If I were to mention crime, most people would picture a man (possibly of dark skin) hiding in an alleyway ready to jump out and steal your wallet. Or perhaps a burglar who sneaks into your house at night to steal your television. Or someone who will break into your car and steal it because you parked it in a bad area. Or a shifty looking teenager shoplifting from the local corner store. However, there is a type of crime that is greater than all of these combined. A crime not committed by poor ethnic minorities, but by wealthy white professional in offices. A crime committed not by the desperate underclass but by the elites of society. A crime that costs society more than all other thefts combined, yet rarely results in prosecution. I am talking about white collar crime.
White collar crimes costs an estimated $600-750 billion dollars in America or roughly 5% of GDP. This massive cost is more than all other crimes combined. Let me repeat that. White collar crime does more damage to society than all forms of stealing and violence combined. Contrary to the common perception, the most dangerous criminal is not a youth in a hoody, but a middle aged man in a suit. The biggest hot spots for crime are not the ghettoes, but the financial districts. It is not in council estates, but commercial offices that most criminals spend their time.
There are two reasons why white collar crime gets so little attention from either the media or the judiciary system. Firstly, unlike other crimes, it is relatively unseen. No physical force is used and no one physically takes money out of the victims’ pockets. It is nowhere near as visible as muggings or shoplifting even if far more money is involved. Often the victims don’t even know they have been robbed. It is extremely difficult to find evidence and prove someone guilty of white collar crime. The second and more cynical reason is due to the type of people who commit white collar crime. They are not poor minorities but rather wealthy professionals in well connected corporations. They are the elite and use their influence to divert attention. The poor on the other hand, have no such protection and so it is far easy to penalise burglars and petty thieves than corporations and their army of lawyers.
A major feature of white collar crime is the low reporting of it. It was estimated that 88% of white collar crime is not reported to the police. Most of the time people do not realise they are a victim. In this sense, white collar crime is a silent danger. Even when people realise they have been scammed, the stigma of guilt prevents them from going to the police. Many are afraid they will be ridiculed or blamed for their gullibility. Instead victims self-blame, believing it was their own fault they were tricked and have no one to blame but themselves. As white collar crime is not as straight forward as street crime, people are unclear over where they stand with the law and fail to prosecute even when it is in within their rights.
There is a notable disparity between punishment of street crime and white collar crime. A street robbery of a couple hundred dollars from a corner shop carries the same sentence (18 months to two years) as that of a million dollar scam. Were someone to rob one million dollars in an armed robbery, they would get ten years. Huge resources are poured into tackling highly visible crimes involving low amounts of money, like muggings, while far less attention is paid to hidden crimes that net millions. This leads to a dual justice system where crimes that are equally damaging to society receive vastly disproportionate punishments. This can lead to complaints (even by judges), that there is one law for the rich and one for the poor. White collar criminals can afford better lawyers than street criminals which partly explains how they receive far more lenient sentences.
Getting tough on crime is a promise that is regularly made by politicians. It is usually interpreted to mean more police in the ghetto, more harassment of youths and even racial profiling. However, this misses the shark beneath the water. The financial crisis gave us a glimpse of the extent of fraud and theft committed by respected elites that far dwarfed the pickings of a street corner gang. If we really wanted to get tough on crime, we would send the police to the banks and commercial centres where the big money crime happens. We should no longer be distracted by the visible street crimes involving small amounts of money. Instead we need to focus on the other kind of crime, the one committed by middle class white men in suits. They are not the stereotypical criminals, but then again, things are rarely as they first appear.