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What are white collar crimes?

On Behalf of | Apr 12, 2021 | Criminal Defense |

If faced with prosecution for allegedly committing a white collar crime, be sure to read the charging document carefully so you understand exactly what crime(s) law enforcement officials believe you committed. Also make sure you understand which government, state or federal, is prosecuting you.

“White collar crime” is an umbrella term that applies to a whole range of fraud and fraud-related crimes. The underlying accusation is that you fraudulently obtained someone’s personal property, usually a form of money, and then converted that property to your own use, advantage or personal gain.

White collar crime examples

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which investigates all federal-level white collar crimes, lists these as the most common:

  • Embezzlement
  • Money laundering
  • Identity theft
  • Health care fraud
  • Intellectual property theft
  • Ponzi schemes

Less often, you read about high-profile prosecutions for white collar crimes such as mail fraud, insider trading, misuse of public funds and RICO violations, i.e, those prosecuted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

Origin of term

Prominent 20th Century sociologist Edwin Sutherland coined the term “white collar crime” in the 1930s. He defined it as one “committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of their occupation.”

Keep in mind that during this period in our history, the dress code for highly respected businessmen – few businesswomen existed at the time – always wore long-sleeved white shirts under their dark-colored three-piece suits. Hence, when they used their positions for illegal purposes, they committed white collar crimes.

Obviously women have entered the business world, including its upper echelons, since the 1930s, and business attire has become considerably less formal. Nevertheless, the term “white collar crime” has stuck.