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What Is White Collar Crime?

The penalties can be harsher than you might expect

When you face white collar criminal charges under state or federal law, you should hire an experienced white collar criminal defense attorney who can help you fight the allegations you are facing. While white collar crimes are often glamorized in film and television, and many white collar criminal cases become high-profile in the news, these illegal acts often come with years of prison time and substantial monetary fines.

When white collar charges are brought under federal law particularly, defendants can be facing decades in prison in the event of a conviction, and some types of white collar charges come with mandatory minimum sentences. It would be best to learn more about the charges you are facing and possible defense strategies to avoid a conviction.

White Collar Crime – What You Need To Know

  • White collar offenses are non-violent crimes. They include many different criminal charges under state or federal law, including criminal activity such as money laundering, embezzlement, and insider trading.
  • There is no single charge of white collar crime; instead, this term refers to a wide range of financial criminal offenses where perpatrators violate the law for financial gain.
  • Many people assume white collar criminal charges are not as serious as crimes involving violent acts, but state and federal prosecutors often take white collar charges even more seriously than certain violent offenses.
  • You should hire an experienced white collar criminal defense attorney who can help you fight the allegations you are facing.

An Overview of White Collar Crime

White collar criminal offenses include many different criminal charges that can be brought under state or federal law. Although many people assume white collar criminal charges are not as serious as crimes involving violent acts, it is essential to know that state and federal prosecutors often take white collar charges even more seriously than certain violent offenses. The penalties can be markedly more severe than those associated with some violent crimes.

Many white collar offenses, especially those charged under federal law, are felony offenses that will result in a felony criminal record once a sentence has been served. Depending upon the specific allegations, you could face multiple charges for a particular act. It is also essential to know that you may face charges under state and federal law in some circumstances.

It is essential to understand that there is no single charge of white collar crime; instead, this term refers to a wide range of financial criminal offenses. What kinds of crimes are included under the larger umbrella of white collar offenses?

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the term white collar crime likely came into use back in 1939 and "is now synonymous with the full range of frauds committed by business and government professionals" that are "characterized by deceit, concealment, or violation of trust and are not dependent on the application or threat of physical force or violence." The FBI further explains that white collar crimes usually share a similar financial motivation, "to obtain or avoid losing money, property, or services or to secure a personal or business advantage."

What follows are some types of white collar crimes. Committing these criminal acts can run you afoul of state and federal law enforcement:


Fraud is one of the most common types of white collar criminal crime, and there are a wide variety of fraud charges under state and federal law. If you face fraud-related charges under state law, it will be critical to understand how the specific state law defines the offense and its elements. Under federal law, there are many different kinds of fraud charges, and each will have its own elements. According to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, "fraud is a broad term, including false representations, dishonesty, and deceit."

Generally speaking, to be convicted of a fraud offense under federal law, the prosecution will need to prove that the defendant intended to engage in fraud through a scheme to defraud and that the defendant took some action toward defrauding (even if the defendant did not unlawfully obtain money, services, or anything else by fraudulent means). However, you should seek advice from a white collar criminal defense attorney about the precise elements of the fraud charges you are facing. Some of the most commonly prosecuted types of federal fraud include but are not limited to:

  • Mail fraud;
  • Wire fraud;
  • Bank fraud;
  • Securities fraud;
  • Health care fraud;
  • Credit card fraud;
  • Mortgage fraud;
  • Insurance fraud; and
  • Tax fraud.

Ponzi schemes, identity theft, and other commonly known crimes or schemes involve forms of fraud that are frequently charged under federal law.

Ponzi Schemes

Ponzi schemes are a form of investment fraud named after Charles Ponzi, who developed this specific type of corporate fraud scheme in the 1920s. In a Ponzi scheme, organizers of the investment fraud scheme convince investors to invest money with promises of high returns, but the money is never invested. Instead, the money received through investments is used to pay "returns" to previous investors. These financial crimes require consistent recruitment of new investors to keep the scheme going.


Embezzlement is one of the most common example of white collar crimes. Here, charges can be brought when a person entrusted with another party's money or property fraudulently takes the financial transactions or property for themselves or misappropriates it. Embezzlement can be charged under several different embezzlement and theft statutes under federal law depending upon the defendant's identity and the defendant's relationship to the allegedly misappropriated property.

For example, there are specific statutes under which embezzlement charges can be brought against defendants who misappropriate public money or attempt to take money or property from an interstate carrier. There are also specific embezzlement charges that can be brought against bankers, court officers, bank examiners, and other specific parties.

Identity Theft

Identity theft often involves various kinds of fraud, such as wire fraud, bank fraud, and credit card fraud. Yet there are also specific federal statutes under which a person can face charges for identity theft and aggravated identity theft. This type of offense can be charged, for example, when a person knowingly and without authority produces an identification document, transfers an identification document, or possesses an identity document to use it unlawfully. There are also many other types of actions resulting in identity theft charges. When a person faces charges for identity theft, that person may also face additional federal fraud charges.

Many states have specific identity theft charges that can be brought concurrent to other types of state fraud charges, and in some cases, a person may face both state and federal charges.

Computer Crimes

Many different types of computer crimes exist under state and federal law, including some types of offenses that do not fall into the category of white collar crime. However, many types of computer crime charges are, in fact, white collar offenses because they involve charges related to identity theft, wire fraud, or similar costs. Many white collar computer crimes are known as cybercrimes, and these offenses can also include business email compromise scams, ransomware and malware schemes, and spoofing and phishing schemes.

Common White Collar Crime Questions

When a person is facing any white collar criminal charges, it is critical to begin working with an experienced white collar criminal defense attorney as soon as possible and to be sure to ask any questions about how the case will proceed. When you meet with a white collar criminal defense lawyer, you may want to consider some of the following questions:

  • What is the difference between white collar crime and other types of law violations?
  • Am I facing charges under state or federal law, and what is the difference?
  • What are the elements of the offense that I have been charged with, and what will the prosecution need to prove to get a conviction?
  • What are possible defense strategies for the specific type of white collar criminal offense I have been accused of committing?
  • How does intent affect white collar crime charges?
  • What are the potential penalties of a conviction for a white collar crime under state law versus under federal law?

Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs

It is essential to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can help you through your entire case. To do so, you can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location. 

To help you get started, you may want to consider looking for a lawyer who practices white collar criminal law.

Why Super Lawyers? 

Super Lawyers is a rating service of outstanding lawyers from more than 70 practice areas who have attained a high degree of peer recognition and professional achievement. The patented selection process includes independent research, peer nominations, and peer evaluations. The objective is to create a credible, comprehensive, and diverse listing of outstanding attorneys that can be used as a resource for attorneys and consumers searching for legal counsel.  

As Super Lawyers is intended to be used to select a lawyer, we limit the lawyer ratings to those who can be hired and retained by the public. You can learn more about the selection process here

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