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

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

She was the bookkeeper at BHD Corp., a North Palm Beach-based home builder. She made out more than 100 checks to herself, spending thousands of dollars on dog clothing, doll collections and jewelry.

The company's losses forced it to lay off 20 employees. The judge in the case called the magnitude of the fraud "monumental."

* Sharon Kay Smith, 47, formerly of North Palm Beach, was charged in May with writing more than 400 checks totaling $402,817 on the account of Quality Swimming in Boca Raton to herself and her own company. Smith was a bookkeeper for eight years at the swim lessons company. Her case is pending.

* Silvia Barnard, 34, of Palm Beach Gardens, was busted in March and charged with transferring money from attorney Cari Podesta's office trust account to her own bank account. Barnard was Podesta's assistant. She subsequently pleaded guilty to grand theft, admitting that she took $241,000 from her boss. She was sentenced to four years in prison plus probation and ordered to pay restitution.

Barnard told the judge that she used the money to make a down payment on a house, two cars, furniture, "a little bit of everything."

* In June, Vickie Stetson, 37, of Jupiter was charged with embezzling $99,245 from a Boca Raton plastic surgeon's office where she worked as a patient coordinator for two years. She told police that she also stole $3,153 from her next employer, a dental clinic in Boca Raton, according to court records.

Stetson forged Dr. Patrick Graham's signature on credit checks she took from his desk, then deposited them in her bank account, police said. She also diverted money to her daughter's bank account, and she billed some patients for services they did not receive in order to conceal the withdrawals she made from the doctor's account, according to police. She told police that she was dependent on prescription drugs, especially Percocet, according to court records. Her case is pending.

Women tend to steal smaller amounts over a longer period of time, studies show. Because men dominate most company hierarchies, they have access to more of the organization's resources and their thefts are larger. The median loss in frauds committed by men was double that incurred in frauds by women in the cases studied by the fraud investigators. In the cases they studied, men accounted for 61 percent of the crimes.

Strock said it's not surprising that women are embezzling so often.

"In most institutions I find the Marthas," he said. "They're usually women who don't show up in the organization chart. The Marthas are the clerks, the bookkeepers, the mail people, the secretaries."

As such, these women are the linchpin of organizations, and they often make deposits and withdrawals of money and know how things work, Strock said.

"The reality is most bookkeeping jobs in an office tend to be women, and with that comes trust," Mighdoll said. "Most of the people who commit these types of crimes are first-time offenders."

The fraud investigators' survey found the same thing: Fewer than 8 percent of their embezzlers of either gender had prior criminal convictions.

In nearly 30 percent of the cases reviewed in that study, the theft was not turned over to police. The median loss of money in those cases was only half that in those cases referred to police.

Some companies and organizations don't get police involved because they "don't want to impair their image," Strock said. And sometimes they handle the problem internally because the amount taken is small, Mighdoll said.

The fraud examiners' study found that small companies endure disproportionate losses from embezzlements. The median loss at firms with fewer than 100 employees was $190,000 per scheme, compared to $159,000 overall, the study concluded.