Forensic Accounting YKTTW Discussion

Forensic Accounting
Discovering secrets by tracing their finances and paperwork.
Description Needs Help Better Name
(permanent link) added: 2012-12-10 08:01:16 sponsor: StarSword (last reply: 2013-01-22 18:15:34)

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OP's note: I wanted to call this Follow the Money since that's a common term for it in dialogue, but that trope name seems to be taken by an unrelated video game trope and the TRS is full. Any cleverer name suggestions are very welcome.

Rolling Updates, Needs a Better Title

"A CPA brought down Al Capone. There's a reason they want you to testify."
-- Sam Axe, "False Flag," Burn Notice

When you're trying to crack a big conspiracy, sometimes it can be hard to get people to open up to you because they're more scared of the conspirators than they are of you. At other times the conspirators are well-connected and have judicial protection for their secrets. But everything needs to be paid for somehow, and tracing the money can often get you the information you need.

Such Forensic Accounting is often viewed as boring and/or headache-inducing by the characters, because it involves a lot of staring at numbers. Despite the name, this can easily be applied to paperwork such as cargo manifests.

Quite common in Crime and Punishment Series of all types. As such, don't bother listing every example from such series; one or two per show will suffice.

See also Intimidating Revenue Service, where this trope is a common tool. Not related to Follow the Money, even though that's a line often used to describe this trope.



  • In the film version of V for Vendetta, Detective Inspector Finch decides to go through government tax records while trying to find out details about the terrorist V. This thread of investigation eventually leads to him uncovering sensitive details about the conspiracy the Norsefire party used to bring itself to power. (In the original comic Finch got the information from the FATE supercomputer, which wasn't in the movie.)
    Finch: One thing is true of all governments; the most accurate records are the tax records.
  • The Dark Knight Saga:
    • Batman Begins has Rachel's boss stumble onto the League of Shadows' plan after he discovered a cargo ship had arrived in Gotham's port with one more cargo container than its manifest said it embarked with. Unfortunately a couple of Dirty Cops off him before he is able to tell anyone.
    • A subplot in The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne examines Lau Enterprise's financial records to confirm his suspicions that the company is a front for money laundering. Later, one of Wayne's own accountants figures out that Bruce Wayne is Batman, just by taking a closer look at Wayne's records and noticing how much money is going towards research & development projects that never get released. Nothing comes of the latter due to Lucius Fox giving the accountant a reality check.[[note]]To wit, that blackmailing a guy who spends his nights beating the crap out of criminals isn't exactly the best idea.[[/note]]
  • In The Other Guys, Will Ferrell's character is trained as a forensic accountant, which initially makes him a joke to the other cops, but eventually proves to be just what was needed.
  • The film All The Presidents Men made the phrase "Follow the money" a part of the political lexicon and popular culture. In the film, it is whispered to reporter Bob Woodward by Deep Throat as a way to cut through the lies and deceptions and find the truth about the Watergate scandal. This is a fictionalized line created by the movie, but nevertheless catches the spirit of the process perfectly.

  • Shows up often in the John Putnam Thatcher series by Emma Lathen. Justifiably so, since the Amateur Sleuth in question is an investment banker.
  • Discworld:
  • Comes up a few times in the Vorkosigan Saga.
    • In Komarr, Miles has definite evidence that a plot exists, but no idea what the plot is about, so he calls in some ImpSec analysts to see if they can reverse-engineer the plan from the purchase orders.
    • In The Borders of Infinity Miles has his mercenary accountants infiltrate the enemy prison camp offices in order to facilitate the major operation he has planned there.
  • In Anansi Boys, Charlie Nancy's employer Graham Coates tries to frame Charlie for his own dirty dealings. Charlie is arrested, but released without ever going to trial, because the police are able to correctly deduce from the agency's financial records that Charlie had been framed, and couldn't be responsible.
  • Subverted in a Lord Darcy mystery. Lord Darcy observes that while trying to solve a murder occurring on a train, another detective was led astray because his experience is in this, where conspiracies are easy to form and hard to figure out.

