Thursday, May 19, 2011

White collar crime and feelings of entitlement

Myths surrounding white collar criminals

In "The Perils of Fraud Detection", an article published recently in The Forensic Examiner, Frank Perri exposes misperceptions about white collar criminals. Generally they are regarded as "one-shot" offenders. They have the reputation of being "'good people' who committed a 'bad act'". You might have in your mind characters from the comedy "Office Space", who fantasized about and then carried out an embezzlement scheme against their "evil" employer that quickly got out of hand, with humorous results and one-liners about prison rape.

In fact, according to Perri, white collar criminals are often repeat offenders and share the same attitudes toward crime as non-white collar criminals. The article reviews six cases in which individuals under investigation for fraud or embezzlement committed murder in the attempt to avoid detection. In one case, the head of a diamond company fabricated invoices to get advance payments and then hired a hitman to kill co-workers who could implicate him. Perri is clear that such cases are rare, yet they shatter the myth that white-collar criminals are innately nonviolent or otherwise averse to criminal behavior.

The article then describes warning signs that can be used to spot potential for workplace violence, using profiles of white-collar criminals. Personality traits he warns of include: "blames others for his or her problems, displays a sense of entitlement, exploitative, egocentric, grandiosity, difficulty taking criticism, and feels victimized." Offenders believe that they are entitled to commit fraud and feel victimized when that entitlement is challenged. Narcissistic psychopaths are more likely to then retaliate with violence or homicide.

I should call special attention to feelings of entitlement and victimization, which appear common among the criminal population, as explored in a previous post. Also, in Inside the Criminal Mind, Stanton Samenow described an exchange with a teenage delinquent he believed was characteristic of the criminal's lack of empathy for their victims. The teen had robbed a bank at gunpoint. Because he had not fired the gun, he could not understand that any harm was caused.
Even though he knew full well that he had done something very wrong, serious enough to land him in detention and perhaps to be tried as an adult, he did not think of himself as having inflicted any real harm. From his perspective, he was the only true victim because he was incarcerated.

Entitlement mentality vs. Strain theory

Strain theory is one popular explanation of criminal activity. The theory argues that crime is the result of inequalities of wealth and opportunity. An individual commits a crime, according to this theory, in order to satisfy universal needs and wants. Because of his own poverty or due to prejudices in society, he lacks access to education and high paying work. He sees others living richly - driving expensive cars, wearing expensive clothes, using the latest gadgets – and is frustrated that his own position keeps him from having these things. Since he cannot pursue these comforts by legitimate means, he resorts to crime.

Yet millions of dollars are extorted and embezzled by highly educated men who are themselves symbols of “white privilege”, who had the opportunities to earn wealth legitimately but took to crime instead. In fact, in their capacity for manipulation and violence they have more in common with their street crime cousins than with coworkers.

The mindset of white collar criminals seriously discredits the notion that crime is a phenomenon of "the poor" inviting economic explanations. Whatever a person's income, they may choose to earn their way honestly or take the "shortcut" to wealth by stealing from others. Just as crime models based on family breakdown cannot explain why one child of abusive parents turns to crime while another does not, strain theory is unable to explain why most residents in poor neighborhoods do not become robbers and thieves despite suffering the same conditions. The common denominator of criminal behavior here is not income or social barriers or prejudices, but lack of personal responsibility for ones own actions, and feelings of entitlement to the work and property of others.