FBI Agent Explains White Collar Crime

White collar crime usually doesn’t make headlines in your daily newspaper, but it’s threat throughout the country for businesses and consumers alike. Here’s what you need to know.

Last month was the 100th anniversary of the FBI. I feel that I was remiss in not writing a column about the FBI and their long history of combating terrorism, organized crime, espionage, human trafficking and white collar crime.

Speaking at the 100th Anniversary Commemoration in Washington D.C. on July 17th, FBI director Robert S. Mueller said that in July, 1908 the attorney general organized a group of investigators under the Justice Department. He noted that the first Bureau employees numbered just 34 — nine detectives, 13 civil rights investigators, and 12 accountants.

“Compare that to today’s FBI — a threat-based, intelligence-driven, technologically-supported agency of over 30,000 employees who are working in 56 field offices and 61 offices overseas,” Mueller said.

I’ve covered the FBI for many years and I’ve met and interviewed a good number of FBI agents – from street-level agents to senior FBI officials at FBI headquarters in Washington D.C. I’ve also met and interviewed the legendary former FBI agent Joe Pistone. Pistone, AKA Donnie Brasco, bravely infiltrated the Bonanno La Cosa Nostra organized crime family in New York for more than six years in the 1980s. His investigative work resulted in the arrest and conviction of scores of organized crime members.

I recall interviewing many FBI agents on Inside Government, a public affairs early morning radio program a few years ago. For 14 years I was one of four rotating producers and on-air hosts of the half-hour interview program. Sponsored by the Philadelphia Federal Executive Board, the program aired on two Philadelphia-area radio stations.

The FBI agents came on the air with me and we discussed espionage, organized crime, terrorism and other crimes. One guest was Tom Harrington, the Supervisory Special Agent in charge of the FBI’s economic crime squad. He came on the program to discuss white collar crime.

The first question I asked was that considering murder, rape and other violent crime, is white collar crime a serious crime?

“In my opinion it is a very serious crime and it certainly is not a victimless crime,” Harrington said. “You should meet some of the folks who have been victimized, such as the elderly being victimized in telemarketing scams, people who paid premiums for insurance and are left high and dry, employees who lose their jobs because someone in the corporation embezzled, and shareholders who invested in a company and found out it was nothing more than a scam.”

“Some of their stories are heart-wrenching. These people have lost their life savings and even their homes and businesses to con men. The white collar criminal concern us, and we try to pursue them”

How does the FBI define white collar crime?

“A text book definition is any theft of monies or assets through deceit or deception without a threat of violence. Any con game,” Harrington explained.

Is there a profile of a white collar criminal?

“I don’t think there is a profile,” Harrington responded. “It’s virtually anybody. It’s such a lucrative area that we’ve even seen drug gangs involved in check fraud, we’ve also seen gangs involved in credit card fraud, and we’ve seen organized crime involved in insurance fraud and securities fraud.”

Harrington went on to state that organized crime and gang members have drifted over to white collar crime simply because it’s very profitable.

Does it take more brains to be a white collar criminal, perhaps a little more moxie?

“It certainly takes planning and forethought – and organization – to reach some form of success as a white collar criminal,” Harrington said. “Fortunately, most of our agents are just as talented and just as aggressive in trying to pursue these people.”

“Back when I was a rookie agent in Denver, Colorado, I had a subject who was an inmate in a state correctional facility. He bilked an investment firm out of $400,000 just by using the prison phone. There are actually a few guys who can generate income from behind bars.”

Are you concerned that white collar crime does not get the media attention that violent crime receives from local and national media?

“Unfortunately that’s the nature of the business,” Harrington said. “Our cases are complex and they take a while to develop. Our average investigation takes over a year in the investigative stage. Then working through the U.S. Attorney’s office, the case is charged, and it may take another year before the person is actually brought to justice, whether it’s a trial or a plea, and then there is the sentencing.”

Harrington explained that technology is one of the greatest challenges the FBI now faces when dealing with white collar crime. The market place is globalized, he explained, and the FBI deals with con men from Canada, the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe. Fortunately, the FBI has agents in American embassies all over the world, and they are in a position to work with foreign law enforcement.

“It is a never-ending challenge for the FBI,” Harrington concluded.

The FBI warns small business people to be on watch for con artists. If you are the victim of a white collar crime, or you suspect one is being perpetrated against you, call your local police and/or the local FBI office.

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