Millennial Pink Collar Criminal **Is She Different?

I just finished reading The Assistants by Camille Perri.  It is considered to be a 2016 Hot Summer Read.  Pink collar crime is hitting the mainstream. Watch for a movie down the road according to Perri.   I first heard about The Assistants on NPR. The Assistants is Perri’s debut novel.  What initially drew me in was the story of a young woman who has always done all the right things until it went awry by accident.  The story is engaging and kept me intrigued until I finished the book.  Don’t worry I won’t spoil the ending.  But suffice it to say in my work as a fraud examiner I have yet to see this type of ending. 

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Tina Fontana is a 30 year old “good girl” who has worked for Robert, a “titan”, at Titan Industries for 6 years.  Tina holds his life together and Robert relies on her.   Early in the book Tina makes a life changing honest mistake.  A mistake on an expense report is made and Tina starts down a path she never really saw coming.  Oh, that check?  Didn’t I cancel that? I’d never intentionally take money that didn’t belong to me.  That’s just not how I was raised.”

What I find interesting in the story is the technical nature of the crime.  Is this a new way of stealing for the millennial generation?  It wasn’t an accident when I logged on to my student-loan account either.  But that was the cunning whimsy of technology at work, too, because if I actually had to leave my house at any point—or even just sit down and write out a physical check, and stuff that check into an envelope, and walk that envelope to the mailbox to mail it—I don’t think I could have done it. But quietly typing alone in my dark bedroom felt so innocuous, to anonymous, and even potentially undoable.  There’s something devastatingly permanent about dropping a letter into a public mail box isn’t there?  …But just clicking Send? There would always be Cancel, Edit/Undo.” 

Dr. Linda Grounds, forensic psychologist, told me that the first time a woman embezzles she is very clear in her recollection of the theft.  They remember what they did and thought at the time of the first theft. The subsequent thefts are much more of a blur. They also think they are going to return the money just like Tina thought in The Assistants. There is massive denial going on in their minds.  For Tina “Remembering the money made my stomach lurch. Sweet Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (this was my mother’s voice in my head now, not Robert’s), how had I gotten myself into this? This was so not me.  I didn’t even download music illegally.  I’d never in my life ingested an illicit drug.  I crossed the street only at crosswalks.”

So is this how the new generation of Pink Collar Criminals is going to work exclusively?  There have been studies on how spending habits change when you use credit or debit versus cash or check.  According to a 2000 study titled, “Always Leave Home Without It: A Further Investigation of the Credit-Card Effect on Willingness to Pay,” the number of cases in which credit cards appear to have some impact spending habits are many.  Will embezzlement incidence and amounts change also with technology?  Damn you, technology. Technology made it so easy to deposit that check, I could have done it by accident.  It wasn’t an accident—but it could have been.

The Fraud Triangle, developed by Donald Cressey in 1973, consists of opportunity, pressure and rationalization.   Tina rationalizes “So $19,147 was roughly only two lost arguments to Robert.  And it wasn’t even his money, was the thing.  It was the Titan Corporation’s money, and Titan had billions—literally billions and zillions of dollars.  Could anyone really blame me for not giving this minuscule- to -them -yet-life-changing-for-me amount of money back to the Titan Corporation?” She continues “What I needed to pay the Roto-Rooter man to unclog my ancient toilet, Robert used to play a round of tennis at the country club.  What I needed to buy a computer that didn’t spontaneously shut itself down, he used to have his Mercedes waxed with a rare special formula was was probably composed of the placenta of baby dinosaurs.  My monthly MetroCard was a single RM-monogrammed handkerchief, which Robert considered to be use-and-toss disposable.

In the past it may have been a dentist writing off his family’s trip to Aspen against the business and telling his office manager to pay it all out of the company accounts.  The office manager not being able to afford to send her kid to the local mountain then starts the slippery slope of justifying her stealing money to send her kid on the ski bus because her boss just “stole” from the IRS. 

As for the Opportunity Tina saw her one time “slip” being so easy.  Today’s technology made it so easy.    “How did this plan dawn on me?  I’ll tell you: In the past six years there had been many days I though, Wow, Robert Barlow really trusts me?  Because I had serious access to this man’s identity.  Account numbers, passwords, when he was due for his next prostate exam.  I knew all his secrets.  On the worst days my thinking was more along the lines of, Wow, I could rob Robert Barlow blind if I really set my mind to it!…The truth was, I took great pride in the trust Robert had in me.  I was flattered by it, and by simple being associated with him.  On my own, as a person, I wasn’t so important.  But as Robert Barlow’s assistant, maitre d’s and hoteliers knew me by name. …Robert made me worth something.  I would no sooner have stolen from him than I would have from my own peasant-stock mother and father.The reason we could actually get away with this is because the men who made the big bucks passed off the responsibilities they couldn’t be bothered with (like signing their own names) to their assistants.”

The pressure for Millennials may be their student loans.  We are constantly hearing in the news the amount of debt that the average college student graduates with.  Tina lives a spartan existence in Brooklyn in order to pay her student loans.  Her parents are working class and aren’t able to help her. Perri was recently interviewed by the Huffington Post and the question about income inequality was raised.  Perri answers “First and foremost, I wanted to write a fun and fast-paced read. But I wanted a social consciousness to be present in the guts of this novel. Income inequality is now a very big issue, and we’re seeing it in this year’s election cycle. I think the skyrocketing cost of a college education has placed it in the sphere of being a luxury-priced necessity. People in their twenties and thirties can’t get ahead financially the way their parents did.”

Dr. Grounds also states that her patients have anxiety about getting caught.  They have sleep difficulties.  “Physically, I was falling apart.  Someone of my already-anxious constitution was just not designed for a life of crime” is how Tina is feeling.  There are many pink collar criminals who get caught because of the stress of the lying and stealing slowing are breaking them down.  Diann Cattani spoke at the annual Association of Certified Fraud Examiners annual conference that she became physically ill from her stealing.  After staying home from work and watching an Oprah episode and realizing she was physically ill she went to her work the next day and confessed.  Many pink collar criminals actually feel a sense of relief when they are caught.  That is after they realize they most likely will be going to jail. 

So if you are either a Millennial or a person who has been victimized by a Millennial pink collar criminal I would love to know your thoughts.  It will be interesting to see if there are any substantial changes in the ways of the pink collar criminal.  Stay tuned.