Profile of a white-collar criminal

by Janette Minnaar


White-collar crime is not a new phenomenon, but it has escalated dramatically during the past decade. One cannot study white-collar crime without looking at the profile of the offender. It is clearly relevant to establish what distinguishes fraudulent employees from honest workers and what motivates the former to commit illegal behaviour.

Prof Sandra Joubert  states that the three most outstanding features of white-collar offenders are their capabilities to be intelligent and manipulative and the fact that they do not see themselves as criminals.  These criminals believe that they are merely using the system to their advantage and, in the main, do not even have any direct contact with the victim.

White-collar criminals do not commit the crime because of their social status, or because they are impoverished, but because they have the opportunity. Their planning and execution are very rational, leaving as few clues as possible.

 At times, white-collar criminals also become slightly irrational, such as when they have obtained the money and start boasting about their crime. No specific generic composition or social background can predict who will be a white-collar criminal.

The most common denominator of all white-collar criminals is greed. Owing to a weak societal value system, many are trying to accumulate material things at almost any cost. Greedy people believe that everyone commits fraud in some sense. Greed affects all professional walks of life, including politics, medicine, the legal system and business enterprises. A sound reputation has become far less important than money, because criminals have started falsely to believe that it is the only way to obtain happiness.

Crimes are committed when people are of the opinion that the advantages of breaking the law outweigh the threat of punishment.


It is now generally accepted that the social status of a white-collar offender is drawn from a broad spectrum and does not include only rich, wealthy and elite people.  From a study done by Hagan  in the USA it was clear that many offenders are in fact of low status. Hagan says, “in none of the districts does the prosecution of white-collar crimes predominantly involve what might conventionally be regarded as white-collar persons”. His studies further revealed that employers and managers formed a minority of offenders, although the amounts stolen by them represented the largest percentage of the funds that disappeared.


The possibility of financial gain seems to be the strongest motivational factor in white-collar crime.  The pressure on individuals to obtain greater economic wealth is very strong and people will cross the barrier between the legal and the illegal to perform according to social norms.

An example is a manager of a company whose comparative financial failures and frustration with the business or financial problems at home could provide the necessary motivation to commit a crime. The same applies when such a person is overly enthusiastic in what he or she believes will improve his or her career chances. Nick Leeson of Barings Bank is a good example in this regard.


An important contributing factor to white-collar crime is what criminologists describe as relative deprivation. This is the psychological distance between that which a person owns at present and that which the person believes he or she deserves.

In other words, there are often discrepancies between what material possessions a person has and what that person wants. Such persons may underestimate their ability to reach financial success and this might prompt them to commit crimes for financial gain.

Greed and relative deprivation often go hand in hand. White-collar crime offenders believe that they deserve a better standard of living and that, if their neighbour has a good lifestyle, that they should be entitled to the same standard of living.


A criminal also uses what is called neutralising to justify his or her crime. In essence, offenders rationalise their wrongful actions so that they do not have to see themselves as abnormal or as a criminals. To them, the crime seems to be almost without a victim.

Many business people would never describe themselves as criminals, even though they might admit that what they did was illegal. If they can rationalise their crime, they seem to be able to maintain their self-respect.


There is a fine line between entrepreneurship and flair on the one hand and sharp practice and fraud on the other. If caught, offenders routinely deny that they intended any harm and argue that it was someone else’s fault, or that it was an isolated incident in an otherwise respectable career.


It is clear that white-collar crime is a complex issue. A number of factors may contribute to the unsuccessful prosecution of white-collar criminals. Because these types of offender do not see themselves as criminals in the true sense of the word, the community and the business world may also not be taking these crimes seriously enough. Furthermore, the (usually) non-violent character of white-collar crimes makes them  socially less “offensive”. This, combined with to the hidden nature of white-collar crime, complicates the task of prosecutors.

Unfortunately, internal fraud remains one of the most serious threats to the long-term health and viability of companies. The damage caused by white-collar crimes is far reaching, which justifies the severe punishment that such criminals should receive.

Janette Minnaar

August 2008
Tel: 012 342-2799
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