Even those of us who are not accountants have the opportunity to steal from our employers. Expense forms pose one of the most frequent ethical tests in daily life.

Dishonest expense reimbursements make up about 15% of business fraud with a median annual loss to businesses of $26,000, according to a study by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.

“It’s important to play it straight on your expense forms because it’s wrong to steal someone else’s money,” said John McLean, a professor at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, who specializes in business ethics. “It’s easy to say to yourself, ‘I worked hard and I deserve a bonus.’ We humans get creative about why our actions don’t need to meet the standards. We say, ‘It’s really not theft, it’s just rounding up.’”

McLean said some employees have a sense that a company will never notice if the expense account is padded by $25 or so.

“That may be true, but each time you do it, it gets easier to do again and in larger amounts,” McLean said. “We break ourselves down by what the church used to call venial sins.”

Reimbursement fraud is a two-fer sin. In his “Summa Theologiae,” St. Thomas Aquinas said there are two problems with such theft. First, it violates justice because it takes what by right belongs to another. That breaks the Eighth Commandment. Second, it involves deception and guile, so also is a lie, transgressing the Ninth Commandment.

Ellen Lippman, a professor of business at the University of Portland, is afraid of inadvertently creating a how-to manual for fraudsters, but offers a list of expense account cheating methods. She hopes it will help employers keep an eye out.

Some employees purchase supplies for the company but include personal items in the buy. One version of that scam is buying extra quantities of supplies and keeping some for personal use.

Some employees receive a refund or rebate for a business purchase but don’t report that to their employers.

Workers might expense meals purchased for unauthorized individuals.

Lippman just heard about two new frauds. One fellow forged receipts for more than 1,000 nonexistent taxi rides. The man also submitted nine claims for the same subscription to a professional organization. It turned out he had a gambling addiction and debts to cover.

Because the employee worked for a firm that prided itself on hiring honest employees, the employee’s expense reports were not scrutinized.

“There are infinite ways to defraud, limited only by a defrauder’s ingenuity or the company’s lack of controls, or lack of enforcement of their controls,” Lippman said.

Lippman explains that some people have a rift between what they might do professionally and what they might do personally.

“Justification for one’s actions may be easier when the loss would be to a business — without a known face — than when the loss would be to a specific known individual,” she said. “But losses to a business are real and costly.”

Lippman said teachers at a religious college have more flexibility when discussing these kind of ethical situations, offering a faith perspective. In her accounting classes at U.P., she spends time on ethical concerns and ethics are a university-wide focus and particular field of interest for Holy Cross Father Mark Poorman, a moral theologian and president of the North Portland school.

Firms establish internal controls to prevent and detect expense account fraud, Lippman said, but it is nearly impossible to eliminate. It’s in the hands of workers and their hopefully formed moral sensibilities.