Benford’s Law – Using Maths to Catch Fraudsters

Benford’s Law is a very powerful and counter-intuitive mathematical rule which determines the distribution of leading digits (ie the first digit in any number).  You would probably expect that distribution would be equal – that a number 9 occurs as often as a number 1.  But this, whilst intuitive, is false for a large number of datasets.   Accountants looking for fraudulant activity and investigators looking for falsified data use Benford’s Law to catch criminals.

The probability function for Benford’s Law is:

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This clearly shows that a 1 is by far the most likely number to occur – and that you have nearly a 60% chance of the leading digit being 3,2 or 1.   Any criminal trying to make up data who didn’t know this law would be easily caught out.

Scenario for students 1:

You are a corrupt bank manager who is secretly writing cheques to your own account.  You can write any cheques for any amount – but you want it to appear natural so as not to arouse suspicion.  Write yourself 20 cheque amounts.  Try not to get caught!

Look at the following fraudualent cheques that were written by an Arizona manager – can you see why he was caught?   

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Scenario for students 2:

Use the formula for the probability density function to find the probability of the respective leading digits.  Look at the leading digits for the first 50 Fibonacci numbers.  Does the law hold?

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There is also an excellent Numberphile video on Benford’s Law.  Wikipedia has a lot more on the topic, as have the Journal of Accountancy.

If you enjoyed this topic you might also like:

Amanda Knox and Bad Maths in Courts – some other examples of mathematics and the criminal justice system.

Cesaro Summation: Does 1 – 1 + 1 – 1 … = 1/2? – another surprising mathematical result.

Essential resources for IB students:

1) Revision Village

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Revision Village has been put together to help IB students with topic revision both for during the course and for the end of Year 12 school exams and Year 13 final exams.  I would strongly recommend students use this as a resource during the course (not just for final revision in Y13!) There are specific resources for HL and SL students for both Analysis and Applications.

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There is a comprehensive Questionbank takes you to a breakdown of each main subject area (e.g. Algebra, Calculus etc) and then provides a large bank of graded questions.  What I like about this is that you are given a difficulty rating, as well as a mark scheme and also a worked video tutorial.  Really useful!

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The Practice Exams section takes you to a large number of ready made quizzes, exams and predicted papers.   These all have worked solutions and allow you to focus on specific topics or start general revision.  This also has some excellent challenging questions for those students aiming for 6s and 7s.

Each course also has a dedicated video tutorial section which provides 5-15 minute tutorial videos on every single syllabus part – handily sorted into topic categories.

2) Exploration Guides and Paper 3 Resources

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I’ve put together four comprehensive pdf guides to help students prepare for their exploration coursework and Paper 3 investigations. The exploration guides talk through the marking criteria, common student mistakes, excellent ideas for explorations, technology advice, modeling methods and a variety of statistical techniques with detailed explanations. I’ve also made 17 full investigation questions which are also excellent starting points for explorations.  The Exploration Guides can be downloaded here and the Paper 3 Questions can be downloaded here.