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MEMBER PROFILE

ON THE CASE

MARIA TEO, CA (SINGAPORE), ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR FORENSIC AND LITIGATION SUPPORT, NEXIA TS PUBLIC ACCOUNTING CORPORATION

María Teo has a real nose for numbers. The Associate Director for Forensic and Litigation Support at Nexia TS likes to get to the bottom of things, which suits her role at the firm to a tee. But this is more than just a reflection of her professional skills. “Fundamentally, I’m a problem solver and I love finding out how things work,” says Ms Teo, 33. “Using data and information to piece together the big picture really appeals to me.” This was perhaps the reason why – although she began her career at Nexia TS in audit – she jumped at the opportunity to move to the forensic and litigation support team. A fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series of books and short stories, financial forensics was a natural fit for her.

From the start, Ms Teo has been a pragmatist. After securing her degree in accountancy, she wanted to build her professional career on a firm foundation and found herself having to decide between joining the broader commercial sector or an accounting firm where one would spend at least a few years in audit. An internship spent in an accounting firm made the decision an easy one. “I discovered that there was a lot more to learn in the field of accounting. Where else but in audit can you learn about the inner workings of companies large and small, in all manner of industries?” Ms Teo asks, rhetorically. “With my degree in accountancy, I had a solid base from which to start.”

Eventually however, Ms Teo’s passion for rooting out problems drew her to financial forensics, where she has spent the last four years honing her skills. “Back then, forensics wasn’t a very well-known area of focus but I decided to take up the opportunity (at Nexia) because it fits into what motivates me as a person.” Ms Teo made the decision to move into this field after a short stint at the Nexia headquarters in London. She stressed that her experiences over a few years in audit helped her to make this move. Knowledge of financial reporting standards, laws and regulations, and the mechanics of how companies are run all provided on-the-job training for Ms Teo’s future role in the forensics team. “This is very important because when it comes investigating a financial forensics case, essentially, the criminals are trying to misinterpret or misapply the laws and standards. As a financial forensics professional, if you are not able to flag out these discrepancies, you may be missing out on several red flags,” explains Ms Teo. As an auditor, Ms Teo had learnt the ins and outs of how to spot irregularities and how to correct them – essential skills and knowledge that are proving invaluable to her in her current role at Nexia TS.

STAYING AHEAD OF THE BAD GUYS

According to Ms Teo, the challenges facing financial forensics investigators can be considered an arms race of sorts, with such professionals always “striving to stay one step ahead of the bad guys”. Just as law enforcers are using technology to improve their efficiency and effectiveness, so too are the criminals. Such a dynamic situation can lead to surprises, as Ms Teo discovered during the circuit-breaker period in Singapore. She shared that her firm logged an uptick in ransomware and phishing attacks in Singapore; ransomware is malware that targets users’ data, either threatening to make such data public or blocking access to it, unless payment is made to the criminals who deployed it, while phishing refers to criminal attempts to trick users into divulging sensitive data, especially user names and passwords. Ms Teo highlighted that while criminals quickly recognised the work-from-home situation as a weak link that they could exploit, employers were slower to bridge the gaps.

Investigating forensics cases is not limited to these cyber threats in Singapore, Ms Teo notes. She pointed out that one of the principal challenges financial forensics teams face locally is evidence decay. “In my experience, in Singapore, the trend is for firms to sweep things under the carpet and ignore (warning signs) until they cannot be ignored anymore. That is when they consult a financial forensics expert.” This leads to scenarios where suspicious activities might have taken place for as long as 10 years ago, so there may not be enough documentary evidence, or the trail may have simply gone cold. Ms Teo added that clients also sometimes bring their own biases to investigations, already having a pre-conceived culprit in mind. Depending on what the investigation finds, she and her team may then have to disabuse them of such notions.

Of course, all this implies that being a financial forensics professional requires picking up new skills. This is precisely what Ms Teo did when she undertook the ISCA Financial Forensics Professional (FFP) accreditation. As this would require quite a significant investment in terms of time, she advised anyone considering getting this accreditation to seek the advice of someone already in the field, if possible. “Talk to them about what a day in their profession is like, and how someone might succeed in this area,” recommends Ms Teo. She also felt that because there are new skills involved, it is worth making the time – prior to making the decision to embark on the accreditation journey – to go through the various modules such as digital forensics, because accountants might not have encountered them before.

A YEARNING TO LEARN

In Ms Teo’s case in particular, an impressive and deep passion for learning has facilitated more than just her decision to take up the FFP accreditation and to move from audit to forensic accounting. “I like to develop different parts of my brain,” she reveals. “I see the value in learning different things (unrelated to professional work) and enriching yourself based on your own interests because you never know when it could add value to your career.” Ms Teo cited a specific personal example, where her efforts to learn Japanese yielded an unexpected professional benefit. She picked up the language because she appreciates Japanese culture and loves visiting the country. However, it so happened she actually managed to win jobs with Japanese multinational companies when they discovered her proficiency in the language.

Not surprisingly, Ms Teo feels strongly about the value of education both professional and personal. This is partly why she was excited about the One Young World Summit 2019 – she was selected from a group of interested participants to represent ISCA and Chartered Accountants Worldwide at the prestigious summit. “We take financial literacy for granted in Singapore. I found (from meeting accountants around the world) that I had quite a myopic view of my own field. What the Summit brought to the table (for me) was that there are matters in the world where accountants are going to play a very big role, because accountants are managing the purse strings.”

This feeds into Ms Teo’s belief that accountants can actually do more to change perceptions of their profession, to move beyond considering themselves as just bookkeepers. Referring again to financial literacy, she is of the view that there are plenty of people in a variety of trades who do not know how to keep a proper set of financial accounts, and who might benefit from the value that understanding the financial reporting standards brings. In her view, by bringing their skills as accountants to the table, and advising companies to make financial decisions that contribute to society, accountants will be able to position themselves as pivotal change makers.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

2009 to 2011
Audit Associate, Nexia TS

2012 to 2014
Senior Auditor, Nexia TS

2014 to 2016
Assistant Manager, Nexia TS

2017 to 2019
Manager, Nexia TS

2019 to Present
Associate Director, Nexia TS