Embezzling on the Rise...With Women at Front of Curve?

Embezzlement by women skyrockets; no longer just a man's crime

Accused but not yet charged with pilfering more than $1.5 million from the tourism bureau in Palm Beach County, Donna Duffer may be the latest of a growing breed of entrepreneurial woman: one who embezzles from her employer.

"It's a very common phenomenon," said Barry Strock, president of a management and systems consulting firm in Albany, N.Y., that advises companies on how to protect themselves against embezzlement. "Anecdotally, I see this happening all over the country."

In Palm Beach County, Preston Mighdoll, chief economic crimes prosecutor in the State Attorney's Office for 13 years, is amazed at the number of such crimes he's seeing and the escalating amounts of money stolen.

When Mari Lampman of Lake Worth was arrested last year and charged with embezzlement from the home builder she worked for, Mighdoll thought the $1.2 million she purloined "was mind-boggling."

Now he has a half-dozen cases pending in which the amount stolen is $1 million or more.

Embezzlement by women skyrocketed 80 percent between 1993 and 2002, even slightly exceeding the number of those crimes committed by men in 2002, according to a New York Times analysis of federal data.

Experts say women are tapping the company till for several reasons. Some have a vice, such as a gambling addiction or compulsive shopping. Duffer racked up debts from online gambling, her attorney said. Others may have incurred large medical bills or made a bad investment and are desperate for cash.

"It's usually a matter of need or greed," said Strock, who consults primarily with not-for-profit organizations and governments.

Mighdoll sees some women stealing because they covet the lifestyle of the people running the company. Take Wendy Thompson, 31, of Lake Worth. She was sentenced last year after pleading guilty to stealing about $600,000 from her employer, a Boca Raton construction and development company where she was a project accountant. Thompson got five years in prison, followed by 10 years' probation.

Thompson thought if she dressed like her more affluent co-workers she would be accepted by them, her attorney at the time, Margaret Broz, wrote in a sentencing memorandum. So she embezzled from the company.

Still, her alleged thievery, and even that of Duffer, pales in comparison with that of which Linda Corra is accused. She was charged in April with misappropriating money from the Center for Hematology in Boca Raton, where she was a bookkeeper for 12 years. The total: $6 million, a Palm Beach County Circuit Court embezzlement record, Mighdoll said. Among Corra's purchases: a $1.5 million Boca Raton home, two Boynton Beach townhouses and a 38-foot boat.

Corra, 49, may enter a plea in the case, perhaps in December. She has paid back about $4.5 million, prosecutor Frank Castor said.

The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners released a study this year of 1,134 occupational fraud cases investigated from January 2004 to January 2006. The median loss, regardless of gender, was $159,000. Many of Palm Beach County's accused female embezzlers, besides Corra and Thompson, have been stealing on a much grander scale lately.

Among the women who have been charged or convicted this year with large-scale stealing from employers:

* Lampman, 53, pleaded guilty in June to grand theft plus a computer-related crime and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

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