Crime doesn't always happen on dark street corners, and criminals don't always wear ski masks. Some of the most devastating criminal deeds in recent history have been of the "white-collar" variety. Although white-collar crime differs in style and execution from street crime, the long-term effects on victims can be just as damaging. Commonly, "white collar crime" refers to a nonviolent crime motivated primarily by financial gain.
The term "white-collar crime" originated with Sociologist Edwin Sutherland in 1939. At that time, the term was used to describe a criminal act committed by people of high social status in their occupation. Although the term suggests that the offender is a professional, it may also refer to the actual crime committed. A blue-collar criminal could commit a white-collar crime, if the crime is economically motivated or committed against a financial or commercial institution.
A primary difference between street crime and white-collar crime is the lack of violence. White-collar crimes are typically committed in commercial settings and often involve lengthy and complicated financial transactions. Some of the most commonly prosecuted white-collar crimes are fraud, embezzlement, tax evasion, bribery and money laundering.
Criminologists have compared those convicted of white-collar crimes versus street crimes. Women, minorities and the poor are less likely to commit a white-collar crime, and white-collar offenders are typically affluent white men.
While violent crime has an economic impact on communities, white-collar crime can have a disastrous effect on society. The FBI estimates that white-collar crimes cost the U.S. more than £195 billion dollars every year. In addition, economic experts have reported that the housing bubble that plunged the U.S. economy into the worst recession on record was in large part caused by fraudulent practices in the housing appraisal industry.
The last decade has been filled with high-profile white-collar prosecutions. The most highly publicised include former Enron chief executive Jeffrey Skilling. Convicted in 2006 of fraud, insider trading and conspiracy, Skilling was sentenced to 24 years in prison. Bernard Ebbers, former chief executive of telecommunications company WorldCom, was convicted in 2005 in a multibillion-dollar scam that included falsifying the company's financial records. He was sentenced to 25 years.
Perhaps the most notorious of all white-collar convicts, Bernard Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison in 2009 after admitting to stealing billions of dollars from investors. Authorities estimate close to £11 billion dollars was lost to Madoff during the course of his 20-year fraud.