Something I often get asked is whether more embezzlement takes place when the economy is in trouble. The answer isn’t a totally simple one, but it does show something interesting about embezzlers, so it is one that I am always happy to address.
An economic downturn puts some people in a financial bind; spouse may lose their jobs, investments devalue and falling housing prices cause homes to be “underwater” or can even make it difficult to obtain mortgage financing. All of these things exert sufficient financial pressure to cause a small minority of the population to steal.
We refer to this group as “Needy” thieves, and economic conditions certainly increase their numbers. However, we shouldn’t forget that there is another cohort, which we label as “Greedy”. Unlike the Needy, these people aren’t stealing to survive — they are stealing to purchase luxury items that they feel that they “deserve” but can’t afford on what you pay them. We’ve watched these people purchase everything from $150,000 automobiles to boats to lavishing expensive gifts on their friends.
Members of this group believe that society (and in particular their employer) underappreciate their talents and value. Stealing is their way of addressing this perceived inequity and tacitly demonstrating how smart they are.
I’ll mention two things about this group — they seem to be much larger than the Needy — approximately 80% of the embezzlement we find involves Greedy thieves. Second, the “lifestyle gap” that they perceive widens in a booming economy — they see others “getting ahead” faster than they are, and this motivates them to embezzle.
So, contrary to what you may have thought, we see more embezzlement in a recovering economy than one in downturn, but it involves a different group of embezzlers.