Editorial: Collaring costly crimes

  • Posted: Tuesday, January 15, 2013 12:01 a.m.

Mention crime and people tend to think of burglaries, robberies, assaults, hit-and-run accidents or — in the worst case — homicides. It’s no coincidence those are also the crimes that generate the most headlines and newscast air time, whether it’s a sensational murder case or an annual review of local crime rates like the story in Monday’s Post.

But justice department officials in North Carolina and elsewhere are increasingly concerned about — and focusing more resources on — crimes of the “white collar” variety. That term covers a lot of ground, including embezzlement from a baking company or a sheriff’s office or fraudulent Medicaid claims, to cite three recent local cases. Other frequent schemes involve banking and mortgage fraud, money laundering, counterfeiting and identity theft.

In North Carolina, the state’s Conference of District Attorneys has just launched a new initiative aimed at white-collar crime. Funded with $6.7 million fom the state’s portion of the 2012 National Mortgage Settlement, the initiative will assemble a team of regional prosecutors with expertise in white-collar crime, which can require time-consuming examination of financial records. With forensic accounting experts backtracking over trails of paperwork, it’s a CPA’s version of “CSI.”

“Financial crime prosecution is intricate and difficult,” N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper said in announcing the new initiative. That’s why those cases often get “pushed to the side of a prosecutor’s desk.”

Sensational cases like the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme or Enron give the impression that white-collar crime typically involves high finance and high rollers, not the typical “little guy.” But the bulk of white-collar crime doesn’t rise to that rarified level. Instead, it may involve smaller sums embezzled from senior citizens or other trusting souls.

White-collar crimes usually don’t involve violence, but that doesn’t mean they’re victimless. They can drain their victims’ retirement savings or, in a case recently profiled on the CNBC program “American Greed,” bilk tens of thousands of dollars from couples trying to adopt a child. In addition to damaging individuals, businesses and institutions, these crimes also take a big bite out of the economy. Because of the clandestine nature of white-collar crime, it’s difficult to put a firm figure on its overall cost. But reputable sources, including the FBI, put the annual U.S. tally at anywhere from $200 billion to $500 billion a year.

Combatting white-collar crime requires additional resources. That investment will be worth it if prosecutors can make a significant dent in the damages. In addition to saving billions of dollars, reducing these crimes would help spare unsuspecting citizens a lot of stress and anguish.

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