Access into the accountancy profession in France is strictly controlled, but that does not stop many individuals practicing it illegally.
According to the French accountant’s professional body, the Ordre des Experts Comptables (OEC), in the Paris region alone last year 30 individuals were prosecuted in the courts for trying to pass themselves off as an accountant.
In addition, within the region, 113 cases were currently under investigation.
The OEC consider that the problem is far more widespread than is recognised, having on a national basis signalled thousands of potential cases to the authorities over the past decade.
Not all such cases end up in the courts, as the individuals may merely be warned and placed under surveillance by the police or trading standards authorities.
Such is the concern of the OEC about the growth in illegal activity that they have established a web site - Compta Illegal – to assist in tracking down fake accountants.
It seems to be producing some results, for in the past year dozens of cases of potential fraudsters have been signalled by members of the public and bona fide accountants, in the process producing evidence of distressing examples of hardship caused as a result of poor advice provided by imposters.
Although fake accountants do not have a monopoly of being crooked or providing poor advice, the risk of a misadventure is clearly reduced if you use a qualified accountant.
In addition, in the event of negligent advice being provided action can more easily be taken in the courts and by the professional body.
For expatriates living in France, Jonathan Benford of Paris based accountants Dixon Wilson, and secretary of the Association of British Accountants in France (ABAF), considers the issue is a broader one.
“It is not merely a problem of 'fake' accountants," he says, "but accountants who have qualified abroad and who practice in France as accountants without proper registration with the French authorities, a process which requires them to demonstrate competence in French tax, accounting and law.
He points out that "there are actually very few accountants in France qualified from abroad and on the register of the OEC. Without such registration they are operating on an illegal basis while acting as accountants”.
If the individual concerned is based outside of France, with no French business registration, then that also raises difficulties of legal jurisdiction in the event that negligent advice was provided, and the enforceability of any legal judgement that may be obtained.
Much of course will depend on just what is at stake, and only a minority of expatriates and second home owners are going to need a potentially expensive international accountant; routine book-keeping and French tax advice can normally be found quite easily and cheaply in France.
Investment advice is also probably best obtained through an authorised and independent investment advisor, who may or may not be an accountant.
But for anyone seeking international financial, tax and accounting advice it is a bit of a quagmire, for it is likely that only the larger or specialist accountancy practices can claim a strong professional competence in more than one country, as well as appropriate accreditation.
And if the matter on which you seek advice does have a significant international dimension it clearly pays to try and at least ensure that your accountant, wherever they qualified, has demonstrative skills and experience in the field on which you seek advice.
Being on the register of the Ordre des Experts Comptables and business registered in France as an accountant (which you can check at INSEE), clearly provides an assurance as to their status in France, but not necessarily as to their appreciation of cross-border regulations.
Membership of the ABAF would provide you with some confidence as to the status and skills of those who qualified from outside of France, although their list of members is not readily available from the internet.
Ultimately, if the matter is potentially litigious, then recourse to a specialist tax lawyer may well be more appropriate.