The 4-1-1 on pink-collar crime

By Krysta Huber

The likes of Bernie Madoff and Enron executives made “white-collar crime” an everyday term in the English language. But even before these men were entangled in their own elaborate schemes, women were committing several types of financial crimes that, increasingly, have come to be identified with them.

The term “pink-collar crime” was coined in the late 1980s by criminologist Kathleen Daly. Pink-collar crime, according to Daly’s definition in a 1989 article in Criminology, a peer-reviewed journal that focuses on crime and deviant behavior, refers to female office workers in low- to mid-level positions — bookkeepers, managers, clerks — who steal money from their employers.

So what exactly might a pink-collar criminal be charged with? Embezzlement, larceny, fraud? What form of sentence and punishment are involved if she is convicted? What are the relevant laws in Virginia and how are they different from other states?

And why does pink-collar crime seem to get less attention from the public and news media? The “Trading Trust for the Till” team answers those questions in this terminology guide.

1. What kind of offenses do pink-collar criminals typically commit?

Pink-collar criminals usually focus on several crimes involving stealing property or money. Such offenses include burglary, embezzlement, fraud, larceny and robbery. According to the Virginia State Police, a stolen property offense is committed by “receiving, buying, selling, possessing, concealing or transporting any property with the knowledge that it has been unlawfully taken.”

2. I’ve heard financial crimes sometimes referred to as “crimes of opportunity.” What does that mean?

Crimes of opportunity aren’t limited to pink- and white-collar crimes. What the phrase really emphasizes is access. Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Deputy Tony McFaddin uses the example of a drug dealer to describe it: “If you have the access to drugs and then have access to the market, you’re going to sell [drugs].” The same goes for pink-collar criminals: Women are hired for office positions where they manage the books, write checks and keep records, giving them not only access to the money, but also the ability to hide what they are doing with it.

3. What are pink-collar criminals typically charged with?

Embezzlement and forgery appear to be among the most common offenses:

Embezzlement occurs when an offender takes “money, property or some other thing of value entrusted to her care, custody or control,” and uses it for her own purposes, according to Virginia law.

Forgery is often committed by writing checks. Forgery occurs when someone changes, copies or imitates something “without authority or right, with the intent to deceive or defraud by passing the copy or thing altered or imitated” as something that’s real, according to state law.

4. What about larceny? Doesn’t that simply mean stealing? Why aren’t pink-collar criminals commonly charged with larceny?

Larceny is theft, yes, and embezzlement is a form of larceny. But in Virginia, embezzlement occurs when the thief had some form of control or care over the property that was taken. Buena Vista Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Russell says embezzlement is essentially taking money or property with permission — because the individual had been entrusted with its care — and then using it for the wrong purposes. Larceny, however, occurs when a person takes money without permission and uses it for whatever purpose he or she chooses.

Because pink-collar crimes often involve women taking from people they know in a small business, church or other organization, we considered the breach of trust to be a critical component. So we focused most of our research and reporting on embezzlement.

5. How is embezzlement punished in Virginia?

Criminal charges are categorized as either a misdemeanor or a felony. The difference in the case of theft is the value of what’s stolen. A person is charged with misdemeanor embezzlement when she has embezzled less than $200 and felony embezzlement when she has embezzled more than $200. A person charged with misdemeanor embezzlement is subject to up to one year in prison, while felony embezzlement is up to 20 years in prison.

6. If convicted, is the pink-collar criminal required to repay any of the money or property stolen? If so, how much?

Yes. The amount the pink-collar criminal is required to repay is known as restitution. The actual dollar amount is based on the amount stolen, though it’s rarely, if ever, the full amount. According to Russell, restitution is a condition of the suspended portion of the defendant’s sentence. If the defendant fails to repay, she is subject to further jail time. But Russell says it’s usually a method of last resort: A judge will first sit down with the pink-collar criminal to discuss why she isn’t on track with her payments. If that conversation is ineffective, the judge may order her back to prison for 30 to 60 days, just to send a message.

7. Do pink-collar criminals actually serve much prison time?

The amount of time spent in prison for many criminal offenses in Virginia is determined by the Virginia sentencing guidelines. The guidelines don’t cover every offense, but larceny and embezzlement are included. Unlike in other states, circuit judges in Virginia are not bound by these guidelines. Rather, they are required only to review them before sentencing. Russell said the sentencing guidelines follow a point system, which is based on statistical data from past convictions for similar crimes. The guidelines weigh the nature of the crime, the defendant’s criminal history, factors about the crime itself and the defendant’s background. In his experience with embezzlement cases, Russell said, the defendant’s criminal history seems to play a significant role in the number of years the defendant will spend in jail.

Russell also says restitution — specifically whether it’s been paid prior to sentencing — can affect a defendant’s sentence. He says defendants who pay their restitution in full prior to sentencing often spend less time behind bars. So defense attorneys will push their clients to pay back as much money as possible before sentencing.

8. Why does pink-collar crime seem to get less attention from the public and news media?

Experts and law enforcement we interviewed all pointed to the perception that pink-collar crimes are victimless. Pink-collar crimes don’t have the same physical evidence of harm in the way a murder or an assault case does. So many pink-collar crime stories don’t sound appealing enough for the evening news or the front page of the newspaper. But all of our experts agreed that that perception is wrong: The victims in these cases are the business owners and their families, who are in jeopardy of losing their livelihoods at the hands of a single employee.