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White-Collar Crime

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"White collar crime doesn't count!"
Michelle Darnell, The Boss
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Embezzlement. Corporate espionage. Violence against copy machines. Money Laundering. Organized crime. Corruption. These are all white collar crimes, the sort executed by the White Collar Worker. They tend to be non-violent and money-driven. The Enron scandal in Real Life raised awareness about these sort of criminals. If the perpetrators are caught, fiction will often portray them as going to a Luxury Prison Suite. How often this happens in Real Life (and to what degree) varies.

The supertrope of Stealing from the Till, Penny Shaving, Delayed Wire, Fake Charity, 419 Scam, and Ponzi. If a religious organization is used as a means to scam people out of money, see Path of Inspiration.


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Examples:

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    Comicbooks 
  • In Arkham Asylum: Living Hell, Warren White is on trial for a massive investment scheme. He gets his trial transferred to Gotham for an easier insanity defense, which was probably the biggest mistake of his life.
  • The Punisher:
    • One arc has Frank go up against totally-not-Enron, culminating in blowing up a boat that held their major stockholders (they shouldn't have pointed out that they weren't really criminals, compared to the murderers and rapists he kills on a regular basis). It also introduced the Affably Evil Barracuda (the CEO's go-to guy for delicate problems), who proved so popular he got his own miniseries.
    • In Welcome Back, Frank, Mr. Payback is introduced shooting up a board meeting after listing the crimes the executives were guilty of. What he didn't know was that he accidentally killed an innocent cleaning lady during the attack, putting him on Frank's list.
  • PS238: The Revenant (a Batman expy) mentions that this is one of the reasons the authorities aren't particularly fond of him.
    Revenant: I think if one of my identities pays taxes, it's only fair to let the other seventeen off the hook, right?
  • In an issue of Bartman, Bart and Milhouse see Comic Book Guy selling a recent issue of "Radioctive Man", which they bought at regular price, selling at a mark up of several thousand percent. When they ask why its so expensive, Comic Book Guy says that it is one of a few dozen that does not have the publisher's metallic logo. As Bartman, Bart discovers that Jimbo, Kearny, and Dolph who are working in a paper mill, where the comics are printed, are part of a scam that purposefully misprints a small number of issues so that they can be sold at an astronomic mark up.

    Film 
  • Office Space revolves around this concept as the main characters try to steal money from their employers via a computer algorithm.
  • Figures into The Other Guys, which makes a conspicuous point of making the real villains not gangsters or drug dealers but wealthy businessmen.
  • The focus of the drama/thriller Margin Call, is a fictionalized account of the 2008 Wall Street financial crisis. And yet it is NOT a straight case. A major point of the film is that their actions, while certainly deceptive and unethical, aren't actually illegal. Technically (purely technically), no crimes were committed. Which of course leads to the assumption that all ensuing events and their consequences condemn the fact that such techniques were legal to begin with.
  • The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the memoir of white collar criminal Jordan Belfort, whose firm Stratton Oakmont used "pump-and-dump" schemes to defraud investors in the 1990's.
  • Related to the above, the actions of the Duke brothers in Trading Places (using inside information to try and corner the frozen concentrate orange juice market) were unethical and deceptive, but, at the time, not illegal in the commodities market (unlike the stock and bonds market). In fact, the movie was cited when they finally made it illegal in 2010, even being dubbed "The Eddie Murphy Rule".
  • The focus of Arbitrage, starring Richard Gere.
  • In Mad Money, a group of Federal Reserve workers steal old $1 bills which are supposed to be destroyed from the mint. They end up getting away with it as well.
  • White-collar crime provides the impetus for the events of Money Monster, when a swindled investor decides to take the host of a Financial advice show hostage to try and get his money back. He got swindled because he's a bit of an idiot, albeit a sympathetic one, and his hostage-taking would have gone much more badly for everyone if the producer and host of the show hadn't come over to his side.
  • Boiler Room focuses on dishonest sales tactics and shady firms offering deals Too Good to Be True to unsuspecting victims. In this case, the victims are investors too willing to make a quick buck on the stock market. They're unaware that it's a "pump-and-dump" operation, where the shares of fake or expired companies are hyped up through exaggerated and false statements, but when the operators of the scheme sell off their holdings, the price falls and the investors lose all their money. Even the protagonist is unaware that the firm he's working for is in fact an illegal operation. It's only after he starts snooping around, a What the Hell, Hero? speech from his father about J.T. Marlin's shady reputation, the FBI's investigation of J.T. Marlin's operations, and realizing he cheated a guy out of his money and family does make him realize he unknowingly scammed people. Wracked with the guilt of this, he decides to shut down the firm for good by cooperating with the FBI in exchange for a lighter sentence.
  • Side Effects opens with Emily's husband getting out of jail after doing four years for insider trading. Also, it is possible to make money on the stock exchange by betting that a company's shares will go down, rather than up. If you know that a pharmaceutical company's new anti-depressant is going to get some very bad publicity for its side effects, then it's a pretty safe bet.
  • Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room was largely about this trope.
  • And in Vabank this is what the antagonist does, which helps to make him (more) unsympathetic, and the Caper Crew that straightforwardly robs him - Just Like Robin Hood.

