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. Either way, there is usually a forensic accountant who hits the high points about his work in his report to the detectives, who are simply pleased that they have the evidence to bust a crook from a purely intellectual resource.
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 stock phrase often used to describe this trope.
- In a Ghost in the Shell story, Aramaki discovers that his old mentor has been taking bribes, and reminds him that "It was you who taught me to always follow the money."
- In Volume 10 of Sword Art Online, Asuna, Sinon, Leafa, and Yui figure that their best hope of finding out where the Rath Corporation has taken Kirito after his poisoning by Johnny Black is to do a deep dive analysis of Japanese government spending since they've had no success otherwise due to its extreme secrecy and almost non-existent presence on the Internet. Yui eventually discovers an oddly large budget allocated for a Japanese underwater mining ship anchored near the Izu Islands, roughly 200 miles south of Tokyo. Said location is indeed where Kirito was taken, and it is actually an advanced offshore platform hosting a network of quantum computers for the purposes of military AI creation, being done in secret to avoid American surveillance. Unfortunately in the anime adaptation, Yui's forensic investigation was almost entirely Adapted Out.
- In Cop Craft, after Tilarna speculates that two deceased cops may have been controlled by an extremely concentrated dose of fairy dust, another investigator brings up the point that long-term use of such a drug would have been noticed. She brings up the fact that a gold charm can be used to amplify the effects, but that such an object would be beyond the skills of any craftsmen in her world due to the tolerances of such a thing being so stringent. Kei Matoba then realizes that it could be created not by a person, but by a pre-programmed CNC (computerized numerical control) machine, so he starts looking into any purchases of such devices in the city and finds out a shady club owner has recently bought one.
- In Code Geass R2, after toppling the Chinese Federation, Lelouch reveals to C.C. he had an ulterior method for destroying one of the world's three superpowers: he is searching for the headquarters of the Geass Order, and needed access to the records and resources of the Chinese to trace their movements using indirect methods such as shipments of supplies, power surges, unusual activity, etc. And their headquarters does turn out to be in far western China in the Xinjiang region.
- While the precise procedure is not shown on-screen, this is how Ra's Al-Ghul was able to find Batman's real identity. As he explains on his Establishing Character Moment (which includes standing right in the Bat-Cave as he's doing so, having snuck up on Bruce), a thorough examination of Bruce Wayne's expenses revealed some incongruencies, which were the purchases of the Bat-gear.
- Justice Department in Judge Dredd has an entire accounts division, who handle both the Department's accounts and all manner of financial crime investigations.
- Euphie's power in A Cold Calculus. Upon her appointment as Viceroy of Area 11, she uproots the corruption in her administration and even uses it to figure out such things as: how the resistance cells procured Glasgows, the existence of Clovis' secret project, the source of Refrain in the country and the existence of the Geass Directorate.
- Izuku in For Great Justice, determines Batman's secret identity from a combination of his "territory" and the expense his gear would cost, particularly a unique tank of a car along with an equally customized plane and high speed boat.
- In The Accountant the protagonist is one, though he generally works for criminals to find out who's been pilfering their ill-gotten gains. The investigator after him finally gets a break by using the same trope to discover his money-laundering fronts.
- In the film adaptation 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 Trilogy:
Bruce Wayne [after Alfred explains this to him, wryly) At least we'll have spares.
- 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.
- The film shows Alfred and Bruce trying to reduce the risk of this happening while gathering supplies to create his equipment. Someone ordering a single, very specific item would raise suspicion and leave an obvious trail. Someone ordering 10,000 of them is just a routine business order that no one would pay attention to.
- A subplot in The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne determined that Lau's financial investments firm was just a front for money laundering from looking at their books (Lau is laundering money for all of the Gotham mob crews). Later, one of Wayne Enterprises' own accountants figures out that Bruce Wayne is Batman, just by taking a closer look at company 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 very firm reality check.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 President's 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.
- In True Lies' Action Prologue, the goal of Harry, Faisil, and Gib in infiltrating the mansion in Switzerland is to steal financial data from an Arab underworld figure for use in Omega Sector's counter-terrorism operations.
- In Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Ryan is an analyst who examines the stock market and other financial transactions for links to terrorism.
- In Casino Royale MI-6 uncovers a plot to sabotage the maiden flight of a new airliner when an analyst notices someone has shorted large amounts of airline and aircraft manufacturer stocks.
