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White-collar crime

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The term "white-collar crime" refers to financially motivated, nonviolent or non-directly violent crime committed by individuals, businesses and government professionals.[1] The crimes are believed to be committed by middle- or upper-class individuals for financial gains.[2] It was first defined by the sociologist Edwin Sutherland in 1939 as "a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of their occupation".[3] Typical white-collar crimes could include wage theft, fraud, bribery, Ponzi schemes, insider trading, labor racketeering, embezzlement, cybercrime, copyright infringement, money laundering, identity theft, and forgery.[4] White-collar crime overlaps with corporate crime.

Definitional issues[edit]

Modern criminology generally prefers to classify the type of crime and the topic:

  • By the type of offense, e.g., property crime, economic crime, and other corporate crimes like environmental and health and safety law violations. Some crime is only possible because of the identity of the offender, e.g., transnational money laundering requires the participation of senior officers employed in banks. But the FBI has adopted the narrow approach, defining white-collar crime as "those illegal acts which are characterized by deceit, concealment, or violation of trust and which are not dependent upon the application or threat of physical force or violence" (1989, 3). While the true extent and cost of white-collar crime are unknown, the FBI and the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners estimate the annual cost to the United States to fall between $300 and $660 billion.[5]
  • By the type of offender, e.g., by social class or high socioeconomic status, the occupation of positions of trust or profession, or academic qualification, researching the motivations for criminal behavior, e.g., greed or fear of loss of face if economic difficulties become obvious.[6] Shover and Wright point to the essential neutrality of a crime as enacted in a statute.[7] It almost inevitably describes conduct in the abstract, not by reference to the character of the persons performing it. Thus, the only way that one crime differs from another is in the backgrounds and characteristics of its perpetrators.
  • By organizational culture rather than the offender or offense which overlaps with organized crime. Appelbaum and Chambliss offer a twofold definition:[8]
    • Occupational crime which occurs when crimes are committed to promote personal interests, say, by altering records and overcharging, or by the cheating of clients by professionals.
    • Organizational or corporate crime which occurs when corporate executives commit criminal acts to benefit their company by overcharging or price fixing, false advertising, etc.

Relationship to other types of crime[edit]

Blue-collar crime[edit]

The types of crime committed are a function of what is available to the potential offender. Thus, those employed in relatively unskilled environments have fewer opportunities to exploit than those who work in situations where large financial transactions occur.[9] Blue-collar crime tends to be more obvious and thus attracts more active police attention such as vandalism or shoplifting.[10] In contrast, white-collar employees can incorporate legitimate and criminal behavior, thus making themselves less obvious when committing the crime. Therefore, blue-collar crime will more often use physical force, whereas in the corporate world, the identification of a victim is less obvious and the issue of reporting is complicated by a culture of commercial confidentiality to protect shareholder value. It is estimated that a great deal of white-collar crime is undetected or, if detected, it is not reported.

Corporate crime[edit]

Corporate crime benefits the corporation (company or other type of business organization), rather than individuals. It may, however, result from decisions of high-ranking individuals within the corporation.[11] Corporations are not, unlike individuals, litigated in criminal courts, which means the term "crime" does not really apply.[12] Litigation usually takes place in civil courts or by institutions with jurisdiction over specific types of offences, such as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that litigates violations of financial market and investment statutes.[13]

State-corporate crime[edit]

State-corporate crime is “illegal or socially injurious actions that occur when one or more institutions or political governance pursue a goal in direct cooperation with one or more institutions of economic production and distribution.” [14]The negotiation of agreements between a state and a corporation will be at a relatively senior level on both sides, this is almost exclusively a white-collar "situation" which offers the opportunity for crime. Although law enforcement claims to have prioritized white-collar crime,[15] evidence shows that it continues to be a low priority.[16]

When senior levels of a corporation engage in criminal activity using the company this is sometimes called control fraud.