    Literature 
  • Walter Jon Williams' Hardwired is rife with this. It's pretty violent, though; one episode of corporate sabotage involves murdering an executive to get access to the company's intranet.
  • Going Postal and Making Money deal with the finances of the Grand Trunks company cheating the inventor of the system out of his company and property, and crooked bank managers playing their own games with the banks, respectively. Boxed Crook Moist Von Lipwig is the hero of the two books, and probably one of the most honest people in those two books.
    • As it seems he's been set up to reform Ankh-Morpork's tax system, we can only wonder who has been stealing from whom.
  • Chapter 21 of The Pale King is a conversation between an IRS auditor and a businessman trying to falsify his tax report. He is given two options: jail, or filing a new report with the correct information and paying the late fees.
    • Claude suspects that the higher-ups at Post 047 are doctoring the records so that the site has a perfectly averaged productivity rate, which would make them appear less suspicious.
  • City of Bones by Martha Wells: A thousand years After the End, there is a thriving trade in forged art and artifacts of the Survivor era. Scholars and collectors will both pay through the nose for such things, either for knowledge of the past or for simple prestige, so a detailed, well-researched forgery can make someone quite wealthy.
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    Live-Action TV 
  • CNBC's documentary series American Greed features the cases of notorious white-collar crime in the United States.
  • On Brothers and Sisters, William Walker embezzled his company's pension plan in order to buy a plot of land in the desert. Because the Army wanted the land, the Walker children were able to sell it to them at a profit before anyone noticed the money was gone.
    • And in the third season, William's son Tommy tried a similar scheme. It didn't work so well for him.
  • Leverage is all about getting revenge for these.
  • George Bluth's arrest for "creative accounting" at his development company is what starts off the plot of Arrested Development.
  • Ryan is arrested for fraud in The Office.
    • Earlier, one of the Stamford transfers was a white collar ex-con.
  • As the name suggests, White Collar is about a Boxed Crook brought in by the FBI to investigate this sort of crime.
  • Life has Ted Earley, who lives in Charlie's garage and manages his assets. Luxury Prison Suite averted— Ted was in with Charlie, who was in for murder.
  • An episode of Castle dealt with someone murdered while engaged in corporate espionage.
  • In Highway to Heaven, one character uses insider trading, including stealing the company's trash and hiring a disgruntled former employee for his insider information to start a series of deals so he can manipulate two companies' stock prices, gain control over the company's voting shares, and get rid of his enemies. This is all done in the name of "good" by the shows protagonist, an angel, who in other episodes, has an ethical dilemma over much simpler things, but white collar crime is apparently okay.
  • In one episode of Burn Notice, Michael pretends to join a group of executives planning a robbery, assuming they're going to steal some funds over the computer. Completely averted when they instead take a dozen hostages and plan on forcing a millionaire to transfer his money at gunpoint.
  • This sets off the plot to 2 Broke Girls: Caroline's father is arrested for running a Ponzi Scheme.
  • On Boardwalk Empire most of the characters are straight up blue collar bootleggers and/or gangsters but Nucky Thompson started out as a crooked politician and is not adverse to some white collar crime like crooked land deals. Gangster Arnold Rothstein falls victim to a real estate company running a pump-and-dump scheme and plans to revenge by running a reverse scam on them. One of Nucky's associates was ruined when he invested in the original Ponzi Scheme.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The Corporations in Shadowrun engage in a variety of hiring shadowrunners to do their dirty deeds ranging from small things like stealing the lunch orders of the rival's corporate meeting to ordering the murder of a rival CEO.
  • Ditto Cyberpunk2020, including like in the previous example extractions (read: kidnappings) of Corporate VI Ps.

