III. Characteristics and Techniques of White-Collar Crime
White-collar crime can be found in all types of businesses, industries, occupations, and professions. Hence, it comes in a large variety of forms and styles. All white-collar crimes, however, share certain characteristics and are committed using particular techniques. These characteristics and techniques distinguish white-collar crimes from most forms of traditional street crime. Three characteristics of white-collar crime are particularly important: (1) The offender has legitimate access to the target or victim of the crime on the basis of an occupational position; (2) the offender is spatially separated from the victim; and (3) the offender’s actions have a superficial appearance of legality.
Legitimate access means that white-collar offenders do not have to solve a problem that most predatory offenders confront—the problem of getting close to the target. For example, before a burglar can steal something from a home, he or she must first gain access to the home by somehow entering it. This is usually done by using force to break in a door or window. Breaking in creates additional risk of exposure for the offender. White-collar offenders, on the other hand, are not exposed to this additional risk because their occupational roles give them legitimate access to the targets of their crimes. For example, because of their occupational positions, bank employees have legitimate access to other people’s money and can embezzle it without breaking into their homes or physically confronting them on the street. Similarly, in many other forms of white-collar crime such as securities violations, antitrust violations, and health care frauds, the perpetrators take advantage of their occupational roles to get access to the targets of their crime.
In many white-collar crimes, the offenders never directly confront or come in contact with their victims. Rather, they are spatially separated from victims. Consider, for example, the antitrust violation of price fixing. Illegal price fixing occurs when competitors in an industry get together and collude to set prices for their products or services, as opposed to having prices determined by free and open competition in the marketplace. The victims of price fixing often are members of the general public, who have to pay more for goods and services than they would if prices were set by competition. The victims are never contacted directly by the perpetrators.
Perhaps the most troublesome aspect of white-collar crime is the superficial appearance of legitimacy. When a burglar breaks into a home, or an auto thief steals a vehicle, or any of the other traditional street crimes occurs, the fact that a crime has occurred is obvious. The offender’s actions leave visible traces of the crime (e.g., the broken door and missing television), and the offender’s actions can clearly be recognized as illegal by observers. In the case of the vast majority of white-collar crimes, however, the offender’s actions are not obviously illegal. Indeed, at first glance they look entirely legitimate, and the fact that a crime may have occurred is not obvious. For example, a common form of health care fraud engaged in by physicians is billing insurance providers for services that were not rendered to patients. To commit the crime, the physician simply submits a form to the insurance provider, often either the federal Medicare or Medicaid program, in which he or she claims to have administered some service to a patient that in reality was never provided. If the fraudulent claim is not detected and the physician is paid by the insurance provider, then the crime of health care fraud has occurred. Since literally millions of such forms are submitted legally every day, on the surface nothing is obviously out of the ordinary or untoward about the physician’s actions. Indeed, the physician’s behavior looks perfectly normal and legitimate.