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white-collar crime. Specifically, it will focus on white-collar crime in America, including reasons why it occurs so frequently in the United States, and what business, industry, and the courts can do to combat it. White-collar crime is not a new idea in America, but it seems to have become even more prevalent in recent years. White-collar crime may not seem as harmful as other forms of violent crimes, but it seem to be more pervasive in a society that has become increasingly centered on money, possessions, and appearing affluent and successful. It is possible to control white-collar crime, but that control must begin in the colleges and courtrooms of America.
In the scheme of social history, the term "white-collar crime" is relatively new. Sociologist Edwin Sutherland actually coined the phrase in 1939 at an American Sociological Society conference (Weisburd, Waring & Chayet, 2001, p. 1). He used the phrase to help differentiate between the accepted model of the criminal at the time, who was stereotypically a member of the poor class living in decaying and underprivileged neighborhoods, usually in the inner city. Sutherland's term acknowledged there were other types of criminals who had other agendas. According to authors Weisburd, Waring, and Chayet, Sutherland's criminals were far different, and showed far different motives. In his conference speech, he notes, "The white-collar criminals he identified were often middle-aged men of respectability and high social status. They lived in affluent neighborhoods, and they were well respected in the community" (Weisburd, Waring & Chayet, 2001, p. 2). Sutherland's model became the norm for identifying white-collar criminals, but little study was done by the criminal justice community, because most experts believed white-collar criminals were usually one-time offenders who had few, if any, recurring appearances in the criminal justice system. As crime has matured, so has the understanding of the white-collar criminal, and so has the awareness that many of these white-collar offenders are habitual offenders. Understanding why they commit their crimes can lead to a greater understanding of white-collar crime in America today.
Clearly, most white-collar crime is monetarily related. Fraud, money laundering, securities violations, identify theft, and embezzlement all are rooted in money. Most white-collar criminals just cannot seem to get enough. The numbers of white-collar crimes committed every year are staggering, as this author notes, "One in three American households are victims of white-collar crime, yet just 41% actually report it. Of those reported, a mere 21% made it into the hands of a law enforcement or consumer protection agency" (Johnston, 2002). This is another reason white-collar crime is such an important issue in America today. It touches millions of households each year, and the numbers are growing, and yet, it seems like one area where law enforcement is simply not keeping up with the occurrences.
Much of the problem with white-collar crime exists throughout our modern society. Money and possessions are some of the most important icons of success, and these cultural icons are expensive. Some white-collar criminals feel pressure to keep up with their peers, their neighbors, and their friends financially. When they cannot, they resort to "victimless" crimes such as defrauding their insurance company, embezzling from their employer, or creating a software program that diverts small amounts of money into their checking account. All of these crimes seem relatively harmless, but they are so common that thousands of nationwide businesses and individuals suffer from them every day. As long as there is pressure to succeed and pressure to possess, there will be a segment of society who feels they must succeed at any cost, even if it means committing white-collar crime.
One way to combat white-collar crime is to begin teaching personal and business ethics at a young age. Many colleges and universities no longer include business ethics as a part of the business curriculum, and many others have glossed over it for so long that it barely exists. Teaching a strong ethical base and behavior throughout the educational system could help create a more ethical and moral generation of businesspeople and leaders. In addition, there need to be much stronger penalties for ethics violations and other types of white-collar crime. Often, the penalty is a fine, restitution, and/or community service. The punishments need to be stricter, especially with re-offenders, and the American people need to understand that white-collar crime is simply not acceptable or tolerated in society and the court system.
Perhaps one of the biggest areas of current concern in white-collar crime is the profusion of cyber and Internet related crimes occurring around the world. Many of these white-collar criminals, who unleash computer viruses and steal data and identities, are located in the United States, and there is even a government-funded center, the National White-Collar Crime Center, that focuses on these electronic crimes and teaches law enforcement agencies how to identify and control these white-collar cyber crimes. Their Web site even includes an online form where consumers and businesspeople can report instances of Internet crime. Instructors deliver their training nationwide, and the training includes both online and classroom-based instruction. That a national white-collar task force is available to U.S. law enforcement agencies is a testament to the growth and prevalence of white-collar cyber crimes in our society. Some of the types of crime they cover include check fraud, computer crimes, identity theft, cyberstalking, credit card and insurance fraud, employee embezzlement and theft, money laundering, organized crime, and securities, health care, and elderly fraud (Editors, 2005). All of these white-collar crimes and more happen every day in American society, and they seem so common that many people simply take them for granted today.
Combating white-collar crime is not easy. Often, white-collar criminals are not habitual criminals, they are simply working Americans who see an opportunity in front of them, and take it. One-time white-collar criminals who embezzle from their employers, commit check fraud, or defraud an insurance, health care, or credit card company may be this type of criminal. Normally, they would not consider committing any type of crime, but when the opportunity is right in front of them, they make take "advantage" of it. This type of white-collar criminal is essentially the kind of criminal that the court systems and criminal justice system can deal with effectively. They receive a sentence, they serve it, complete community service, and do not offend again.
However, a majority of white-collar crimes today are more planned, more complex, and much more devastating. These include identity theft, where the criminal locates personal information and uses it to gain credit and spend money under an assumed name. Another type of white-collar crime prevalent today is Internet fraud, where criminals sell items or services over the Internet, and never actually send the items paid for. These types of white-collar crime are much more serious and can have devastating results to the victims, and there are often a high number of victims. Still another form of high-profile white-collar crime is high-level corporate abuse or abuse of power (the Enron debacle is an excellent example of high-level corporate abuse and white-collar crime). High profile cases such as these help the American people see how prevalent white-collar crime can be, and why it must be curtailed and controlled. This type of crime has more than one victim and long-term affects to society, culture and the American economy.
Another problem with combating white-collar crime is the low rate of reporting. Many Americans simply do not see much of white-collar crime as a "crime," and so victims do not report the incidents. To combat these crimes law enforcement agencies must know they exist and Americans must be educated to understand the importance of reporting these crimes. Author Johnston continues, "One reason [individuals do not report white-collar crime] may be that they may not have initially considered the offenses…[continue]
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