Crime

There are no easy answers in combating employee embezzlement

Greed.

That’s the simple explanation.

But unraveling the mystery of why otherwise law-abiding people steal large sums of money from their employers is often a more complicated endeavor.

Businesses — big and small — around the Kansas City area certainly are not immune to the crime one victim called “gut-wrenching.”

Just Wednesday, a former bookkeeper for a family-owned business in Tonganoxie, Kan., appeared in court to plead no contest to stealing $110,000 to $300,000.

Dorothy Kay Lean, 56, was found guilty of writing unauthorized checks to herself from McGraw Fertilizer for more than four years.

So far in 2016, there have been several cases in the Kansas City area involving thefts of more than $1 million.

“There is no typical profile,” said Terrence Shulman, a consultant and author of the book “Biting The Hand That Feeds: The Employee Theft Epidemic.”

They tend to be the people who are most trusted by their employers, Shulman said.

“Often it is the star employee walking out in handcuffs,” he said.

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Employee embezzlement costs American companies billions of dollars each year, experts say.

In one of the Kansas City area cases, an accountant for a Mission-based financial services company admitted taking more than $4 million.

Thomas Hauk of Overland Park pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Kansas City and is awaiting sentencing.

In another federal case in Kansas City, a Lee’s Summit woman is charged with embezzling large sums of money from two of her previous employers — Garmin and Black & Veatch.

Patricia Webb allegedly stole a combined $1.5 million from the two companies. She was employed in their payroll departments.

While those who investigate fraud cases say there is no typical profile of perpetrators, they have identified three common factors in embezzlement cases.

John Gill, vice president of education for the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, said the “fraud triangle” was developed in the 1950s in one of the first studies of people who steal from their employers.

The factors can be broken into three main areas: financial pressure, opportunity and rationalization.

Perpetrators feel some sort of financial pressure, either real or perceived.

Sometimes they may be faced with a situation where a change in circumstances has them facing a lowering of lifestyle that they are not willing to accept, he said.

Or sometimes it may be something like a new baby in the family or the need to pay college tuition or medical bills.

Those who tend to steal are usually in positions with opportunity. They often are people entrusted with more than one step in a company’s financial process. For instance, they may be the person issuing checks to vendors and responsible for recording those transactions in the company books.

That’s particularly the case in small and medium businesses, Gill said.

“If one person has too much control, they can take money and hide the theft,” he said.

In order to justify their illegal activity, perpetrators try to rationalize the theft by telling themselves that the company can afford it. Or they may start out small with the intention of paying the money back.

“They’re not career criminals and they have to sleep at night,” Gill said. “They have to justify to themselves that they’re not a bad person.”

Often they feel some type of resentment or jealousy because the person who had the job before them was paid more or because they are doing it for their children or to help other family members.

Gill said they try to convince themselves, “I didn’t steal for myself. I did it to provide my family with a better life.”

Of course, even if they start down the road of thievery with the idea it will only be temporary, they often become addicted to the enhanced lifestyle their crimes have provided, Gill said.

Once they have gotten away with it for a time, they develop an inflated ego, thinking they are smarter than everybody else, he said.

But no matter how smart they think they are, they almost inevitably get caught.

“It’s a terrible way to live,” Shulman said of the people who get themselves into that cycle. “Trying to keep up with the Joneses can be very insidious.”

As extensive as the known problem is, fraud experts with the FBI say it is a crime that is underreported.

Randal Wolverton, a retired FBI special agent who works with current FBI fraud investigators, said many companies try to handle the situation on their own when employee theft is discovered.

They are afraid of negative publicity that they think will hurt their business, he said.

One former Kansas City business owner can attest to that. He would only speak to The Star for this story if his name and the name of his business were not used.

The family-owned business he built over 35 years was devastated “both financially and emotionally” when he discovered that an employee had embezzled more than $500,000.

“It was absolutely gut-wrenching,” he said.

He discovered the scope of the theft when he went to the bank and discovered an empty account.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen to us,” he said.

He was planning to sell the business at the time, and although the sale went through, it was for a “dramatically lower” price than it what it might have been.

While he came out of the ordeal OK, he said, “many times lives are ruined financially.”

The embezzler was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison for that theft and theft from another company.

“She deserves every bit of what she got,” he said.

A big part of what FBI fraud investigators do is educate businesses on how to protect themselves from theft by employees.

To help, they conduct what they call “financial autopsies.”

While deconstructing fraud cases is necessary to obtain evidence to use in prosecutions, it also helps investigators understand how the crimes were committed and how that information can be used to prevent future crimes.

“We try to teach companies how to make themselves a hard target,” Wolverton said.

As much as possible, investigators try to identify and locate assets obtained illegally so victims can be compensated, he said.

In the Hauk case, for instance, Hauk used much of the stolen money to buy expensive cars and motorcycles. Authorities seized many of those vehicles and sold them at auction.

But in many cases, the money has been spent on things that can’t be recovered.

Casinos tend to be a popular destination for embezzlers. Sometimes they gamble in the hopes of making enough money to pay back what they stole.

“There are no real winners in these cases,” Wolverton said. “There is the financial shock to employers, but when the defendants go to jail, their families suffer greatly.”

Tony Rizzo: 816-234-4435, @trizzkc

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