouble with the law. At 18, he was charged as a felon and jailed. I panicked. I was desperate to save him from himself. In hindsight, I ought to have been wiser and let him reap what he’d sown.
Let me step back here just a moment — to make it crystal clear — as I explain the events that led me to prison, that I take full responsibility for my choices. Nothing justifies my betrayal of my employer.
The first time I embezzled, I used the funds to hire a lawyer for my son. It worked. The charges were reduced, and he was released. Ironically, I would eventually go to prison. Hooked on money, I continued to rob my employer, manufacturing ways to justify the theft to myself. I worked harder, put in more hours. Somehow, this made me feel less guilty and less shameful about my behavior. I vowed to find a way to pay back the money I’d “borrowed.”
Now, I plainly see what I did was wrong from all angles. And I have to live with — and will never get over — the look of betrayal in my boss’ eyes when my fraud was uncovered.
I embezzled $345,000 over approximately four years. While I used some of the money to buy frivolous items, I gave the majority to people I knew in financial hardship. An overachiever and people pleaser, I thrived on their appreciation of “my generosity” and on my status as their savior. Today, I realize I am no one’s savior. For me, there is only one savior, and His name isn’t Amy Wilson.
How I stole and simple employer safeguards that could have stopped me
Concealing my embezzlement was easy. My employer didn’t care about internal controls. As the office manager, I had access to all computer modules and bank accounts. The only safeguard was that I was not allowed to sign checks.
Separation of duties is a must for all employers. For me, stealing money was as easy as printing checks in the accounting software test module and forging the vice president’s signature. I then paid my personal credit card account with a company check. Owners should make their signatures difficult to forge, use positive pay, and review activity in the test module.
Although positive pay wouldn’t have stopped me, it prevents money from being stolen from checking accounts through fake checks. In positive pay, the company sends its bank a list of checks that have been written. When checks are presented for payment, the bank will match the check number, date, amount and payee (a “four-way” match). Matching checks will be cleared. Checks that don’t match the list provided to the bank are rejected.
I hid my embezzlement in the cost of goods for the company’s largest customer. If the owners had reviewed the costing reports and paid attention to other signs in the financials, they might have caught me.
But my employer spent a lot of time outside of work enjoying life. He was always quick to tell me how grateful he was to me and how much he appreciated my work ethic. Because he trusted me, my boss let his guard down. Here’s a secret: Trust is not a control. It’s a feeling. That’s why accountants should never complete an internal control checklist based on client trust.
How I got caught
My credit card company’s fraud audit uncovered my theft. I had been more worried about the company’s outside CPA uncovering it than the president or vice president. The accountant strongly encouraged my boss, the president, to get to the bottom of the 2 percent increase in the cost of goods, but he ignored that advice, and he refused to pay for more than a compilation.
While the president ignored his CPA’s advice, I hope you will take mine. If your boss or client doesn’t want to pay for a review or audit, hand them this article. I hope it will persuade them to protect themselves from people like me.
The moment of discovery
On a cool morning in March 2009, I checked into a motel to commit suicide. My theft had been uncovered and a warrant issued for my arrest. No one, not even my husband, knew of my fraud. It was all too difficult to face. Rather than suffer the embarrassment, I decided that ending my life was the only way out. Certainly, God wanted nothing to do with me, and I figured why not go straight to hell? In this selfish state of mind and blind with the love of money, I didn’t see the blessings in my life. Fortunately, my suicide attempt failed.
I was charged with four counts of forgery and four counts of theft. I surrendered to the police, pleaded guilty to all charges and was sentenced to six years in the Indiana Department of Corrections. I served two years and received two years’ credit for good behavior. I’m serving the final two years on probation.
Throughout this ordeal, I believe God has shown me great mercy. Recognizing His forgiveness for my sins and the redemption that comes with my repentance, I want to be a giver instead of a taker. I hurt so many people. Once I took an honest look at myself, I decided I did not want to be a liar, a manipulator and a thief.
Yet, I refuse to allow this major mistake to define me and my life. I talk openly about my crime, because I recognize the value my story has for accounting professionals. I also speak to inmates in county jails and prisons. I explain that, like me, it is possible for them to pull their lives back together, but that they must start with honesty. It really is all about the truth. Once I told the trial judge the truth and accepted the repercussions of my actions, I was finally free.
Today, I work as an accountant for a business near my home. I revealed my crimes to my employers, and, after a thorough background check, they hired me. They are pleased with my work, and I am very happy there. They fully support my efforts as a speaker against fraud, because they see the good that can come from it. Through my employment and the funds I earn from speaking, I am making restitution to my victim.
My criminal actions devastated my family emotionally and financially. My husband, my children and extended family had no idea what I was doing. One day I was home, and the next, I was in jail. They were left in shock to try to pick up the pieces of the huge mess I made. It has taken years for us to work through the feelings of anger and betrayal I caused.
Forgiveness, mercy and grace - gifts not to be taken for granted
Today, my family and I continue to rebuild our lives. My family has forgiven me, but they watch me closely to be certain my actions prove I am the changed person I profess to be. I am very grateful for all the blessings in my life. I know I don’t deserve any of the forgiveness, mercy and grace I have received. I refuse to take them for granted.
I hope my story helps prevent a fraud or stops one in its tracks. I hope especially that others benefit from the lessons I have so sorely learned. I hope somewhere to save someone else the pain of committing such a foolish act, or to prevent a business and its owners from a betrayal such as mine.
©Amy Wilson 2013
Amy Wilson, an ex-white-collar criminal, is committed to sharing her story to help CPAs and small-business owners protect themselves against fraud, theft, abuse and embezzlement. A speaker for The Pros & The Cons, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 317-224-9906. Contact Gary Zeune, Managing Director of The Pros & The Cons, at email@example.com or 614-761-8911.