The accounting profession requires that workers become lifelong learners, staying up to date with the latest laws and regulations that govern their field. For this reason, many accountants specialize in a subfield, such as fraud. Fraud costs companies billions of dollars each year, and as criminals become smarter, so too must companies. To prevent and uncover fraud, companies turn to industry experts known as certified fraud examiners (CFEs).

In the late 1980s, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) launched the CFE certification. Since then, fraud examiners living all over the world have earned this certification to learn the latest fraud prevention best practices and advance their careers. CFEs possess expert accounting skills and in-depth knowledge of how criminals attempt to defraud companies.

This article discusses what a CFE is and how to become a certified fraud examiner. At the end of the article, you can read an interview with a practicing CFE.

Why Become a Certified Fraud Examiner?

Earning a professional certification results in much more than feeling pride in your accomplishments. Certified fraud examiners enjoy many benefits throughout their careers. They often receive higher salaries and increase job security. Employers seek them out, and many now require the certification. The five items below represent just a few benefits that CFEs commonly receive. Also, keep in mind that professionals with certification and experience can expect even greater benefits.

  • Salary: On average, CFE-certified professionals earn 25% more than their non-certified peers. A certified fraud examiner salary can recoup all costs associated with certification in less than one year and still benefit those who hold the credential for years to come.
  • Job Security: While the U.S. currently enjoys a booming economy and record low unemployment rates, professionals should still prepare for the next recession by earning certifications or advanced degrees. Certified fraud examiners can protect themselves against economic downturns and layoffs by possessing an advanced skill set that employers value.
  • Set Yourself Apart: Human resources professionals can review hundreds of resumes each day. They spend only a few seconds on each resume, looking for qualifications and experience. If you become a certified fraud examiner, prospective employers should take a closer look at your resume, raising your chances of gaining the position.
  • Shorten Your Job Hunt: For many, job hunting takes as much time as a full-time career. As a result, many people dip into their savings to sustain themselves during their job hunts. With a certification, you can start a job faster than your peers and not use up your valuable savings.
  • Meet Job Requirements: As more agencies hire certified fraud examiners, they recognize what these talented professionals bring to their organizations. Many agencies now accept applications only from CFE-certified professionals. By earning this important certification, you can apply to more positions, many of which boast higher starting salaries and promotion potential.

Understanding the Certified Fraud Examiner Exam

Before you take the certified fraud examiner exam, you should understand the exam inside and out. This section contains vital information that you must know before you start preparing for exam day.

Frequently Asked Questions for the Certified Fraud Examiner Exam

  • What Does a Fraud Examiner Do? Certified fraud examiners uncover, prevent, and deter fraud. On the job, they study their employers' financial records for discrepancies and collaborate with law enforcement to bring criminals to justice. In this latter role, they testify during trials and submit evidence. Certified fraud examiners who work for local, state, and federal governments review contracts to ensure that contractors do not defraud government agencies. Independent research shows that when a company or organization hires certified fraud examiners, that company uncovers fraud much faster and recovers more money than companies that do not employ them.
  • When is the CFE Administered? The certified fraud examiner exam does not use testing windows, so you can attempt it at any time of year.
  • Where Can I Take the CFE Exam? You can take the exam from any internet-connected computer. Even if your computer loses internet access during the exam, you can still finish the exam and upload the results once your computer reconnects to the internet.
  • How is the CFE Exam Taken? The exam has four parts, and professionals take all four sections on a computer. Test takers can attempt sections in any order they want, but most candidates attempt 1-2 sections per day.
  • How Often Can I Take the CFE Exam? ACFE grants you three tries to pass each portion of the exam. Once you finish all four sections, you can purchase an activation key to retake parts of the test you did not pass. ACFE takes 3-5 days to grant activation keys.

Fulfilling the CFE Exam Requirements

Like many organizations that grant professional certifications, ACFE requires candidates to meet education and experience standards. ACFE, however, uses a unique point system to determine when candidates can take the exam and apply for certification. Some professionals may qualify to sit for the certified fraud examiner exam but still need additional experience before earning certification.