- The plot of Weekend at Bernie's is kicked off when two accountants discover a series of discrepancies in the records and not knowing what it represents, report it to their boss, Bernie Lomax... who pretends they've done something important while plotting against them with a mob boss with whom they had an embezzling process going. (The mobster, in turn, decides to have all three of them whacked, the accountants because they obviously know too much and Bernie partly because he got "greedy" enough for this to come up.)
- Shows up often in the John Putnam Thatcher series by Emma Lathen. Justifiably so, since the Amateur Sleuth in question is an investment banker.
- 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 Grahame 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. To wit, Coates has the nasty habit of firing employees just before they qualify for severance, Charlie being an unprecedented exception. Coates' turnover rates are all that's needed to conclusively identify him as the thief (well, that and the embezzling started before Charlie started working for him)...
- 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.
- In Warbreaker Lightsong discovers a murder in the palace and starts using investigative skills he's never learned, concluding they're a holdover from his old life before he Returned and that he was a police officer. After being easily defeated in a fight and confused as to why his presumed combat skills didn't carry over, he's informed that he was a scribe people hired to locate embezzlement and fraud.
- The Dresden Files: Changes has Harry, Susan, and Martin locate some Red Court vampires by... searching through shipping manifests and finding two inventories: one for costumes to be used in a ritual, and a request for replacements, since the first delivery didn't make it.
- Sherlock Holmes once found a man Faking the Dead when he discovered he'd been writing checks for very large amounts of money to an unknown man, presumably himself under a false name. He'd intended to do so both to avoid paying his bills and pin the murder on the son of a woman who'd refused him decades earlier.
- In Andrew Vachss' Batman novel, Batman: The Ultimate Evil, Alfred reveals to Bruce that Martha Wayne had worked as an investigative sociologist and had uncovered evidence of sex trafficking in Gotham City. Bruce specifically notes that she had tracked the financial records of the traffickers and even uses the phrase "follow the dollars".
- Halting State has Elaine, sent by the insurance company she works for to make sure that a reported robbery isn't a case of one of their customers trying to cover up some White-Collar Crime.
- In the later novels of Tom Clancy's Ryanverse Jack Ryan Jr. begins his career at The Campus as a forensic accountant, looking for suspicious patterns in financial transactions that may be linked to terrorist groups.
- 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 get a warrant for the hospital's billing records to see who paid for the thing, noting that billing is "the one department where nothing falls through the cracks."
- Whether it yields a lead or not, most episodes will at least mention checking someone's financials.
- Happens rarely (and usually off-screen at that) in Criminal Minds. In one case, they were tracking a hitman who was killing his former clients, and managed to find both the hitman and said clients via tracing financial "investments" that fit his established fee.
- 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.
- The Client of the Week in "False Flag" 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.
- Star Trek:
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 Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "The House of Quark", Quark analyzes Grilka's finances and determines that D'Ghor has been trying to destroy her House by manipulating them into bankruptcy. This backfires because he's dealing with Klingons, who are completely uninterested in following his financial explanation, and demand that the accusation be settled with a Trial by Combat.
- 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 Lester Freamon, who also instructs his fellow police 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!.
- On Suits this is one of Louis Litt's specialties. He can work his way through mounds of legal paperwork and figure out exactly who owns what and who is paying whom. In a flashback he easily figures out an embezzlement scam from looking at some financial documents over lunch and even correctly points out that someone is being set up as a Fall Guy. This turns into a subversion when he also fails to realize that he is the fall guy in question.
- On Necessary Roughness Dani and Nico are trying to figure out what exactly is going on at V3 and find out that the company donates money to a charity in the Cayman Islands but does not claim it on official financial documents. The charity is a front for a slush fund that V3 uses for bribes and payoffs. The money is further laundered through a small auto body shop in New York. Examining the shops accounting records finally reveals who is getting paid off. Dani and Nico now have to figure out why all those people are paid such large sums of money.
- More than half the cases on White Collar involve taking a look at the books somewhere in the episode. It's right there in the name. Peter was hired by the FBI on the strength of his accounting skills, which is very much Truth in Television.
- Plays a part in Person of Interest; Finch following the money usually gives Team Machine clues to the POI's troubles or helps build a background profile that Reese can use.
- Usually a turning point in Midsomer Murders to reveal that the victim was being blackmailed/a blackmailer.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In "Graduation Day Part 1", the Scoobies track down Faith this way, by finding the apartment the Mayor has rented for her. In the Angel spin-off, Team Angel use the same method to track down where Wolfram & Hart have stashed Darla.
