Finance Smarts Needed at NCIS

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You won't get to work with Mark Harmon, star of the television drama NCIS, but if you take a job at the real Naval Criminal Investigative Service, you could find yourself leading the real-world version of his on-screen life.

NCIS investigates Navy and Marine Corps-related crimes, including financial crimes, from 165 offices in locations as far away as Afghanistan and as close to home as San Diego. Among the ranks of its 1,300 agents are accountants and financial crimes specialists who work on cases involving procurement fraud, product substitution, counterfeiting, bribery and corruption.

"If you're flying in a military airplane, you want all the parts to meet military specifications," explains Special Agent Marie Acevedo, assistant programs and operations director for NCIS's procurement fraud division. "You don't want the wing to fall off because a defense contractor provided substandard parts."

Breaking In

NCIS has three missions: prevent terrorism, protect secrets and reduce crime. Throughout a career at NCIS, an agent might work in counterintelligence, criminal investigations, counterterrorism and procurement fraud. "Throughout your career, you can specialize for periods of time in any of those," says Acevedo. "Or, many times, people do one thing."

The service hires recent college graduates with accounting or finance degrees as special agents, as well as experienced accountants who've not yet reached their 37th birthday. Salaries start at about $42,000 a year in base pay, plus a law enforcement availability premium of 25 percent for being on call 24/7.

New hires with accounting and finance backgrounds are trained exactly the same as those with criminal justice degrees. "We want to groom a well-rounded agent who can do anything and everything we do," says Heather Bain, division chief of human capital development. "We're criminal investigators first. That's the basic foundation in all our investigations: We investigate crime."

Types of Assignments

Once agents have learned the basics - such as how to conduct an interview, process a crime scene and work with other agencies - they're typically sent to a large field office, such as Naval Base San Diego or Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

At that point, a finance or accounting specialist might go to work on the fraud side of the house, uncovering financial crimes. "We work general procurement fraud and product substitution, where the contractor falsifies documents and gives the government something that doesn't meet the military specifications," Acevedo says. "We investigate counterfeits and bread-and-butter corruption."

What about being called to persistently dangerous locations - like Iraq? "Every quarter we send out a worldwide announcement for the next deployment," Bain says. "There are incentives to go to hard-to-fill vacancies overseas and for dangerous locations. For a combat zone, like Iraq, you go for 90, 120 or 180 days, depending on the job. But we've been really fortunate that we've filled all those with volunteers and never had to compel anyone to deploy."

Agents Relocate Every Few Years

"It's important to understand that we're mobile," she adds. "We don't stay in a fixed place for an entire career. Moving to a new location, after working in an office for three to six years, promotes professional and personal growth and gives you a new outlook on the job." And, she notes, if you want to be promoted, you have to be willing to move: "It's unrealistic to think you could get hired and retire from NCIS without doing a couple of moves."

NCIS employees are a tight-knit bunch, Bain observes. "If I'm in San Francisco and I move to Washington, D.C., they're going to pick me up at the airport, show me where to go and help me get oriented," she says. "If you're in Iraq and someone in your family has to go to the hospital, we'll be there for them."

Another benefit of the job: variety. "Working on fraud-related issues, it is possible or even likely that you'll get a confession on a forgery or a conviction on a contractor," according to Bain. "In the course of 12 years, you could also work undercover on a drug operation, get involved in counterterrorism or counterintelligence work, or find yourself doing cyber investigations."

Given the breadth of the NCIS mission, career opportunities abound. For example, while she initially resisted the posting, a stint working child assault cases ended up being Bain's most rewarding time at NCIS. "I put a lot of child molesters in jail for a long time - 30 or 40 years," she says. "Moving on from that to senior management and now to be a part of hiring agents and shaping the future of our agency is very rewarding."

But note: To work with NCIS, you must be a U.S. citizen and able to hold a top secret clearance.