Organized transnational crime[edit]

Organized transnational crime is organized criminal activity that takes place across national jurisdictions, and with advances in transportation and information technology, law enforcement officials and policymakers have needed to respond to this form of crime on a global scale.[17] Some examples include human trafficking, money laundering, drug smuggling, illegal arms dealing, terrorism, and cybercrime. Although it is impossible to precisely gauge transnational crime, the Millennium Project, an international think tank, assembled statistics on several aspects of transnational crime in 2009:[18]

  • World illicit trade of almost $780 billion
  • Counterfeiting and piracy of $300 billion to $1 trillion
  • Global drug trade of $321 billion

Red-collar crime[edit]

When a white collar criminal turns violent, it becomes red collar crime. This can take the form of killing a witness in a fraud trial to silence them, or murdering someone who exposed the fraud, such as a journalist, detective or whistleblower. Perri and Lichtenwald defined red collar crime as follows:

“This sub-group is referred to as red-collar criminals because they straddle both the white-collar crime arena and, eventually, the violent crime arena. In circumstances where there is threat of detection, red-collar criminals commit brutal acts of violence to silence the people who have detected their fraud and to prevent further disclosure.”[19]

According to a 2018 report by the Bureau of Labour Statistics, homicide is the third highest cause of death in the American workplace.[20][21] The Atlantic magazine reported that red collar criminals often have traits of narcissism and psychopathy, which ironically, are seen as desirable qualities in the recruitment process. Even though it puts a company at risk of employing a white collar criminal.

One investigator, Richard G. Brody, said that the murders might be difficult to detect, being mistaken for accidents or suicides:

“Whenever I read about high-profile executives who are found dead, I immediately think red-collar crime,” he said. “Lots of people are getting away with murder.”

Occupational crime[edit]

Occupational crime is “any act punishable by law that is committed through opportunity created on the course of an occupation that is legal.” [22]Individuals may commit crime during employment or unemployment. The two most common forms are theft and fraud. Theft can be of varying degrees, from a pencil to furnishings to a car. Insider trading, the trading of stock by someone with access to publicly unavailable information, is a type of fraud.[18]

Crimes related to national interests[edit]

The crimes related to the national interests consist mainly of treason. In the modern world, there are a lot of nations which divide the crimes into some laws. "Crimes Related to Inducement of Foreign Aggression" is the crime of communicating with aliens secretly to cause foreign aggression or menace. "Crimes Related to Foreign Aggression" is the treason of co-operating with foreign aggression positively regardless of the national inside and outside. "Crimes Related to Insurrection" is the internal treason. Depending on a country, criminal conspiracy is added to these. One example is Jho Low, a mega thief and traitor who stole billions in USA currency from a Malaysian government fund and is now on a run as a fugitive.[23]


According to a 2016 American study,[24]

A considerable percentage of white-collar offenders are gainfully employed middle-aged Caucasian men who usually commit their first whitecollar offense sometime between their late thirties through their mid-forties and appear to have middle-class backgrounds. Most have some higher education, are married, and have moderate to strong ties to community, family, and religious organizations. Whitecollar offenders usually have a criminal history, including infractions that span the spectrum of illegality, but many do not overindulge in vice. Recent research examining the five-factor personality trait model determined that white-collar offenders tend to be more neurotic and less agreeable and conscientious than their non-criminal counterparts.


In the United States, sentences for white-collar crimes may include a combination of imprisonment, fines, restitution, community service, disgorgement, probation, or other alternative punishment.[25][26] These punishments grew harsher after the Jeffrey Skilling and Enron scandal, when the Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002 was passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush, defining new crimes and increasing the penalties for crimes such as mail and wire fraud. Sometimes punishment for these crimes could be hard to determine due to the fact that convincing the courts that what the offender has done is challenging within itself.[27] In other countries, such as China, white-collar criminals can be given the death penalty under aggravating circumstances,[28] yet some countries have a maximum of 10–25 years imprisonment. Certain countries like Canada consider the relationship between the parties to be a significant feature on sentence when there is a breach of trust component involved.[29] Questions about sentencing disparity in white-collar crime continue to be debated.[30] The FBI, concerned with identifying this type of offense, collects statistical information on several different fraud offenses (swindles and cons, credit card or ATM fraud, impersonation, welfare fraud, and wire fraud), bribery, counterfeiting and forgery, and embezzlement.[31]

In the United States, the longest sentences for white-collar crimes have included the following: Sholam Weiss (845 years for racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering in connection with the collapse of National Heritage Life Insurance Company); Norman Schmidt and Charles Lewis (330 years and 30 years, respectively, for "high-yield investment" scheme); Bernard Madoff (150 years for $65 billion fraud scheme); Frederick Brandau (55 years for $117 million Ponzi scheme); Martin Sigillito (40 years for $56 million Ponzi scheme); Eduardo Masferrer (30 years for accounting fraud); Chalana McFarland (30 years for mortgage fraud scheme); Lance Poulsen (30 years for $2.9 billion fraud).[32]


