White-collar crime is defined as a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation. This term was coined in 1939. Today, there are many complicated crimes that are often labeled white-collar – such crimes include fraud, bribery, insider trading, embezzlement, computer crime, copyright infringement, money laundering, identity theft and forgery.
The concept of a white-collar crime was first used by Professor Edwin Hardin Sutherland who differentiated crimes committed by those who worked in the business world as to those who committed street crimes. He presented his theory to the American Sociological Society as a study. The study would take into account crime and high society – something that had not been looked at in and of itself. In his presentation, he defined the crime by someone's social status. His aim was to prove that white-collar crime and criminals were less likely to be put in jail compared to those of more visible and typical crimes.
Sutherland took the concept further and broke down crimes into two categories with crimes such as arson, burglary, theft, assault, rape and vandalism listed under blue-collar crimes which were further explained or blamed on psychological, associational and structural factors. With this, white-collar crimes were committed by criminals who were opportunists, people who learned they could take advantage of their position in life and their circumstances to accumulate financial gain. Such people were often educated, intelligent, and had affluence. These people were also smart enough to con their victims.
Today, crime is classified by the type of crime and the topic. One such type would be property crime, economic crime or corporate crime. Many crimes can only be committed due to the identity of the offender. Because of the trust given to certain individuals with particular positions or titles, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has defined white-collar crime to "illegal acts characterized by deceit, concealment or violation of trust and which are not dependent upon the application or threat of physical force or violence."
Motives for white-collar crime have been defined as due to greed, fear of loss of face. Studies by Applebaum and Chambliss (1997, 117) state that those who commit crimes within their occupation due so to promote their own personal interests. This is done through altering records, overcharging or cheating clients. They state further that organizational or corporate crimes occur when corporate executives commit criminal acts to benefit their company by overcharging or price fixing, false advertising, etc.
Those who commit blue-collar crimes tend to be penalized more often due to the fact that the crime is more visible to police, while white-collar crimes are less obvious and sometimes more difficult to prove. Blue-collar crime often uses more physical force whereas with white-collar crimes the victim is less obvious and reporting can be complicated due to confidentiality issues. There is also the issue of how society sees the crime. Many may believe a crime committed with force or violence should be more punishable than a financial crime – yet when one looks at the effect on the victim, it is possible that white-collar crimes are more devastating as they can rob people of their entire life savings, something that cannot be recovered as opposed to the effects of being mugged.
Those who commit white-collar crimes serve less time or are not penalized due to the fact that they can often afford a better. Last, if a white-collar criminal is put in prison, it is usually in a minimum-security prison, a place that offers greater freedom and a safer environment than that of maximum-security prisons.
White-collar crime has possibly always been prevalent, but today, the details of its effects have become more widely understood and known making it more and more difficult for such criminals to escape punishment.