The Low Down on Embezzlement: Why It Happens And How to Prevent It

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Embezzlement isn’t a term anyone wants uttered around their business. For many, it represents vulnerability. The idea that it can take place under your watch is anything but a sign of strength.

Like all unknown and little-understood concepts, clarity is crucial in both preventing and addressing financial fraud and white-collar crimes. A deeper look into what motivates perpetrators can help you identify potential weak spots in your business, areas that could be low-hanging fruit for bad actors.

Let’s start with a clear take on what embezzlement is.

Embezzlement Definition & Meaning

Embezzlement is a white-collar crime that involves the misappropriation or theft of funds or property entrusted to someone’s care for a specific purpose. Unlike money laundering, where funds have been obtained through illegal activities, embezzlement is associated with legitimately obtained funds.

It occurs when an individual responsible for managing or safeguarding these assets unlawfully uses or converts them for personal gain or for purposes other than what they were originally intended for.

Embezzlement can take various forms, such as employees stealing from their employer, executives diverting company funds for personal use, or trustees mishandling assets meant for beneficiaries. Regardless of the individual or parties involved, it is considered a breach of trust and typically involves a violation of a fiduciary duty.

As a serious offense and is subject to criminal prosecution, the severity of penalties for the crime varies. Penalties depend on factors like the amount misappropriated and applicable laws in a given jurisdiction. They may also include fines, restitution to the victim, and imprisonment.

Why Embezzlement Occurs

There’s often never a single cause. It occurs due to a combination of factors, mostly driven by individual motivations and opportunities within a specific context. Here are the common factors that, when aligned, can create the ideal circumstances for the act to take place.

Financial Gain: In many instances, an individual’s desire for personal financial gain. This can include covering personal debts, funding a lavish lifestyle, or accumulating wealth.

Greed: A strong desire for more money or material possessions can lead some individuals to embezzle funds, even when they are financially stable.

Pressure and Stress: Individuals facing financial pressures, such as mounting debts, medical expenses, or unexpected financial burdens, may resort to theft as a way to alleviate their financial stress.


Access to Funds: Individuals have access to company funds, bank accounts, or assets and can manipulate or misappropriate them without immediate detection.

Lack of Oversight: Inadequate internal controls, loose financial monitoring, or a lack of oversight can create opportunities for embezzlers to exploit weaknesses in the system.

Trusted Positions: Individuals in trusted positions, such as financial managers, accountants, or executives, may abuse their authority and access to embezzle funds.

Lack of Surveillance:

Rationalization: Some embezzlers rationalize their actions by convincing themselves that they deserve the funds more than the organization, justifying their behavior.

Overconfidence: Individuals may believe they can outsmart the system and avoid detection, creating a false sense of superiority.

Economic Downturns: During economic downturns or financial crises, the risk of theft may increase as individuals face financial hardships.

Peer Pressure or Influence: In some cases, external influences or pressures from peers or associates can push individuals into fraudulent schemes.

How Does Embezzlement Affect Businesses?

Embezzlement can have significant adverse effects on businesses. It can strip away an organization’s financial health. In the US alone, the average incident can cost a business as much as $357,650 in losses. Other negative outcomes include:

Distorted Economic Standing

It can skew financial records and create a false impression of the company’s economic standing. This can mislead investors, lenders, and stakeholders, potentially harming financial relationships.

Lowered Customer Confidence

Once public knowledge, it can lower customer confidence in the business. Customers may question the security of their transactions and accounts.

Legal Consequences

Businesses may face legal repercussions if they are found to be negligent in preventing white-collar crime or fail to take appropriate actions upon its discovery.

Operational Disruptions

The discovery of internal fraud often requires internal investigations, which can disrupt normal business operations and divert resources away from core activities.

Erosion of Trust

It erodes trust within the organization. Employees may become suspicious of their colleagues and management, leading to a toxic work environment.

Loss of Talent

Talented employees may leave the company due to concerns about ethical standards, resulting in a loss of valuable human capital.

What Are Examples of Embezzlement?

Embezzlement can occur in various forms but telltale signs are often present when any form of administrative function related to material gain is to be completed. Here are examples of when internal theft can occur:

Skimming Cash Receipts

An employee responsible for handling cash transactions, such as a cashier, may embezzle funds by taking a portion of the cash received before it’s recorded in the company’s books.

Misusing Company Credit Cards

Employees with access to company credit cards might misuse them for personal expenses, diverting company funds for their benefit.

Payroll Fraud

This involves manipulating the payroll system to create fictitious employees or altering existing employee records to siphon off company funds.

Fake Expense Reports

Employees may submit fraudulent expense reports, inflating expenses or claiming expenses that never occurred, leading to unauthorized reimbursements.

Diverting Client Funds

Professionals like lawyers or financial advisors can embezzle client funds by redirecting them to their personal accounts instead of managing them properly.

Phantom Employees

Creating fake employees in the payroll system and issuing paychecks to these fake individuals.

Vendor Fraud

Employees may collude with vendors to create fake invoices or inflate the costs of goods or services, leading to overpayment to the vendor with the excess going into the embezzler’s pocket.

Asset Theft

Stealing physical assets or inventory from the company and selling them for personal gain.

Unauthorized Transfers

Individuals with access to company accounts may initiate unauthorized transfers of funds to personal accounts, disguising these transactions as legitimate business expenses.

Beneficiary Mismanagement

In situations where an individual is responsible for managing funds for beneficiaries, they may embezzle those funds for personal use instead of disbursing them appropriately.

How to Prevent Embezzlement

There are several effective strategies to prevent fraud. In a perfect system, your goal is to install layers of preventative measures that quickly spot suspicious behavior. Measures can include:

Conducting Background Checks When Hiring

Before hiring employees, conduct thorough background checks to identify any red flags or prior criminal activity that may indicate a propensity for committing white-collar crimes.

Separation of Duties

Implement a system where different individuals handle various financial tasks. For example, the person who authorizes payments should be separate from the one who reconciles bank statements. This approach can be further augmented by installing sophisticated verification solutions that prevent unauthorized parties from circumventing processes.

Implementing Internal Controls

Establish internal controls, such as requiring dual signatures on checks above a certain amount, and regularly review financial transactions for anomalies.

Knowing Your Employees

Stay alert to signs of potential fraud, such as sudden changes in behavior, working late excessively, or a devotion to work that seems unusual.

Developing an Employee Handbook

Maintain an updated employee handbook that clearly outlines company policies regarding fraud, including the consequences of fraud.

Monitoring Vacation Balances

Keep an eye on vacation balances. Unexpectedly large vacation accruals or employees not taking vacations can be a sign of fraudulent activity.

Performing Regular Financial Audits

Conduct regular and surprise financial audits to detect any irregularities or discrepancies in financial records.

Creating and Promoting a Whistleblower Program

Establish a confidential reporting system for employees to report suspicions of potentially fraudulent behavior without fear of retaliation.

Installing Cybersecurity Measures

Protect your digital assets by implementing robust cybersecurity measures to prevent electronic theft.


Embezzlement can be prevented but only when businesses have the right internal controls in place. By combining several strategies and creating a culture of transparency and accountability within your organization, you can significantly reduce the risk of white-collar crime and protect your business’s financial interests.

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