The Point System

ACFE's system grants points for candidates' degrees and experience in the fraud detection or prevention fields. Determine your current points by using ACFE's point calculator.

 

Educational Requirements

ACFE requires that each candidate possesses a bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited college or university. A bachelor's degree confers 40 of the 50 required points to earn certification. However, educational requirements do not include a bachelor's in accounting, fraud, or a related topic. Certified fraud professionals may come from many academic backgrounds, so ACFE also requires professional experience.

A professional without a bachelor's or associate degree may still qualify for a certified fraud examiner certification in specific circumstances. The next section details this exemption in greater detail.

 

Professional Requirements

Professionals with a bachelor's degree must possess at least two years of experience in the fraud prevention field. Acceptable experience includes accounting, criminology, fraud investigation, loss prevention, and law. A candidate with other professional experience can appeal to ACFE by submitting a detailed resume that shows how the experience meets ACFE's requirements.

ACFE grants five points for each year of experience and 10 points for each year of college. As a result, certification candidates with an associate degree must possess four years of experience, and professionals who did not attend college should have 10 years of experience.

 

Exam Composition and Timing

Once you purchase the exam, you have 30 days to complete all four sections. The program's flexibility allows you to attempt a section at any time, which is ideal for professionals who work full time or raise families. Once you begin a section, you cannot pause or stop the exam session. The test proctoring software grants 75 seconds for each question, and each test portion lasts two hours and five minutes if you use the maximum allotted time for each question. Finally, upon finishing the exam, you must submit a signed affidavit stating that you received no outside help.

The following chart describes the four major areas covered by the CFE. You can learn more about test questions and topics below.

Four Major Areas Tested on the CFE
Area Tested Overview
Fraud Prevention and Deterrence The fraud prevention and deterrence section focuses on how and why people commit fraud, plus what certified fraud examiners can do to prevent it. Questions cover fraud risk assessment and professional ethics, among other subjects.
Financial Transactions and Fraud Schemes Certified fraud examiners must understand accounting fundamentals if they hope to uncover and prevent fraud. This test covers basic accounting, auditing, and how criminals perform fraud schemes.
Investigation Certified fraud examiners use their investigative skills when interviewing suspects, reviewing documents, and performing research. Questions in this section cover these essential skills with an emphasis on evaluating deception.
Law Fraud experts should know all laws and regulations related to fraud. This section emphasizes civil and criminal law, defendants' rights, and the laws that certified fraud examiners must follow in the field.

 

Registration and Fees for the CFE Exam

Like many standardized tests, the certified fraud examiner exam requires you to register with ACFE, create a profile, and pay a fee. This section covers the latest requirements and fees.


Registering for the CFE Exam

  • How to Register: Before registering, you must first join ACFE and meet all necessary requirements (e.g., the 50 points candidates can earn through education and work experience). Registration, the test itself, and receiving scores all take place on the ACFE website or its software.
  • What is Needed for Registration: When you acquire 50 or more points, you submit official education and work documents, a recent photograph, and three professional recommendations from current or former colleagues.
  • When to Register: You can sign up as soon as you meet all the registration requirements. Once you receive your activation key from ACFE, you can enter it and begin the exam right away -- or continue studying until you feel ready.

Paying for the CFE Exam

As of the writing of this article, the CFE exam costs $400. ACFE members who completed a preparation course pay $300. Retakes cost $25 per section, and test takers can pay for the exam with a credit or debit card through the ACFE website.


Scoring the Certified Fraud Examiner Exam

Besides the content the certified fraud examiner exam covers, you should understand what score you need to achieve and how ACFE calculates that score. The questions and answers below cover the most important information about scoring.

  • What Score Do You Need to Pass the CFE Exam? ACFE requires that you earn a 75% on all portions of the exam. If you fail one or more sections, you do not need to retake the sections you already passed.
  • How Does CFE Exam Scoring Work? Once you reach 75% correct on a section, you pass. This cutoff means that test takers must answer at least 75 out of 100 questions correctly.
  • Who Scores the CFE Exam? As the certified fraud examiner exam uses multiple choice questions, a computer scores it. However, ACFE officials ensure the exam's integrity through software and the signed affidavit all test takers submit.
  • When are CFE Exam Scores Released? You should receive your scores 3-5 days after submitting all four exam portions. Due to test security measures, ACFE does not tell you scores for sections that you failed.