    Videogames 
  • Gianna Parasini from the Mass Effect series deals with corporate crimes. You can help her out on a few occasions. The planet of Noveria where she works in the first game seems to suffer from this endemically.
  • While the actual investigations in Ace Attorney are Always Murder, the smuggling ring Lang is chasing after is engaged in a number of white collar illegal operations. Of note is the forging of money using the embassy printing press that has damaged Zheng Fa's economy.
  • While the Grand Theft Auto series focuses more on violent crime, one of the activities in Grand Theft Auto V involves being able to play the stock market. A string of assassination missions will affect the in game market, allowing the player to use their insider knowledge of a crime they are about to commit to their advantage. If done correctly the player can turn tens of millions into a few billion just by buying and selling certain stocks at opportune times.
  • This is part of the Auntie Shu Boys questline in Watch_Dogs 2 and how the Big Bad is taken down. The ASB are accessing the ocean cables to get insider knowledge on the New York Stock Exchange and are using it for their own financial gain, which makes them enemies of DedSec. They were given access by Dušan Nemec, Blume's CTO after he used the Bellwether system to play the stock markets in 2007 (also causing the 2007 Financial Crisis) as an early beta test for Blume. Exposing this gets Dušan arrested in the ending.
  • One of the targets in Hitman (2016) is Claus Hugo Strandburgh, an investment banker who nearly bankrupted Morocco with massive investment fraud. Interestingly, Agent 47 isn't hired to kill him to punish him for his crimes, but because a Moroccan military leader wants to use his crimes as a pretense to initiate a military coup that the client wants to foil.
  • Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People: In "Dangeresque 3: The Criminal Projective", one of the ways Dangeresque can get Baron Darin Diamonocle to cooperate is threatening his Villain Cred with the threat of being transferred to Tri Lambda Penitentiary, a "nerd prison" full of white-collar criminals.

    Webcomics 

    Western Animation 
  • This is the main motivation of Captain Planet villian Luten Plunder.
  • In The Simpsons, Sideshow Bob is convicted of voter fraud for fixing the mayoral election - and is sentenced to Springwood Minimum Security Prison and joins the prison rowing team to race against Princeton.

