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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Embezzling looks easy and many try it...

By Dick Hirsch

Unlike safecracking, which has traditionally been perceived as an intense and demanding specialty, embezzling has always appeared to be easy.

That’s why a lot of people try it. They find themselves in a position where they handle money or are responsible for bookkeeping, and the temptation becomes too great to resist. Years ago, a skeptical FBI agent once told me he was convinced that every bank teller at one time or another had taken home some samples. But that was small time thievery because the banks were alert for that kind of activity.

While it looks easy, the thievery often is discovered, so it must not be as easy as it appears. On the other hand, authorities have always said many embezzlements go undiscovered while others are detected but never reported to authorities, and the perpetrator not prosecuted for a variety of reasons.

The numbers are getting bigger and embezzling has developed into a quiet, non-violent crime wave, with thefts in six figures becoming common. Years ago, we never heard much about big money embezzlements, but now, if you pay attention, you’ll see a parade of stories in the papers about trusted employees who, over a period of time, treat the boss’s money as if it were their own.

It is an epidemic of embezzling, and, in looking for a cause, you have to look no further than the proximity of casinos and other locations with slot machines. That is my opinion and I found support from a couple of experts.

“If you would have asked me four years ago whether I saw any connection between the increasing number of embezzlements and the increased number of gambling opportunities, I would have said ‘no’,” said District Attorney Frank Clark. “There have always been many causes and I didn’t think that the opening of casinos in the area could be blamed for the increase. But I’ve changed my opinion. I‘ve seen enough cases to say there is a definite connection because at least 50 percent of our embezzlement cases involve people who are addicted to gambling, with the casinos open 24/7. It isn’t just the casinos, either; it’s the slot machines at the race tracks, OTB, and the lottery.”

As his office prosecutes more and more cases, Clark commissioned an in-house survey. The cases involve big numbers; $96,000 here, $289,000 there, $400,000 in another case, $350,000 elsewhere. The list is long and growing longer. And the suspicion among many law enforcement agencies is that there are many cases that haven’t yet been discovered. He said his office is handling at least 15 cases a year of embezzlements over $100,000.

The people being victimized range from churches and charitable agencies to physicians, dentists, law firms, and operators of small businesses.

The embezzlers? They have usually never before been accused of a crime and arrested. And they are mostly female, women working as office managers or bookkeepers who have worked long enough to be placed in a position of trust.

“Gambling is an addiction and with gambling locations open around the clock, these people just cannot control themselves,” Clark said.

Is this sufficient evidence to use in an argument against the construction of another casino by the Seneca Nation in downtown Buffalo? It is for me. Such an operation will make no positive contribution to the city. It will prey on local residents, many of them ill-suited to be losers. It will stifle the development of other businesses. It will attract no tourists, since they will be drawn to Niagara Falls, either Ontario or New York.

Doesn’t logic indicate there are enough nearby gambling locations already? Am I being unfair in connecting casinos and gambling with the surge in embezzlement cases? I wouldn’t have made that claim without the input of District Attorney Clark and Dr. Renee Wert, a psychologist who has long counseled problem gamblers. A few years ago it was chronic sports betting and players who spent grocery and rent money on the lottery, she recalled.

“The casinos have changed the whole dynamics of the problem,” she said. “They provide an exciting atmosphere and the opportunity to gamble around the clock. Women are enticed by the slot machines with their flashing lights and bright images. It’s very seductive.”

When caught, the embezzlers all claim they intended to pay the money back. They had lost, then embezzled in an effort to get even. They should have remembered what most gamblers often forget: the house always wins.


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