From the perspective of an offender, the easiest targets to entrap in "white collar" crime are those with certain degree of vulnerability or those with symbolic or emotional value to the offender.[33] Examples of these people can be family members, clients, and close friends who are wrapped up in personal or business proceedings with the offender. The way that most criminal operations are conducted is through a series of different particular techniques. In this case, a technique is a certain way to complete a desired task. When one is committing a crime, whether it be shoplifting or tax fraud, it is always easier to successfully pull off the task with experience in the technique. Shoplifters who are experienced at stealing in plain sight are much more successful than those who do not know how to steal. The major difference between a shoplifter and someone committing a white collar crime is that the techniques used are not physical but instead consist of acts like talking on the phone, writing, and entering data.[33]

Often these criminals utilize the "blame game theory", a theory in which certain strategies are utilized by an organization or business and its members in order to strategically shift blame by pushing responsibility to others or denying misconduct.[34] This theory is particularly used in terms of organizations and indicates that offenders often do not take blame for their actions. Many members of organizations will try to absolve themselves of responsibility when things go wrong.[35]

Forbes Magazine lays out four theories for what leads a criminal to commit a "white collar" crime.[36] The first is that there are poorly designed job incentives for the criminal. Most finance professionals are given a certain type of compensation or reward for short-term mass profits. If a company incentivizes an employee to help commit a crime, such as assisting in a Ponzi Scheme, many employees will partake in order to receive the reward or compensation. Often, this compensation is given in the form of a cash "bonus" on top of their salaries. By doing a task in order to receive a reward, many employees feel as though they are not responsible for the crime, as they have not ordered it. The "blame game theory" comes into play as those being asked to carry out the illegal activities feel as though they can place the blame on their bosses instead of themselves. The second theory is that the company's management is very relaxed when it comes to enforcing ethics. If unethical practices are already a commonplace in the business, employees will see that as a "green light" to conduct unethical and unlawful business practices to further the business. This idea also ties into Forbes' third theory, that most stock traders see unethical practices as harmless. Many see white collar crime as a victimless crime, which is not necessarily true. Since many of these stock traders cannot see the victims of their crimes, it seems as if it hurts no one. The last theory is that many firms have unrealistic, large goals. They preach the mentality that employees should "do what it takes".[36]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "FBI — White-Collar Crime". FBI.
  2. ^ Blundell, Jonathan (2014). Cambridge IGCSE Sociology coursebook. Cambridge University Press. p. 195. ISBN 978-1-107-64513-4.
  3. ^ Sutherland, Edwin Hardin (1950). White Collar Crime. New York: Dryden Press, p. 9.
  4. ^ "White Collar Criminal Defense Guide". Law Offices of Randy Collins. Retrieved 23 December 2016.
  5. ^ Friedrichs, David O. (2009). Trusted Criminals: White Collar Crime In Contemporary Society (4 ed.). Wadsworth Publishing. p. 50. ISBN 978-0495600824. citing Kane and Wall, 2006, p. 5
  6. ^ Benson, Michael L. (1985). "Denying the Guilty Mind: Accounting for Involvement in a White-Collar Crime*". Criminology. 23 (4): 583–607. doi:10.1111/j.1745-9125.1985.tb00365.x. ISSN 1745-9125.
  7. ^ Shover, Neal & Wright, John Paul (eds.) (2000). Crimes of Privilege: Readings in White-Collar Crime. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-513621-7
  8. ^ Appelbaum, Richard; Chambliss, William J. (1997). Sociology: A Brief Introduction. New York: Longman Pub Group. p. 117. ISBN 9780673982797.
  9. ^ Clarke, R. V. G. (1997). Situational Crime Prevention: Successful Case Studies (2 ed.). Harrow and Heston. ISBN 9780911577389.
  10. ^ Shover, Neal; Hunter, Ben W. (2013-01-11). "Blue-collar, white-collar: crimes and mistakes". Offenders on Offending. doi:10.4324/9781843927785-24. Retrieved 2020-02-20.