    Real Life 
  • One of the oldest white collar scandals, the South Sea Bubble of 1720 (in which the South Sea Company inflated their stock prices through various fraudulent means to create a speculative bubble of mind-boggling magnitude) led to the passing of some of the first laws against investment fraud.
  • The Enron scandal — the focus of the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room — raised a lot of awareness about accounting fraud.
  • Martha Stewart was found guilty of lying about receiving a legal stock tip, but the founder of the company selling the stock was itself guilty of insider trading. Stewart sold because she saw the founder selling.
    • Insider trading itself is a complicated (yet oddly simple) crime: if you trade on a stock knowing what the stock is going to do, then you're guilty. The thing that makes it complicated, however, is that proving prior knowledge is difficult at best; without written records or witness testimony, it is almost impossible, in fact. The Securities and Exchange Commission will prosecute to the full extent of the law, though.
  • Subversion: Al Capone went to Alcatraz for tax evasion officially. Being a well known Chicago mobster helped get him a less cushy sentence.
    • There was no solid evidence that he was guilty of anything other than tax evasion, so that was what they charged him with and convicted him of. Also, his cushy time only lasted until he was transferred to Alcatraz, where he spent most of his sentence. He got the same treatment as everybody else while there, and the only reason they released him early was due to rapidly declining health brought on by syphilis.
    • This was kind of a Catch-22 for Capone. There's a line on the tax form for "other" income. The problem is that wages, salaries, tips, interest income, capital gains, self-employment, and most other legal sources of income are accounted for already. So including a large amount on the "other" line opens you up for some rather pointed questions, and not including it is tax evasion.
    • As pointed out elsewhere on this various wiki, the US Tax forms have a box specifically for money that was gained through illegal ventures and specifically for this reason. All it says is that some of your money is dirty and this is how much and what the government should get from it. As long as the IRS doesn't ask about the nature of the crime, it's not self incrimination. You're even allowed to deduct against it if you had expenses (one bank robber was able to deduct the cost of guns).note 
  • Bernie Madoff ran a decades-long Ponzi scheme that defrauded 4,800 people and organizations (including charities and hospitals) of nearly $65 Billion. At least three suicides have been attributed to his crime, including his son's, and earned old Bernie a century and a half in federal prison.
  • Some scandals, particularly the Norbourg affair, in Quebec have led to the expression "criminels à cravate" ("tie-wearing criminals").
  • The famed computer hacker Kevin Mitnick, in his autobiography Ghost in the Wires, describes the surreal feeling of being the only white-collar criminal in a juvenile hall full of murderers and rapists after one of his earliest arrests.
  • The spectacular collapse of Barings Bank, the world's second oldest merchant bank (est'd 1762) was caused by the machinations of a single employee, who, in an attempt to cover for a bad investment, ended up going on an increasingly disastrous spree of high-risk speculative gambles that dug the company into a $1.3 billion hole (and no one noticed because the man was essentially appointed to be his own auditor via an administrative oversight).
  • While Gordon Gekko was inspired by many corporate raiders of the 1980s, it was Ivan Boesky who served as the basis for this character, including the famous "Greed is good" line. Boesky made his fortune in corporate takeovers, some of which were brazen, with massive purchases occurring only a few days before a corporation announced a takeover. Although this was illegal at the time, prosecutions were rare until Boesky was prosecuted for insider trading, earning him a prison sentence of 3 and a half years and a fine of $100 million. This forced him to cooperate with the federal government and testify against Michael Milken, a Wall Street financier known for funding hostile takeovers, and although he was released after two years, Boesky was permanently banned from working in the securities industry, combined with a tattered reputation.
    • In addition to the above, this is how Drexel Burnham Lambert was brought down, due to the machinations of Michael Milken, the junk bond king. He was known in the industry for financing leveraged buyouts, including that of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts' run on RJR Nabisco. After Boesky decided to inform on Milken, Rudy Giuliani, an aggressive US Attorney who made his name going after The Mafia, decided to probe Drexel and Milken. For two years, Drexel denied any criminality, but Giuliani wouldn't have any and threatened to press racketeering charges on Milken. He was indicted for racketeering and securities fraud in 1989 in an insider trading investigation. As the result of a plea bargain, he pleaded guilty to securities and reporting violations but not to racketeering or insider trading. Milken was later sentenced to ten years in prison (later reduced to 2 years due to good behavior and testifying against former associates), fined $600 million, and permanently banned from the securities industry. Plus, while Drexel managed to avoid a RICO (Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) indictment, its reputation was shattered to the point that it was forced to declare bankruptcy at the urging of the NYSE, the NASD (National Association of Securities Dealers), the Fed and the SEC in 1990. And if that wasn't worse, it gave leveraged buyouts and speculative-grade debt ("junk-rated" bonds) a bad name.
  • While the American Mafia has its hand in traditional bread-and-butter crimes such as extortion, illegal gambling, and loansharking, it also made forays into crimes such as labor union racketeering, political corruption, Ponzi schemes and stock fraud.
  • The infamous Bank of Commerce and Credit International (lightly fictionalized in the film The International) was known to regularly dip into more blue-collar crimes (like kidnapping, extortion, and a few cases of murder that were never formally connected to them) when their cadre of regular white-collar fraudsters were not up to task.


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