Criminal Law

White-Collar Crime Definition

What Is White Collar Crime?

White-collar crime describes a range of criminal activity that is non-violent and done for financial gain. An informal term without a set legal definition, white-collar crime may involve liquid assets (i.e. money), real estate, property, services, securities, stocks, and other assets.

The top white-collar crimes are:

The term comes from the standard white-collared business shirt and ties worn by office workers and management.

Key Takeaways

  • If a crime involves weapons, deadly force, assault, threats, or any other violent actions, it is no longer solely a white-collar crime.
  • The typical ways to commit a white-collar crime are lying, concealing, exaggerating, downplaying risk, or misrepresenting the situation, finances, or claims.
  • There are also "blue-collar crimes" that involve a more hands-on approach, such as theft, shoplifting, or violent crimes.

Understanding White-Collar Crime

White-collar crime is an informal catchall term, not the name of a specific crime. Because of this, white-collar crime encompasses a wide variety of criminal activity. The common denominator is that it is a non-violent crime perpetrated for financial gain.

While non-violent, state and federal law treat these crimes seriously. Both federal and state authorities routinely investigate and prosecute people and organizations engaged in financial crimes. The penalties will depend on the exact crime and how much money is involved, but many white-collar crimes are felonies that carry significant prison time. Perhaps the most famous example is Bernie Madoff, who was sentenced to 150 years in prison for his multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme that spanned decades.

The leading organizations investigate white-collar crime are:

While the IRS works to enforce compliance with the federal code, they investigate any reported criminal activities and partner with these other organizations.

Most white-collar crimes have an element of "self dealing." This is where the person with fiduciary responsibility for an asset breaches the trust placed in them and acts in their own best interest. A typical example of this is insider trading.

Penalties include jail or prison time, fines, and paying back the money taken from a person or company.

Corporate Fraud

Corporate fraud is sometimes considered the most complex white-collar crime. It can run through large corporations or government organizations, span countries, and involve millions — or even billions — of dollars. Crimes at this scale can affect the economy, change investor patterns, and bring significant losses to employees and investors.

Crimes like this may have many moving parts, such as making false documents, keeping false records, falsifying reports and data, incorrect valuations, and numerous people playing in the scheme.

While most white-collar crimes have elements of these crimes, corporate fraud tends to be the most significant scale.

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