The term "white collar crime" was coined in 1939, back in the day when every good businessman wore a suit and a stiff white-collared shirt. Only common laborers wore dark shirts to help hide the dirt or dust from their jobs.
The term has now become synonymous with crimes committed by a business professional who uses intelligence, deception and sometimes charisma to pull off a range of non-violent offenses, like identity theft, embezzlement and different types of fraud.
The crimes can be as simple as a bank officer gaining the trust of a few wealthy elderly clients and using that trust to access funds from their accounts without their knowledge. More often, however, they're complex criminal activities that involve multiple layers of activity and often multiple conspirators involved at different levels of the operation.
Small white collar crimes have the capacity to wipe out someone's savings, destroy public trust and tear apart a family. Large-scale versions of white collar crimes can do all of those things several times over, plus they can damage local and national economies.
For example, widespread mortgage fraud involving subprime lending helped to contribute to the housing market crash that affected the majority of the United States in the late 2000s. That threw many people into bankruptcy or foreclosure.
Because of some of the major white collar crime scandals to hit the news in the last two decades, like the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme involving securities fraud and the InStock trading scandal that sent Martha Stewart to prison, the general public has become more conscious of white collar crime.
So has the government. The Federal Bureau of Investigation works closely with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Internal Revenue Service, the Postal Service, and numerous other agencies and organizations to pick apart multi-layered cases of corporate fraud, health care fraud, intellectual property theft and more.
It's important to recognize that even if you are a small player in one of these types of schemes, or simply have knowledge of the scheme, that you can get caught up in the government's wide net once arrests start being made. Given the potential harsh penalties you could be facing, it's wise to seek the counsel of a white collar criminal defense attorney as quickly as possible -- preferably as soon as you believe there's an investigation starting.
Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation, "White-Collar Crime," accessed Feb. 10, 2017