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Small-business owner now prepared after losing thousands

The woman worked there for years.

She was always friendly and daily worked face-to-face with her boss, who she had been "robbing blind" the whole time while "cooking the books" to cover her tracks.

Melissa Smith, owner of Country Care Veterinary & Acupuncture Service, said her entire business changed after she found out her now-former employee and professional friend had been stealing cash, payroll hours and merchandise from the clinic.

"We're a small business so we weren't thinking one of our own was routinely stealing that much money and merchandise from us, but she was," said Smith, surrounded by pet care products in her business lobby.

The former employee was convicted of first-degree theft after Smith filed charges against her in Clallam County Superior Court.

After filing the charges, Smith heard about three other businesses that apparently had been robbed by the same woman. Each had opted not to file charges.

"When I heard that, I was dead-set on pursuing the charges," she said. "I wanted everyone else to know she had criminal tendencies if they did a background check."

Smith never did a background check on the woman but now she performs them for every new hire.

"Everything's changed since then," she said.

"I owe it all to my outside bookkeeping consultant who caught this woman by reviewing my records."

Sandy Placek is a Sequim bookkeeper with about two dozen clients in the area. She was doing routine accounting and discovered there had been a check made out to an employee while the accounting software showed the check going to a veterinary clinic merchandise provider.

"The embezzlement would not have been able to continue forever because the merchandise provider wasn't getting paid, but it's always better to catch something like this earlier than later," said Placek.

"I work with all different types and sizes of businesses, mostly smaller ones, so I see the different accounting or business models each business owner has set up."

Placek said it was Smith's accounting system that allowed the embezzlement to continue. The former employee had falsified her payroll, made checks out to herself and charged her personal veterinary purchases to the company account.

"So many small-business owners end up wearing all the different hats and maybe one doesn't fit just right, so an employee is asked to wear it from time and again," Placek said.

"It's when there is opportunity and temptation that many turn against their employers, so I always suggest finances be checked by the boss and not employees."

Smith said she enjoyed treating animals more than balancing her books.

"I know what I do best," she said.

"But, after this incident, I realized what I can do is get people to help with having paperwork in order while still putting myself in the position of having the final say and signature on all expenses."

Placek said having oversight is important. She said business owners should retain and review all debit and credit card invoices, all checks after they have been processed, inventory control records and all receipts and bills.

"Even if you somehow figure out someone is stealing, without the paperwork you'll never be sure how much is being stolen and the frequency and you will not have what is necessary to prosecute," Placek said.

"I'd advise if you have someone doing bookkeeping for you, make them take time off; that's how we found this woman's trail."

The clinic had software for its operations separate from its bookkeeping, allowing the thief to "cook the books." It wasn't until the former employee took time off and Placek was at the store reviewing expenses that she noticed information from the two did not line up.

"I want to trust my employees. I don't want to be always looking over their shoulder," Smith said, motioning to the staff she had on hand.

"By maintaining a system that doesn't allow this type of theft, I'm much happier with the business and with trusting the people I work with."

Smith lost many thousands of dollars, both to the theft and to prosecuting the thief. She was able to retrieve about half the total amount, $15,000, through court-ordered restitution.



Reach Evan McLean at

emclean@sequimgazette.com



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