  11. ^ Darryl A. Goldberg (25 February 2020). "White collar vs. corporate crime".
  12. ^ Salinger, Lawrence (2005). Encyclopedia of White-Collar & Corporate Crime. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. p. 219. doi:10.4135/9781412914260. ISBN 978-0-7619-3004-4.
  13. ^ Klimczak, Karol Marek; Sison, Alejo José G.; Prats, Maria; Torres, Maximilian B. (6 May 2021). "How to Deter Financial Misconduct if Crime Pays?". Journal of Business Ethics. 179. Springer Science and Business Media LLC: 205–222. doi:10.1007/s10551-021-04817-0. ISSN 0167-4544.
  14. ^ Rorie, Melissa (2020). The Handbook of White-Collar Crime. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 84. ISBN 9781118774885.
  15. ^ Anzalone, Charles (28 April 1991). "White-Collar Crime Has Become Priority of Law Enforcement". Buffalo News.
  16. ^ "State's white collar convicts get lighter sentences". California Watch.
  17. ^ Williams, Phil (7 March 2018), "Transnational organized crime", Security Studies, Third edition. | New York : Routledge, 2018. |: Routledge, pp. 452–466, ISBN 978-1-315-22835-8, retrieved 19 November 2023{{citation}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  18. ^ a b O'Grady, William (2011). Crime in Canadian Context: Debates and Controversies (2 ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195433784. Retrieved 1 June 2012.
  19. ^ http://www.all-about-psychology.com/support-files/fraud_detection_homicide.pdf Fraud Detection Homicide and how to prevent it.
  20. ^ "Fatal occupational injuries by event or exposure". www.bls.gov.
  21. ^ Chun, Rene (8 September 2018). "A Shocking Number of Killers Murder Their Co-workers". The Atlantic.
  22. ^ Friedrichs, David O. (August 2002). "Occupational crime, occupational deviance, and workplace crime". Criminal Justice. 2 (3): 243–256. doi:10.1177/17488958020020030101. ISSN 1466-8025.
  23. ^ Sukumaran, Tashny (16 February 2019). "What's the deal with Jho Low, Malaysia's most wanted man?". South China Morning Post Publishers. South China Morning Post. Retrieved 25 February 2019.
  24. ^ Dodson, Kimberly D.; Klenowski, Paul M. (1 May 2016). Van Slyke, Shanna R; Benson, Michael L; Cullen, Francis T (eds.). "Who Commits White-Collar Crime, and What Do We Know About Them?". The Oxford Handbook of White-Collar Crime. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199925513.013.6. ISBN 978-0-19-992551-3.
  25. ^ Rubino, Esq. PA, Frank. "White Collar Crime - An Overview". Archived from the original on 22 August 2012. Retrieved 30 January 2012.
  26. ^ "Penalties for White Collar Crime". Blumberg & Associates. Archived from the original on 13 May 2013. Retrieved 30 January 2012.
  27. ^ Hagan, John; Parker, Patricia (1985). "White-Collar Crime and Punishment: The Class Structure and Legal Sanctioning of Securities Violations". American Sociological Review. 50 (3): 302–316. doi:10.2307/2095541. ISSN 0003-1224. JSTOR 2095541.
  28. ^ "Is China's White-Collar Death Penalty Fair?". The American Lawyer. Retrieved 30 January 2012.
  29. ^ "What is Breach of Trust in Canada?". Alexander Ejsmont. Retrieved 30 November 2013.
  30. ^ Podger, Prof. Ellen S. (21 February 2007). "Throwing Away the Key". Yale Law Journal. Retrieved 30 January 2012.
  31. ^ Barnett, Cynthia. "The Measurement of White-Collar Crime Using Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Data" (PDF). FBI.gov. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved 19 September 2023.
  32. ^ Liz Moyer, In Pictures: The Longest White-Collar Prison Sentences, Forbes (24 June 2009); Webster Groves Attorney, Clergyman Will Spend The Rest Of His Life In Prison For $56 Million Ponzi Scheme (December 12, 2012).
  33. ^ a b "White-Collar Crime: An Opportunity Perspective". Routledge & CRC Press. Retrieved 5 March 2021.
  34. ^ Roulet, Thomas J.; Pichler, Rasmus (26 November 2020). "Blame Game Theory: Scapegoating, Whistleblowing and Discursive Struggles following Accusations of Organizational Misconduct". Organization Theory. 1 (4). doi:10.1177/2631787720975192.
  35. ^ Gottschalk, Petter (2 January 2019). "Organizational convenience for white-collar crime: opportunity expansion by offender behavior". Criminal Justice Studies. 32 (1): 50–60. doi:10.1080/1478601X.2018.1534104. hdl:11250/2571795. ISSN 1478-601X. S2CID 150320253.
  36. ^ a b Khan, Roomy. "White-Collar Crimes – Motivations and Triggers". Forbes. Retrieved 5 March 2021.

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