What are white-collar crimes, and how can I protect myself against them?
July 1978

“What are white-collar crimes, and how can I protect myself against them?” Ensign, July 1978, 32–33

I have been hearing about white-collar crime in the news. What are white-collar crimes, and how can I protect myself against them?

Ronald Todd, Chief Special Agent, Utah Attorney General’s Office, Economic Crime Unit, and instructor in law enforcement and justice administration at BYU It would be well if everyone shared your concern, since white-collar crime is an estimated forty-billion-dollar a year business in America and may be the fastest growing crime in the United States as well as in many other nations. White-collar crime usually refers to the illegal activities of con artists who try to get money for investments on false pretenses; but in a broader sense, it is any form of dishonesty that does not depend on force for its profits. President Spencer W. Kimball, speaking in October conference, 1976, spoke directly to this point:

“We find ourselves rationalizing in all forms of dishonesty, including shoplifting, which is a mean, low act indulged in by millions who claim to be honorable, decent people.

“Dishonesty comes in many other forms: … in playing upon private love and emotions for filthy lucre; in robbing money tills or stealing commodities of employers; in falsifying accounts; in taking advantage of other taxpaying people by misuse of food stamps and false claims; in taking unreal exemptions; in taking out government or private loans without intent to repay; in declaring unjust, improper bankruptcies to avoid repayment of loans; … in stealing time, giving less than a full day of honest labor for a full day’s compensation; in riding public transportation without paying the fare; and in all forms of dishonesty in all places and in all conditions.

“To all thieveries and dishonest acts, the Lord says, ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ Four short common words He used. Perhaps He wearied of the long list He could have made of ways to steal, misrepresent, and take advantage, and He covered all methods of taking that which does not properly belong to one by saying, ‘Thou shalt not steal.’” (Ensign, November 1976, p. 6.)

All of these things President Kimball has mentioned are forms of robbery without violence. Because the con artist’s work is also nonviolent, it is sometimes extremely hard to detect and stop, especially because the victim—the person who has most to gain from helping to stop such crimes—will frequently never come forward to tell what he knows and begin legal proceedings. There are at least three reasons for his silence: (1) others will learn of his gullibility, greed, or poor judgment; (2) his association with the con artist will be made public; (3) he thinks he won’t get his money back if the con artist goes to jail. (Actually, the threat of jail is what usually persuades the con man to return the money.)

Unfortunately, just because a person is a member of the Church doesn’t guarantee that he won’t be involved in white-collar crime—either as the victim, lured into the trap by the prospects of a quick dollar, or as the perpetrator of the fraud, also enticed by the prospect of easy money. In fact, there are cases where dishonest men have traded on their membership in the Church to create trust in their victims. And many Saints are all too ready to believe a convincing story from a “good” member of the Church without checking it.

President Harold B. Lee once exclaimed, “It never ceases to amaze me how gullible some of our Church members are,” and quoted from a First Presidency statement that, among other cautions, warned, “‘No person has the right to induce his fellow members of the Church to engage in speculations or take stock in ventures of any kind on the specious claim of divine revelation or vision or dream, especially when it is in opposition to the voice of recognized authority, local or general.’” (Ensign, Jan. 1973, p. 105.)

No perfect protection exists against white-collar crime, but you should learn to recognize some of the characteristics of the crime, the criminal, and the victim. Then you should consider how you might compare with the victim, and, yes, even the criminal.

The white-collar crime involves a breach of trust—either a direct lie or misrepresentation by behavior or silence when there is a duty to speak. The most frequent crimes are stock fraud, land fraud, embezzlement, bribery, tax fraud, medical fraud, etc. Sometimes they’re tough to spot because they may be disguised within the framework of an otherwise legitimate business or venture. If you are approached about a business deal that arouses your suspicions, talk to people in that field. If you don’t feel you can do that because the business requires a certain amount of secrecy (not all secrecy is a sign of illegality), discuss it with a reputable lawyer—especially if you are unacquainted with the way business is usually done in that particular field.

The white-collar criminal may be a first-time offender, like the bank clerk who finds money too accessible, or a professional figure in organized crime. Traditionally, he uses a pen instead of a gun to rob the public. He is often above average in education, may even occupy a prominent position in the community, and is frequently described as charming. One characteristic, usually well-disguised, is his thoroughgoing selfishness. His family, his friends, his membership in civic organizations, even his church membership are all elements he uses to maintain respectability and credibility. Many of these people seem to lack any scruples and actually seem to enjoy defrauding their victims as thoroughly and as often as possible, rather than just robbing them and forgetting them.

If you’re approached for a business deal that involves your money, do not feel that you are unduly suspicious if you check with the man’s business associates and personal acquaintances to see what kind of person you are dealing with. You have that right. You should also be wary when you’re singled out for an incredible deal by someone you hardly know. Be aware of the points where you’re susceptible to flattery; just discussing the situation with your family or trusted friends will frequently restore perspective.

The victim, in fact, often lets the con artist wield substantial influence over him. Some victims, even after learning how they have been duped and knowing that they face personal ruin, still continue to believe in the con man. Unfortunately, the victims’ wives and children usually suffer from this misplaced loyalty; bankruptcy is not an uncommon result.

The con man’s charismatic personality explains part of the devotion, but the victim’s own gullibility, greed, and dishonesty are frequently to blame. The con man always appears to be on the verge of pulling off some fantastic deal that will bring him and his associates untold wealth, but the victim must be patient, loyal, and above all, uncomplaining, since an investigation might jeopardize the venture—invested funds would be lost and so would the expected profits. Benjamin Franklin summarized this situation neatly by saying that he was not as concerned about getting a return on his investment as he was in getting the return of his investment.

The Lord wanted his disciples to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” (Matt. 10:16.) Acts of charity should be based on knowledge, not deceit. Perhaps the place to stop this tidal wave of white-collar crime is with the individual. Let each person ask: Where are my priorities? What kingdom am I seeking first? Any dishonesty, even if no one finds out, admits that we do not believe or do not care—that God is truly all-seeing and all-knowing. As members of the Church and good citizens of the community, we must be honest ourselves, and we should not allow anyone else to be dishonest at our expense.