After the Exam: Maintaining Your CFE Certification

Certification does not end with passing the exam. Certified fraud examiners must complete at least 20 hours of continuing education courses every 12 months. At least 12 credits must relate to fraud deterrence and professional ethics.

 

Preparing for the CFE Exam

You can do many things to prepare for the CFE exam between now and test day. Review the tips below before developing a study plan.

 

Top 10 Tips for Exam Preparation

  1. Set a Score Goal: Whether you earn a 75% or 100% on every section, you still pass. However, you may want to set a score goal that puts you well above the majority of certified fraud examiners.
  2. Set Aside Time for the Exam: If you work or raise children, you should begin planning for your exam time as soon as possible. Determine which parts of your daily schedule allow for two uninterrupted hours.
  3. Choose a Place to Take the Exam: ACFE allows you to take the exam anywhere you want, but some places come with more distractions than others. Consider taking the test in a local library or another quiet place close to home.
  4. Take a Preparation Course: ACFE offers online and in-person preparation courses. Completing an ACFE course grants you an automatic discount on the exam, as well. You can learn more about these courses in the following section.
  5. Take Practice Exams: You should take a practice exam before you start your study plan. Your score will tell you which subjects may require closer attention. Take another practice exam approximately one week before the real test to determine which topics you still need to cover.
  6. Contact Certified Fraud Examiners: Whether consulting in person or online, you can communicate with professionals who have already passed the exam. They may provide you with valuable tips you cannot find anywhere else.
  7. Address Test Anxiety: Test anxiety affects more people than just teenagers preparing for the SAT. Before taking the exam, perform a meditation exercise or plan a relaxing activity for afterward.
  8. Create a Study Plan: Whether you take an exam preparation course or not, you should still study on your own. Develop a 30-,60-, or 90-day study plan and follow through on it.
  9. Practice Skimming: With only 75 seconds for each question, you will need every second to identify the correct answer. Practice your skimming skills with news articles or other short informational passages.
  10. Avoid the Timer: Seeing the seconds tick down can make some test takers nervous and forget what they just read. To reduce your stress and save time, avoid looking at the clock during the exam.

 

CFE Practice Exams and Study Resources

The following five links can help you learn more about the CFE exam, how to prepare, and many more tips on how to succeed on test day.

  • Association of Certified Fraud Examiners: After you decide to take the certified fraud examiner exam, join ACFE to start exploring the organization's valuable test-prep resources, including in-person and self-guided study sessions.
  • CFE Exam Preparation: The Blog: This brief blog post describes the ways ACFE can help test takers succeed on the exam. It also includes links to fraud prevention conferences and publications.
  • CFE Exam Coach: CFE Exam Coach boasts a forum, blog, and interviews with certified fraud examiners about how they earned certification. The website also posts a calendar of upcoming ACFE review courses throughout the United States.
  • Fraud Magazine: This publication features articles concerning the latest trends in fraud and the professionals who prevent it. By analyzing current events, you can reinforce the information covered on the certified fraud examiner exam.
  • ACFE Chapters: ACFE boasts chapters all over the world. By joining one, you can gain additional study resources from certified professionals in your home community. Each chapter posts upcoming events.

Expert Advice: Exam Tips and Being a CFE Professional

Ken Stalcup is a Senior Director with Houlihan Valuation Advisors in Indianapolis, Indiana. In addition to being a certified public accountant (CPA), Ken is a certified fraud examiner (CFE), certified in financial forensics (CFF), and is accredited in business valuation (ABV). Mr. Stalcup's practice focuses on business valuation, litigation support, and forensic accounting engagements.

His experience includes managing audit and accounting engagements for privately held clients in service organizations, manufacturing, construction, and financial services, along with governmental and nonprofit organizations. Ken has also managed several high-profile fraud and forensic cases, including embezzlement cases, shareholder disputes, theft of intellectual property cases, and Ponzi schemes.

