When P S Shetty, a Mumbai-based chartered accountant, was summoned by the income tax authorities, he was surprised, not only by the call but also the documents shown to him.
For one, Shetty was not the statutory auditor of the company under scrutiny. Second, the documents - profit and loss account, balance sheet and audit report of the company concerned - all bore his firm's letterhead, rubber stamp and seal.
Shetty swiftly realised that an imposter has assumed his identity and forged the documents. He then approached the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, the apex body regulating the profession in India, and also filed a police compliant, which later arrested officials of the company concerned for fraud.
Booming demand for chartered accountants services fuelled by a rapidly growing economy has meant that Shetty's experience is not an isolated one.
For the past five years, chartered accountant professionals in India have been battling to save the reputation of their profession from imposters.
In a reply to a parliamentary question earlier this year, the ministry of company affairs said action has been taken against 240 such imposters. ICAI puts the number at 269.
Although this number represents just a little more than 0.1 per cent of ICAI's current membership of nearly 140,000 chartered accountants, the actual figure of fake CAs signing certificates would be much higher since many cases are not reported or are undetected, said R Bhupathi, former ICAI president.
For its part, ICAI has forwarded complaints of fake CAs to the local police. But the response has not been encouraging. In fact, police apathy is one reason ICAI members have not been active about pursing instances of forged documentation.
"We do not receive support from the police department," said ICAI vice president Uttam Prakash Agarwal. "They have their own priorities and catching fake CAs is not among them," he added.
The institute has powers only to regulate and take disciplinary action against its members for any violation of the code of conduct. It cannot do so with imposters who are not members.
Imposters' presence is felt most when it comes to signing certificates submitted to banks and tax department, said Bhupathi. Of the cases that are being pursued, Bhupathi said that it is mainly in the small towns that imposters are identified, since the number of practising CAs is limited.
ICAI has prepared a list of 19 cases pending in various courts ranging from Dharwad in Karnataka to Azamgarh in UP.
The government for its part has amended the section dealing with "Unqualified persons not to sign documents" in the Chartered Accountants Act. Now, a first-time offender will be fined between Rs 5,000 and Rs100,000. A second violation would attract one year of imprisonment and a maximum fine of Rs 200,000.
Even as the CA Act is being strengthened, Shetty, who filed a police compliant in January 2005, is still waiting for trial to start in a Mumbai court.