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Embezzlement is rooted in a lack of oversight, psychological issues, experts say

POSTED: July 17, 2008 5:00 a.m.
They were loyal, long-term, trusted employees.

And, according to authorities, they were skimming extraordinary amounts of money from their employers’ coffers.

In the last eight months, four Hall County women have been charged in four unrelated embezzlement schemes of staggering proportions. In the most recent case, $1 million was allegedly stolen from Buford toolmaker Makita USA over a seven-year span by former head of accounting Peggy Walker of Clermont.

Prior to that, Michelle Sanchez and Dianne Ray were accused of stealing more than half a million dollars each from a real estate developer and physician’s office, respectively. And Charlotte Baghose is under indictment on charges of embezzling $586,000 from automotive parts maker ZF Industries.

The four cases are pending in Hall and Gwinnett county courts.

Embezzlers, experts say, usually hide behind a smile, a willingness to work long hours and a trust built up over years of employment.

"If employees seem too good to be true, often they are," said Terry Shulman, author of "Biting the Hand That Feeds: The Employee Theft Epidemic." "Because often it is the star employee who is led out in handcuffs."

Walker, according to court documents, worked for the company from 1988 until 2006. She is accused of transferring company funds to her own bank account electronically and masking the expenditures by inflating vendor expenses. According to court documents, the thefts go back to 1999, a year after Walker’s family was devastated by the Hall County tornadoes of 1998.

Often a personal crisis triggers employee theft, Shulman said.

"Most people don’t go into work thinking, ‘OK, I’m going in here — I’m a criminal. I’m going to go in and get all I can get.’ Not that it’s an excuse, but a lot of times there’s something that motivates the theft initially."

Pat Murphy, president of Houston-based LPT Security Consulting, said an employee’s personal crisis can coincide at a time when she discovers a weakness in a company’s financial systems, often by accident.

"Soon they discover this is just a totally unmonitored process, and that’s how it begins," Murphy said.

Said Shulman, "You notice after a short period of time that you’re not getting caught, and it starts to feel very tempting and easy. The getting of something for nothing does become addictive."

"Trust is for suckers"

Murphy is often called on to tell a business what it did wrong after it was taken for huge amounts by an employee.

Lack of adequate oversight is the biggest factor, he said, particularly in smaller businesses.

"The crucial piece for business owners is to understand that the person who is in charge of the money has to have a check and balance not controlled by them," Murphy said. "You can’t put sole control of your cash flow and banking to only one person."

For small businesses, the annual visit by a certified public accountant isn’t much help in spotting theft, "because they’re not a forensic CPA," Murphy said. "They’re trying to get the taxes taken care of. There’s no intermediary in there looking for the fraud."

Murphy recommends that an outside forensic CPA or fraud investigator be given a chance to look into the books at least once.

"It gives you peace of mind and provides a deterrent to keep people honest," he said.

Employer naivete can play a role, too, Murphy said.

"I think people in general underplay the possibility of someone who works for them being dishonest," he said. "I have a saying, ‘Trust is for suckers.’ It’s great for evaluations, for giving raises, but when it comes to business practices, it doesn’t exist."

However, Murphy added, "In the defense of the business owners, these are manipulative people. They have to have the smile, they have to have the trust, because once they begin their scheme, they know if they ever get fired, they’ll be discovered. So they turn into your very best employee."

No way to tell

Shulman, who counsels offenders through his Detroit-based Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft and Spending, said larger companies should have more discussions with employees about embezzlement, which he believes is often rooted in mental health issues.

"We just say, ‘Thou shall not steal,’ but we don’t do education about it as a stress issue and an addiction issue," Shulman said. "Companies don’t like to talk about drugs and alcohol and sexual harassment, but they will. They’ve got training, seminars and employee assistance programs for that. But they don’t want to bring up the subject (of theft) for fear they might make the employees think about it."

The toll of embezzlement on businesses can go beyond financial loss.

In at least two of the four pending area cases, the victimized business owners felt a deep sense of betrayal by a employee who was considered like family. Ray worked for Dr. Steve Moore for 25 years. Sanchez was "treated like a daughter" by her employers, Jay and Susan Bullock.

"We were just devastated by this," Susan Bullock said last year. "It’s been very difficult — the betrayal of trust has been a huge factor."

Embezzlers, while they may be cold and calculating in their thefts, are not without consciences, Shulman said.

"Many do feel a lot of guilt and shame about what they’ve done," he said. "Yes, they’re also sorry they got caught, but most people do have a conscience and know right from wrong."

In the end, Murphy said, more stealing is going on in the workplace than most would imagine. He estimates three-quarters of all employee theft goes undetected. And intuition can’t always penetrate the human psyche.

"There’s really no way to tell what’s going on behind the face that’s at the desk at your office," he said.



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