Why white collar criminals often get away

Why do so many white collar criminals get away with their crimes?

White collar crime isn't as dramatic and clear-cut as violent crime, but its financial impact is much larger. The federal Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which investigated the causes of the Great Recession, concluded that along with financial regulation failures and breakdowns in corporate governance, "systemic breaches in accountability and ethics at all levels" played a large part in the crisis.

And yet, few if any of the financial executives criticized for their part in the economic meltdown were prosecuted, much less convicted.

Fraud, con jobs, theft and embezzlement reportedly cost U.S. taxpayers between $300 billion and $600 billion annually - compared to the $100 billion generated by the illegal drug trade.

A decade ago Joseph Wells, founder and chair of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, pointed out that while "Junk Bond King" Michael Milken's illegal earnings in the late 1980s amounted to over $1 billion, he served less than two years in a federal prison.

In comparison, Wells noted, "a thug with a gun holding up a financial institution usually will net less than $5,000 and typically will serve at least five years behind bars. Anyone can perform the simple arithmetic involved in that crime formula."

One of the major obstacles in combating white collar crime is the time and resources needed to investigate such activities - especially when it comes to following the money trail.

"White collar crime is way down the list in terms of closed cases," says Susan Deehan, Chair and CEO of Actionable Intelligence Technology (ATI), a developer and supplier of financial investigation systems. "The reason for this is not inattention or indifference on the part of law enforcement, but the complexity of white collar crime and the difficulty of making and proving a case."

The best deterrent is for companies to have strong internal financial integrity practices, "reviewed by external independent auditors who are properly educated, skilled, trained and experienced," Sam Antar, a former CPA and convicted white collar criminal, writes on his White Collar Fraud web site. "Strong internal controls create barriers to crime and result in the increased integrity of financial information."

And last month the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a department in the federal judiciary, voted to amend its current guidelines and increase sentences in white collar crime cases.

"These amendments emphasize financial harms to victims rather than simply the mere number of victims," Patti Saris, the commission's chair, said in a press release.