[[folder:Live Action TV]]
  • One episode of Castle had the team trying to find out who a slain plastic surgeon's last mystery patient was. Castle's solution was to have the D.A. subpoena the hospital's billing records to see who paid for the thing.
  • Stargate SG-1: "Politics" had Senator Kinsey get read into the stargate project after, in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he demanded to know what the heck the $7.5 billion item in the Air Force budget labeled "Area 52" was.
  • Used at least twice on Burn Notice.
    • "False Flag" provides the page quote. The Client of the Week was a CPA who was a material witness in an ATF investigation and under a hit by the organized crime group in question.
    • "End Run" had Michael get out from Tyler Brennen's blackmail by having Sam and Barry trace his finances to discover that he was sending his daughter to private school in Switzerland, and convincing Brennen that he'd managed to get an assassin in place to kill her.
  • How often the Law & Order franchise uses this varies by show. The Mothership used it occasionally. SVU uses it only rarely, given it's focused on sex crimes. Criminal Intent used it the most often: since it focused on the Major Case Squad and all of the bad guys were wannabe Chessmasters and Magnificent Bastards, "following the money" was a big given.
    • One slightly weird example comes from a Law & Order episode with detectives Briscoe and Logan where a woman shot a man in an alley. The woman claimed self-defense, because the victim tried to rape her. Briscoe and Logan were gathering facts about the defendant, and discovered that she lived in a ritzy apartment beyond what a mere secretary could afford. Her rent checks came from the construction office of a reputed mobster. Cue Plot Twist.
    • An episode of Law & Order: UK has a Mundane Made Awesome montage of the cast (and a Perky Goth accountant) doing this to nail the villain.
  • The Good Wife: "Waiting for the Knock" has one of Lockhart/Gardner's major clients, drug dealer Lemond Bishop, come under threat of arrest. Their bankruptcy court-appointed trustee, an accountant by training, is brought in to help them figure out what's going on.
  • Variation: The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Up The Long Ladder" has this scene:
    Data: Captain, I have been considering the problem of the missing ship. Although there is no record of a launch to the Ficus sector, which would not be unusual considering the chaos of the early twenty second century, someone had to load that ship.
    Picard: The manifest.
    Data: Yes, sir.
    Picard: There it is. SS Mariposa, loaded 27th November, 2123.
  • In the gimmick TV series Push Nevada the protagonist is an IRS accountant who found discrepancies in the books of a casino.
  • Used frequently in NCIS: Los Angeles (typically Eric's and Nell's job), though one episode put a twist on it: LAPD was only too happy to hand over an investigation to them because the suspect was old-school, using all-paper records instead of easily searchable computers. Boxes and boxes of them.
  • In The Wire tracing dirty money is one of the specialties of detective Lester Freamon, who also instructs his fellow cops in the art. This police work usually meets a stern opposition from the higher-ups, since drug money funds political campaigns, but the few times he can use it, he compares it to a Boom, Headshot.
    Lester: You follow drugs and you find drug addicts and drug dealers, you follow the money and you don't know where the fuck it's gonna take you.

[[folder:Tabletop Games]]
  • Call of Cthulhu has an Accounting skill, so the writers of official supplements sometimes threw in a clue that required that skill to find.
    • Campaign Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, adventure "Devil's Canyon". While examining the papers in von Varnstein's office, if one of the PCs makes an Accounting roll he can discover an order for special camera lenses, a clue that tells the PCs that the camera lenses they discover later are important.
    • Campaign The Fungi from Yuggoth
      • Adventure "The Dreamer". While searching Herbert Whitefield's office the PCs can find bills and receipts. If one of them makes an Accounting roll he can determine that Whitefield is deeply in debt and late on all his payments - a clue that gives him a motive in the disappearance of his client Paul LeMond.
      • Adventure "Mountains of the Moon". If the PCs break into the NWI mining office's administration building and Johnathan Harris' office they can find the site's business records. A successful Accounting roll will discover that even though the operation is performing at peak efficiency, it's still losing a phenomenal amount of money. This is an important clue that the purpose of the site is not to make money and that there's something unusual going on.
    • Campaign Cthulhu Now, adventure "The Killer Out Of Space". If a PC makes an Accounting roll while examining the books (accounting records) at Buddy's Best Wrex he realizes that they aren't correct. The books are actually false: Buddy keeps the actual books at home.
    • Campaign Dreamlands, adventure "Pickman's Student". While going through Blakely's papers a PC can make an Accounting Roll. If he succeeds he finds receipts for four of Blakely's paintings, with the addresses of the people who bought them. Since the PCs must find the paintings in order to succeed this is a vitally important clue.
    • Horror on the Orient Express. Successful Accounting rolls are useful twice: while examining Makryat's account books they reveal that he bought and later sold a special train set, and while studying the Gremanchi Doll Work's records they show how the Conte ordered the purchase of the Left Leg and later used it.
  • Rolemaster Shadow World setting, supplement Kingdom of the Desert Jewel. Kohan Traska, the Advisor on Internal Affairs, has a room in the Royal Palace in the Gethryn capital city of Ketaum. Among his papers is a list of the revenue from trade items sent to the capital from the nome (province) of Shii-Magna. If the PCs analyze it, they can discover that the totals have been skewed in the nome's favor. This is because Traska was born in Shii-Magna and is a friend of its Karsha (governor). The GreatKing (ruler) of Gethrya would be interested in this (to say the least).

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[[folder:Real Life]]
  • Forensic accounting is a common tool used by law enforcement agencies in real life, particularly in regards to organized and white-collar crime.
  • As mentioned in the page quote, Al Capone was finally sent to prison for tax evasion rather than booze smuggling or murder.

Indices: Crime and Punishment Tropes, Gambit Index, Money Tropes

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