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The criminal mind of a fraudster

White-collar criminals are adept at manipulating and exploiting the goodwill of others to carry out their schemes. Recognizing and understanding these behaviors are important ingredients in the fight against financial fraud. In this article, the author details criminal thinking traits through case studies of some of the most infamous white-collar fraudsters and provides strategies and tools that fraud examiners can use to recognize those traits.

On his blog, Sam E. Antar warns that white-collar criminals see the world around them as opportunities. According to Antar, white-collar criminals consider other people’s humanity, ethics and good intentions as qualities to exploit. He writes, “We measure our effectiveness by the comfort level of our victims, and we increase our victim’s comfort level by building walls of false integrity around ourselves.”

“It’s a paradox,” says Antar. “The more humane society is, the easier it is to commit crimes. Humanity limits your behavior, but it doesn’t limit our behavior because we’re immoral human beings. One’s humanity might consist of one’s morals, standards of conduct, goodwill, ethics, sense of fairness, giving one the benefit of the doubt, and belief in the rule of law. The things that make you a good person make me a more capable criminal.” (See “A Convicted Felon’s View of White-Collar Crime,” White Collar Fraud, updated Nov. 21, 2023.)

Antar speaks with authority on this subject — he was one of the masterminds behind the infamous Crazy Eddie securities fraud in the 1980s. Antar, the chief financial officer (CFO) of the New York-based electronics store, pleaded guilty in 1991 and 1992 to conspiracy to commit securities fraud, conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and obstruction of justice for cooking Crazy Eddie’s books to increase reported profits and inflate the value of the company’s stock. He was sentenced to six months of house arrest and ordered to pay $30,000 in fines. (See “The Rise And Fall Of Crazy Eddie: A Tale Of Epic Fraud,” by Simon Constable, Forbes, Aug. 27, 2022 and “Sam Antar: The CFO behind the Crazy Eddie’s fraud,” by Quentin Fottrell, MarketWatch, July 29, 2014.)

Anti-fraud professionals should take note of Antar’s warning about the white-collar criminal’s thoughts. In recent years, we’ve seen high-profile fraudsters like Sam Bankman-Fried and Elizabeth Holmes abscond with billions of their victims’ money; there’s still a need to better understand why they do what they do. A better understanding of the people behind the frauds can enable anti-fraud professionals to better prevent and detect these major cases that financially devastate people. In this article, I describe different criminal thinking traits and provide examples through case studies of some of the most notorious fraudsters. I also detail how to use a visual template to map thinking traits you might observe in the course of your own work. 

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