6 steps to prevent and detect ghost employees

November 18, 2021

Can you imagine cutting a payroll check to someone who doesn’t show up for work? That’s essentially what happens when you have ghost employees on your payroll.  

Global companies with decentralized payroll processes that involve different currencies, statutory deductions, and pay rates are higher risk—leaving the door wide open for this type of payroll fraud.  

What is a ghost employee? 

A ghost employee is a fraudulent scheme designed to siphon money from your company. It’s a form of payroll fraud typically perpetuated by someone with access to your payroll system, like an accounting employee with little oversight. 

Ghost employee schemes leach millions from unsuspecting employers around the world. These schemes can involve one employee or a group of employees. And they can range from simple clerical manipulation to detailed schemes that involve falsified timekeeping records and fraudulent paychecks. 

For example, the culprit may make it appear that a terminated employee is still collecting checks on payday. Sometimes these fraudsters use real names, but other times they add fictitious characters to the payroll. At either rate, companies with hundreds or thousands of employees can easily overlook a couple of extra names on the books. This is especially true when turnover is high.  

One employee at an Italian hospital collected a salary for 15 years without working a single day. Another audit in Tanzania turned up a shocking 10,000 ghost employees on government payroll resulting in millions of dollars in losses.  

The largest global study on business fraud found that organizations lose up to 5% of their annual revenue from these types of schemes, so the risk is real and worth an extra layer of security. 

How to detect ghost employees—it’s all about prevention 

Your payroll burden eats up a lot of your overhead as it is─nobody wants to spend more paying employees that don’t actually work for their company.  

Fraud thrives in chaotic environments with unclear processes, which is exactly what tends to occur when multinational companies grow into new countries without a clear payroll plan or centralized oversight.  

Unfortunately, finding ghost employees on your payroll isn’t so simple. 

You might try tracking payroll budgets and investigate spikes that exceed labor projections. Some smaller businesses even hand deliver paychecks and identify any leftovers. 

But an official audit that checks for duplicates and discrepancies is the only reliable way to detect ghost employees on your payroll. And with thousands of employee records, it can still be difficult.  

When it comes to ghost employees, your best line of defense is prevention. Here are some tips to prevent ghost employees and other types of payroll fraud: 

  1. Vet employees with background checks 

  1. Prioritize accurate and current personnel records 

  1. Maintain control of finances 

  1. Avoid single-point-of-contact systems 

  1. Use checks and balances 

  1. Conduct routine audits 

1. Require background checks for all accounting employees 

Take extra steps to thoroughly vet potential employees who will have access to payroll and accounting systems. This includes entry-level accounts payable clerks all the way up to accounting managers and CFOs.  

You can also verify personnel details with local government agencies. For example, in the US, where payroll fraud is slightly more common, you can verify social security numbers at the time of hire and periodically during audits.  

2. Keep detailed and accurate personnel records 

There should be no exceptions when it comes to the records kept on your employees. New hires should not be allowed to begin work until all pertinent information is collected and entered into the system. And similarly, your company should have a strict process for terminating employees that includes clear directives for payroll systems. 

3. Maintain control of company finances 

Business owners come from many different backgrounds. Some have a natural inclination towards managing the finances, while others may be eager to hand over the reins when it comes to the company’s books. This is always a mistake.  

Even when you delegate the day-to-day financials to someone else, you should always maintain administrative access to the systems, so you can pop in and run reports from time to time.  

4. Set up redundancies for payroll and purchasing activities 

Any system that allows a single point of contact to manipulate payroll records, run checks or make purchases opens the door for the opportunity of fraud. Instead, make sure you have an easy system of checks and balances that requires at least two signatures to make key changes—like adding an employee to the payroll. 

5. Clearly define all financial procedures 

Clearly defined processes for payroll and accounting activities help eliminate errors, and they also seal up the gaps that provide opportunities for fraud. All employees should be trained on processes and workflows with strict adherence and accountability standards. 

For example, your company should have a checklist of personnel information that is entered into the system before the employee’s first shift. New employees should not be allowed to begin work until payroll specialist has received and entered all details.  

A similar checklist should exist for terminating employees.  

In both cases, it should be a two-step process where one employee enters the information and a separate employee verifies it. 

6. Conduct routine audits 

Hiring trustworthy payroll employees, providing oversight, and clearly defining processes are all good steps. But the only way you will know if they are working is by using routine audits. Audits can help you find discrepancies that may need a second look such as: 

  • Unverified government identification numbers 

  • Duplicate entries 

  • Clerical errors on birth dates, hire dates or termination dates 

  • Timekeeping inconsistencies or red flags 

  • Fictitious employees 

  • Misclassified employees 

Clerical errors and inconsistencies don’t always mean fraud. But they do warrant a deeper look, especially if you uncover patterns like the same employees with repetitive manual timekeeping adjustments week after week. Or a large number of terminated employees still flagged as active. 

While you can DIY an audit, it may not do any good if you have a problem hiding under your nose. The same employee that has been stealing money undetected will likely be involved in the audit, providing an opportunity to cover their tracks. A better option is to use a consultant or third-party firm to help audit your books and personnel records. 

How a payroll partner can help 

Global Managed Payroll (GMP) provides a centralized process for global companies to pay employees around the globe. GMP standardizes the steps of paying employees in different countries and with different currencieswhile also providing tools like real-time data reporting that make it easier to analyze payroll and identify irregularities.  

While GMP providers don’t directly specialize in detecting ghost employees, the clear processes and thorough reporting they offer can help you reduce the likelihood that a ghost employee can pull the wool over your eyes for long. 

Learn more about how Global Managed Payroll can help your company. Contact a solutions advisor to get started 


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