Cryptocurrency offers career opportunities for first cohort of MFAcc candidates

Asim Iqbal and Len Brooks
Thursday, August 29, 2019 - 4:42pm
Elaine Smith

“Cryptocurrency is here to stay,” lawyer Asim Iqbal told the 2019 graduating class from U of T Mississauga’s master of forensic accounting (MFAcc) program who gathered in the UTM Room for a celebratory dinner in mid-August with alumni and guests.

Iqbal, the guest speaker, is in a position to speak with authority about bitcoin and other virtual currencies. He is a senior associate in the restructuring and insolvency group at Miller, Thomson LLP, the law firm that served as the court-appointed representative counsel for investors in the high-profile Quadriga case. QuadrigaCX was a large, Nova Scotia-based, cryptocurrency exchange (trading platform) established by Canadian Gerald Cotten. When Cotton died suddenly while on his honeymoon in India in December 2018, the private keys [randomly-generated passwords] to the wallets (similar to a vault) for the bitcoin held by the exchange died with him, leaving investors in the lurch to the tune of roughly $250 million. More than 76,000 exchange users were affected, 75,000 of them Canadian.

It poses a major challenge to trace the assets held in a cryptocurrency wallet without having the keys, Iqbal explained to the audience, many of whose careers will focus on following money trails in cases of insolvency, money laundering and fraud. It will be crucial to have an understanding of the distributed nature of blockchain technology that underpins cryptocurrency trading, Iqbal notes.

“The inter-jurisdictional aspect of blockchain is amazing for users, but for tracing, you can run into problems,” Iqbal says. “The speed at which trades happen is also phenomenal. By the time you get a court order [to halt trading] the money has probably moved seven times.”

The dinner featuring Iqbal’s speech was one of the activities comprising residency week for the MFAcc candidates. The program, under the directorship of Professor Len Brooks, is a distance learning offering, allowing students throughout Canada and worldwide to meet online for their courses. The Class of 2019 is the first cohort to complete the two-year program, although students from the diploma program that it replaced were able to upgrade to graduate with the master’s degree last year after taking additional courses.

At the end of the MFAcc program, the students converge upon UTM for a six-day capstone course, a course that consolidates all of the knowledge and skills, such as interviewing and testifying in court, that they have learned during two years of study; it culminates in five oral exams including two moot court presentations. The inaugural graduating class’ residency week brought together students from as far away as New Zealand.

“As long as students can come online one night a week, they can study from anywhere in the world,” says Brooks, who was involved in creating the former diploma program almost 20 years ago. “We’re the dominant group in forensic accounting in Canada.

“We have the most comprehensive program in the world – I just had an inquiry from Ghana -- and it is something U of T can be proud of launching.”

The program is also rare in its distance education mode of delivery; Brooks believes there is an excellent opportunity for expansion into the United States, since all of the programs there are entirely residency-based.

Meanwhile, students graduating in the first cohort are enthusiastic about the skills they have learned or enhanced. Rand Abdulnour, a consultant in the forensics and litigation support group for the accounting firm, MNP, says forensic accounting appealed to her because “I always loved solving puzzles and I wanted to help people. Auditing wasn’t enough.”

She has already found the program beneficial on the job.

“Skills such as interviewing and cross-examining are so applicable in the real world,” Abdulnour says.

Another graduating student, Margaret Eyo, the controller for Millennium Oilflow Systems & Technology, has also used the skills learned in class on the job in Edmonton.

“In 2012, my company was involved in a fraud case,” Eyo says. “They had to hire an accounting firm to handle it, and when they got to the bottom of things using forensic accounting, I was shocked. They eventually won the case, and I wanted to know how I could do forensic accounting, too.”

Eyo discovered the UTM program and was accepted.

“Forensic accounting isn’t part of my current job, but I have used everything I’ve learned here for purchasing control and inventory management,” she says. “It is all worth it.”

Says Brooks, “That’s the beauty of distance education. You can get a great education while working and staying at home, and you make connections all over the world.”