Ken has several published articles on business valuation and fraud prevention and detection. He has also had industry speaking assignments with the Indiana CPA Society and the ACFE.


Why did you choose to study accounting? Was it something you were always interested in?

Accounting wasn't something I was always interested in. During college, I switched from economics to accounting. I had some doubts about a career path and job title with a degree in economics, but that was not the case with accounting, which has several well-established programs and paths. While few organizations have an economist on their payroll, almost every business has an accountant. I liked that.

While I was in college, the accounting program was considered one of the more rigorous programs, which attracted me to it. I liked the idea, the challenge. I didn't want to look back at my college experience and regret that I hadn't tried something harder. I didn't know it at the time, but I was setting myself up for a lifetime of learning. To keep my license, I am required to take continuing professional education every year. I truly enjoy taking classes now and learning new things -- there's always something new to explore.

What is a certified fraud examiner? Why might an accounting student choose to pursue a career in fraud examination?

The CFE credential is awarded to individuals who have some experience in fraud prevention and detection. This credential also has educational requirements and an exam, much like the CPA exam. The ACFE is an international organization that administers the exam, in addition to supporting and regulating the CFE members. CFEs work in many industries, including accounting, government, loss prevention, corporate investigations, and private investigations. Some members work to prevent fraud or reduce fraud losses. Other members concentrate on conducting investigations surrounding cases of fraud, waste, or abuse.

An accounting student may find fraud examination interesting for its variety of cases. In my career, I've had cases of employee theft where a fellow accountant steals money from a corporation and tries to hide it. I have had cases where business owners have deleted financial transactions to make their finances look better. I've had cases where an individual tries to hide assets from their spouse during a divorce. Many fraud cases contain a financial element. Having a financial background and an accounting education helps when someone is "cooking the books."

Can you describe your experience preparing for and taking the certified fraud examiner exam? What advice would you give to students preparing for the exam?

The ACFE offers classes and reading materials to prepare candidates for the exam. I choose the self-study route. It covers quite a lot of material, so I decided to set aside a few hours each weekend for about six months to study for the exam. As I recall, I would go to the library or a local coffee shop, take test questions, and highlight materials from the ACFE's Fraud Examiner's Manual. It worked -- I passed the exam the first time.

My advice to anyone interested in becoming a CFE is simply to get started. Make a plan. I think a really good plan would be to use the ACFE's online study program and connect with other students studying for the exam. There are several online communities and ongoing discussion groups available to anyone interested in the credential. Be realistic about the amount of time it will take to learn the material and sit for the exam. It's likely to take several months to cover the materials and become familiar with the concepts.

What advice would you give to students considering earning a degree in accounting?

When I got my degree, the accounting program was a four-year program. I graduated with a bachelor's degree. Generally, to sit for the CPA exam now, a candidate has to complete a five-year accounting program at an accredited school.

Accounting isn't getting any easier. There are more and more accounting standards all the time, as tax laws are written and rewritten every year. If you can find a mentor in a specific area, latch on to him or her. You can learn a lot about the profession by talking to people doing the work you are most interested in.

What advice would you give to students who are trying to decide whether to earn an accounting degree online or on-campus?

I have mixed feelings about this. I consider myself to be an introvert and really like the self-study/online approach a lot. I have learned to think through problems and work independently with a deadline using a self-study approach. However, in the real world, we never work alone. Being in a classroom or on-campus has some real advantages. Case studies and team assignments will teach you important lessons, too. So, bottom line, I would suggest trying to use both approaches. If you're more comfortable with one or the other, lean that way, but don't forsake the other.

Any final thoughts for us?

I have never been under-employed, and I have always enjoyed the diversity of the work. Being an accountant is not just a desk job. I get to travel to observe a client's inventory. I interview people and observe, inspect, and test systems and data at clients' offices. I work with attorneys to build a bulletproof case when there's fraud. No two days are alike, and I enjoy that.

Not Ready For Certification Yet? Explore Degree Options in Accounting

The Best Associate in Accounting Degree Programs

Earning a Bachelor's Degree in Accounting