'Victimless' White-Collar Crime Costs Money

From multimillion-dollar CEO corruption to stock-swindling schemes targeting the elderly, white-collar crimes cut into a broad swath of the public.

Small-business owner Brian Smith is a victim of white-collar crime who narrowly avoided losing his computer firm.

In March 2000, computer companies ruled the Dow. The AOL-Time Warner merger was nearly a year off, and unemployment was a steady 4.1 percent nationally.

Even so, Smith found himself laying off six employees of his hardware and software company, Compucel.

Earlier that month, he discovered that his controller had been siphoning off money from the company for years. The losses totaled in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, a crippling hit.

"I had to let six people go so the other 22 would still have a job," Smith said.

The controller eventually pleaded guilty to felony theft of nearly $88,000, which he was ordered to pay back. He still has not done so, Smith said.

"I have not seen a penny from that," he said.

Nor has the company recovered. Those six positions Smith cut in 2000 have not been restored.

Smith's experience is just one reminder of the truth so many white-collar criminals try to forget: Far from being victimless, white-collar crime touches people directly, deeply and dramatically.

A 2002 report from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners estimated that 6 percent of business revenues would be lost in 2002 as a result of occupational fraud and abuse.

Just this month, the FBI's Internet Fraud Complaint Center said that Internet fraud had tripled in 2002, resulting in up to $54 million in losses.

And a 1999 survey from the National White Collar Crime Center found that, in 1998, one out of three households had been victimized by some type of white-collar crime, such as corporate embezzlement, mail and wire fraud, telemarketing scams, mortgage fraud and phony stock schemes.

The public feels like the only victims of white-collar crimes are the institutions or large corporations that are the primary targets, said Thomas DiBiagio, U.S. Attorney for Maryland.

"But when you step back and think about it . . . [companies] have to pass the loss on to someone," DiBiagio said.

Even if they don't know it, all taxpayers feel the effects of white-collar crime. Some employers cheat their workers and the state simultaneously by pocketing tax money that should be going into state coffers, leaving the unknowing employees with unpaid tax bills.

The state can sometimes step in to help employees whose tax bills were not paid, said Carolyn Henneman, chief of the criminal investigations division of the Maryland State Attorney General's Office.

"If you can show that you did everything right, the [state] comptroller digs into his pocket to pay your bill," she said. But that still leaves state taxpayers holding the bag for the dishonest employer.

Even deeper than the financial impact of white-collar crime can be the emotional blow. Victims feel especially violated, since it is often "the most- trusted employee who steals from you because they're given a freedom and scope of access that others don't get," said Henneman.

For Brian Smith, the mistrust lingers. Before the theft at his business came to light, he said his controller "seemed to be a very devoted employee." Now, Smith is reluctant to trust someone with the job.

"I'm not comfortable hiring someone as a controller," Smith said. "I'm doing much more of it."