- Daredevil (2015): Much of Karen Page's investigation into Wilson Fisk concerns trying to trace the illegal money Fisk was moving through Union Allied. In the end, it's through Karen's reading of Leland Owlsley's financial ledgers that they learn where Leland is hiding away Carl Hoffman, a corrupt detective that Fisk had earlier blackmailed into killing his own partner. Matt subsequently rescues Hoffman from an attempt on his life from cops working for Fisk, and gets him to testify.
Ben Urich: You don't understand how lucky you are. Count the angels on the head of a pin, and move on.Karen Page: So they just shuffle some papers and all this disappears?Ben Urich: Wouldn't be the first time.Karen Page: Oh, don't bullshit me! A construction company is brick and mortar. Literally! All right, you cannot just shift cranes and trailers and office equipment like you can numbers on a page. There has to be a trail of everything that's being liquidated!
- In Jack Ryan, the title character begins his career with the CIA as an analyst looking for financial transactions that may be linked to terrorism, before his findings force him into the field.
- In SEAL Team season 2, unknown terrorists attack Manila with IEDs in "Paradise Lost." In the next episode, "Payback," all investigations into identifying who the bombers are keep coming up empty until Mandy is able to identify the chemical makeup of the explosives and tracks a large shipment of ammonium nitrate to an isolated island. The perpetrators turn out to be the New Resistance Force, the terrorist branch of the Communist Party of the Philippines, which is why U.S. intelligence missed out on them for a month since they were focusing their investigations on Islamic groups.
- Call of Cthulhu has an Accounting skill, so the writers of official supplements sometimes threw in a clue that required that skill to find.
- 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. This is a clue that tells the PCs that the camera lenses they discover later are important.
- 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.
- 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 real books at home.
- 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.
- The Asylum and Other Tales adventure "The Asylum". In Dr. Freygan's bedroom, there's a wall safe behind a Concealing Canvas. It holds an account book listing the asylum's income and expenses. If a PC makes an Accounting roll, he will realize that there's no way the asylum's income could cover its expenses. This is a clue that Dr. Freygan is making money another way: by helping bootleggers smuggle alcohol.
- Masks of Nyarlathotep
- Chapter 1 "New York". A lawyer named Bradley Grey handled the legal work of passing control of the Carlyle fortune to Erica Carlyle. If a PC succeeds in an Accounting skill roll while reading the records of the turnover, they will discover that he is her lawyer. The PCs can then contact Grey and ask him to get them in contact with her.
- Chapter 4 "Kenya". If a PC makes an Accounting roll while reading Ahja Singh's ledger, they discover listings of shipments to addresses in Hong Kong, London and Egypt. These are important clues that will allow them to investigate a world wide (and world-threatening) Cthulhu Mythos conspiracy.
- The Unspeakable Oath magazine #18 article "The Chapel of Contemplation". If an Investigator makes an Accounting roll while searching the file system in the office, they discover a list of the title organization's income and expenses. These include many unspecifed "donations" (money received from blackmail), payments for a safe deposit box (where a valuable Mythos book is kept) and a large butcher's bill (from purchasing animals for sacrifice).
- 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).
- Chill had an Accounting skill available to characters. The text specifically said that it could be used to examine financial records to determine if embezzlement, money laundering or other kinds of financial crimes had occurred.
- Mayfair's Underground, Streets Tell Stories boxed set, Stories (adventures) booklet.
- In the adventure "A Thousand Words", Powder used a layered series of withdrawals to remove the funds from his bank account to pay for the warehouse. If the PCs can read the books and do some computer hacking, they can find out what he did, which will give them his current location.
- In the adventure under "Government Purity Goes Down", the PCs must investigate the disappearance of Jessop Hills' government education funds by examining the books of the City of Los Angeles school board' and finding out who's siphoning off the money.
- An available core character skill of the GUMSHOE System (used in games like The Esoterrorists, Mutant City Blues, Trail of Cthulhu and others). A given because the system is built to facilitate (and encourage) roleplaying detective work.
- The d20 Modern supplement d20 Cyberscape introduced a secondary abstract Wealth score called "Grey Wealth" to help explain characters getting around this trope in a future where every financial transaction leaves an electronic trail. Grey Wealth is an abstract representation of small valuables and other useful goods offered in barter.
- The Eberron setting for Dungeons & Dragons is built to recall periods like The Roaring '20s and The Great Depression more than Medieval Stasis. The Research feat in the core setting book for 3.5 lets a character become a forensic accountant in all but name, as it gives them bonuses to ferreting out useful information from various records and the like; and discussions of the law or intelligence organizations in other books mention issues around money that they take an interest in as well. In short, it's the kind of setting where Elf Capone would still be caught on tax evasion.
