Do financial crimes pay off?

How much do you really know about your neighbor?

In the course of analyzing the ins and outs of financial crimes for the world’s banks, I’ve studied enough cases of money laundering to enable me to do it should I ever decide to become a criminal. In fact, what I’ve learned is that it pays to be a criminal. Rarely does the restitution in finance-related legal decisions match the amount of money originally stolen. And depending on the type of person you were before your crime spree, your punishment could be just a short vacation in a crime camp as opposed to an extended stay in prison. Regardless, the rest of your stolen loot is waiting for you upon your exit so you can go legit and eventually become a pillar of your community.

Case in point: the most famous financial criminal of all time, Frank Abagnale. He is now a recognized expert in the fight against financial fraud, has worked for the FBI and became a bestselling author by telling his story in a book called, Catch Me if You Can. You probably know Abagnale better as Leo DiCaprio’s main character in the Steven Spielberg-directed film adaptation of his book, which presented Abagnale’s style of financial fraud as a glamorous, cash-filled party. As with his crimes, he issued a laissez faire statement in response to questions raised by the press regarding the validity of the ‘stories’ in the book.

According to Abagnale, “I was interviewed by the co-writer only about four times. I believe he did a great job of telling the story, but he also over-dramatized and exaggerated some of the story. That was his style and what the editor wanted. He always reminded me that he was just telling a story and not writing my biography.”

Regardless, Abagnale pulled off some big financial crimes that cost its victims considerable sums of money. For his exploits, which also included two escapes while in custody, he was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison. He eventually served five, only to graduate to a desk job working for the FBI. He then created a security consultancy that advises banks and companies against common fraud practices (I’m guessing the airlines were his first customers?). Today, he teaches at the FBI Academy and lectures at FBI field offices around the country. His four-year crime spree has turned into a legitimate 40-year career.

It’s odd how a man can go from a criminal deserving shame to a respectful neighbor and someone others might actually consider to be an upstanding member of the community. We see it happen outside of the financial industry, too — the most prescient example of late being the willingness for the FBI to put ‘black hat’ hackers they capture committing crimes to work for them identifying emerging electronic security threats and building new programs to stop them. In some cases, those hackers employed by the FBI have gone on to create successful software companies and, like Abagnale, serve as pillars of their respective communities.

The emergence of the Panama Papers has opened a lot of eyes and started a number of discussions surrounding financial crimes, changing our definition of what is legal versus what isn’t. What should we consider ethical these days? What we thought was a crime — avoiding taxation, money laundering — is taking place in broad daylight on a massive scale, often by people we have been taught to respect. It is very doubtful that any criminal proceedings will emerge from the exposure of the Panama Papers; it is easy to conclude that the financial crimes committed by those involved will only serve to benefit them in the long run. They will most probably become legitimate citizens (if they aren’t already) and eventually serve as pillars of their communities. So you might want to ask, who exactly IS your neighbor?

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