Workplace Thieves Hit Small Businesses the Hardest

Recent findings from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners sheds insight into internal theft


"In a small business, it is pretty common that you're touching cash and also entering numbers into accounting," Matson said.

"Then the rationalization is: How do you live with yourself? They kind of rationalize it that it's just a loan that the employee will pay back," Matson said. "Or, I'm not getting paid enough for my abilities, so I'll make it up this way."

Last month, a former clerk at the Dakota County jail in Hastings was arrested for allegedly stealing $120,000 from a recently created cash account that held inmate funds for them until their release. The "canteen" funds, which the clerk had primary responsibility for withdrawing from a jail safe and depositing into a Wells Fargo bank account, also included commissions from vending machines, booking fees and other fee services.

Investigators said the clerk, Theresa Marie Ford, 42, admitted to a gambling problem and told them she was going to a casino several nights a week, losing $1,000 at a time, but always with the hope of returning the stolen funds. The Dakota County sheriff's office has since adjusted procedures so more than one person verifies the deposits.

Ford's case illustrates more than just the perils of poor accounting controls. Authorities say many embezzlements are prompted by a drug or gambling addiction, where the employee begins skimming small sums of money, hoping to pay it back. The thievery snowballs, and the embezzler quickly loses track of the amount being taken.

When asked how much money she thought she had stolen, Ford estimated $50,000 — less than half of what was actually missing.

"In a majority of these cases, you find the money is either going up their nose or down a slot machine," said Dakota County Sheriff's Deputy David Bellows. "And down a slot machine is becoming much more common."

HOW MUCH IS GONE?

Last month, Apple Valley police met with corporate security representatives at a Bed, Bath & Beyond store, where employee Bently Vance Ralston had admitted to depositing thousands of dollars in fraudulent refunds into his checking account. Ralston, 28, of Bloomington was charged with two felony counts of theft.

According to court documents, Ralston told police that he used the money for household items, trips and gifts. But when told how much money he had stolen, Ralston, like Ford, was in for a shock.

He estimated he had taken approximately $6,000 to $8,000 — far less than the $22,000 that investigators said they had traced back to his thievery.

Last December, the financial officer at Lakeville's Christian Heritage Academy left a letter for school officials admitting she had been spending all the savings on herself and covering up an estimated $150,000 in losses by falsifying balance sheets, leaving doubt whether the school would make its next payroll.

"I never was able to get my spending under control, and I continued in a downward spiral," wrote Martha Gay Narron, 45. "I don't even know the exact amount that I have taken, but all our reserves are gone."

The school was able to get back on its feet through donations, and Narron, who admitted to being a chronic spender, sold her Burnsville home to make restitution.

The cases are scattered across the Twin Cities.

A former Arden Hills employee, Sandra Rae Berres, 41, was charged last week in Ramsey County District Court with stealing $224,000 from the city by doctoring more than 100 checks intended to pay for fuel. Investigators believe Berres has been in treatment for a gambling problem.