- Gangbusters. In the Polyhedron magazine #15 adventure "The Vesper Investigation", the attic of Mr. Dane's house has old accounting ledgers. If a Player Character uses their Accounting skill while reading the ledgers, they can find out that Mr. Dane embezzled $240,000 from a Syndicate account. This is an important clue as to why Mr. Dane's house was ransacked and why he disappeared.
- In Alpha Protocol's backstory, Alan Parker went undercover as an accountant. His words to Mike Thorton on the subject provide the page quote.
- After he's almost killed in Saudi Arabia, Mike traces various financial transactions to find out what Corrupt Corporate Executive Leland and his company Halbech is up to, with transactions of weapon sales and transferring funds leading him to Taipei and Moscow (the third lead, Rome, is from another source).
- Near the end of the first The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel game, Towa is revealed to have been secretly conducting a long-term audit of the Reinford Group's production numbers of refining raw iron ore into solid steel by comparing company sales figures to government reports on mine productivity. The numbers turn out to be way off because as it turns out, every shipment of iron ore that has come out of the mines for the past several years has had a small amount smuggled out and dumped onto the black market. The amount missing adds up to 100,000 torim, or, enough to build 2,000 tanks. The smuggled metal was actually used to build the Pantagruel, the 250-arge long command airship of the Noble Alliance.
- In Cold Steel III, Major Claire Rieveldt reveals that she has a seriously Dark and Troubled Past when she tells Rean the story of how she came to serve Chancellor Osborne. It all began after her parents and brother were killed in a car accident and her uncle's family took over the Rieveldt family business. While going through her deceased father's old belongings, she finds a stack of account books for the company and discovers that her uncle has been defrauding customers by selling cheap imported knockoffs of product at full price. This leads to a long chain of events that results in her tearing down her uncle's name, reputation, and business, and eventually his life when she gets him into trouble with many powerful nobles and leads to the death penalty for him. And her quest for vengeance was all started by Osborne's planting the idea in her head.
- In Xenoblade Chronicles 2, in Chapter 4 a Nopon intelligence agent named Niranira has been doing some "auditing" of the Argentum Trade Guild and has discovered a number of anomalies that point to Chairman Bana being crooked. In that same chapter, in order to track down who is controlling the renegade Robot Girl Lila, the team decides to start by investigating who in Mor Ardain could be ordering the very rare and specialized parts Lila needs to function.
- An instance of Enemy Chatter in Batman: Arkham Knight has a downplayed version of this happening, where one mook says that he's persuaded Batman is secretly backed by the government because "who else can afford all this stuff?", the second mook suggests Bruce Wayne, only for the first to dismiss the idea as ridiculous.
- The Adventures of Dr. McNinja: At the end of "AWOL M.D.", the Doctor explains that he's faked his death and taken a false identity in order to infiltrate King Radical's organization, and finally discover what King Radical is really up to. The Alt Text on the page reads: "Coming up, The Adventures of Dr. McForensicAccountant."
- In response to Cedric's questioning of her books in The Letters Of The Devil, Rita Carey sends the police precinct boxes full of accounting records.
- Al Capone was finally sent to prison for tax evasion, rather than booze, smuggling, or murder. Nobody was willing to testify against him for his violent crimes, but it was fairly obvious his lavish high-profile lifestyle was well in excess of what his declared income could ever support.
- This is also how they brought down Joe Massino, boss of the Bonanno crime family. Jack Stubing, an FBI agent assigned to investigate the Bonanno family operations, was aware of the measures Massino used to avoid scrutiny compared to his peers at the time. He therefore decided to go after Massino with a rear-guard action by convincing his bosses to lend him a pair of forensic accountants normally used in fraud investigations, believing that they could easily pinpoint conspirators in the family's racketeering schemes. Stubing believed that long prison sentences would be sufficient to get anybody to turn informer, and thus make it easier to trace how the money flowed back to Massino. Ultimately, they managed to get Salvatore Vitale (Massino's brother-in-law and underboss), already irate that Massino planned to kill him, to turn informer.
- In the U.S. in general, Federal Law enforcement is ridiculously good at doing what they do, with most having a 90% conviction rate on all cases, but the best of the best at this level are the IRS and the Secret Service, both agencies that deal exclusively with money crimes (the former is Tax related, the latter was originally Counterfeiting). In fact, the Secret Service was tasked with Protecting the President of the United States (just about the only thing they do in fiction) because they were so damn good at stopping Counterfeiters.