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Students play special agents

As part of a mock money-laundering investigation, sophomore accounting major Amber Blum arrests drug dealer Terry Smack while a student from UMass Boston reads him his rights. Photo by Mike Mazzanti.

As part of a mock money-laundering case on campus last Friday, third-year criminal justice major Niccolo Coia analyzed tax returns, applied for a search warrant and arrested a drug dealer named Terry Smack for selling cocaine to an undercover agent.

The Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation unit designed the exercise, which was one in a series of all-day mock investigations dubbed the “Adrian Project.” Twenty accounting and criminal justice students from Northeastern, Suffolk University and the University of Massachusetts Boston formed five teams. They were challenged to solve cases of tax evasion, money laundering and drug trafficking by examining public records, conducting interviews and interrogating suspects.

The goal of the exercise was to increase the interest of students in investigating fraud through forensic accounting. “I’ve always been interested in becoming a field agent,” Coia said prior to surveilling a short, dark-haired suspect around campus with the help of a two-way radio. “I wanted to see if I was interested in forensic accounting.”

The special agent who facilitated the money laundering case called mock investigations an exercise in critical thinking. “Students,” he said, “got a good understanding of what special agents do and how they go about identifying and catching criminals.”

The mock cases gave students a quick lesson in human nature, noted Charlie Bame-Aldred, an assistant professor of accounting in the College of Business Administration, whose research focuses on auditing and fraud investigation. “From seemingly innocuous events, bad things can happen,” said Bame-Aldred, who did not participate in the exercise. “Some people go through life thinking bad things like this don’t happen, but that’s just not the case.”

In his introductory remarks, John Collins, assistant special agent in charge of the IRS Criminal Investigation Unit’s Boston field office, encouraged students to think and act like special agents.

“We want you to be curious and ask questions,” he told them. “Be creative and think outside the box.”

Coia took Collins’ cue, assessing the money-laundering case midway through the investigation. “Smack didn’t file any tax returns, but he’s probably selling drugs to buy his Jeep Wrangler,” he explained. “He’s definitely obtaining and hiding money illegally.”

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