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White-Collar Crime in Australia: What Is It, Why Would You Do It, and What Are the Penalties?

— March 4, 2024

There is almost always a victim with white-collar crime, and it’s often individuals who may experience significant and life-changing financial losses.

You’ve likely heard the term ‘white-collar crime’, but did you know it’s an issue that costs the Australian economy billions of dollars every year?

For this reason, if you’re accused of allegedly committing white-collar offences in Australia, you could be facing heavy criminal penalties of imprisonment and/or fines. So, the first thing you’ll want to do if you find yourself in this situation is seek legal representation with a criminal lawyer highly experienced in this area.

What exactly is ‘white-collar crime’?

White-collar crime is “financially motivated non-violent crime committed by business and government professions” – and it includes offences such as fraud, tax evasion, tax fraud, money laundering, insider trading, hacking, identity theft, and embezzlement.

They’re generally crimes committed against companies or government entities and carried out for personal benefit. Perpetrators exploit their positions of trust to manipulate financial systems, resulting in significant financial losses for individuals, businesses, and even governments. High profile cases of white-collar crime include the infamous disgraced businessman Christopher Skase, and businesswoman Melissa Caddick.

It’s different from blue-collar crime, which refers to street crimes like assault, burglary, and drug-related offences, and corporate crime, which is generally committed by a company for the company’s benefit, rather than an individual.

What might motivate someone to commit white-collar crime?

The motivations behind white-collar crime are as diverse as the activities themselves. Financial gain is often the main driving force, with individuals seeking to accumulate wealth through illicit means. Pressure to meet unrealistic business targets, maintain a certain lifestyle, or address personal financial difficulties may also play a role.

The absence of immediate consequences, or the perception of invincibility due to social status, may also fuel this type of criminal behaviour.

What are the penalties of white-collar crime?

In recent years, Australian regulators and enforcement authorities have intensified their efforts to knuckle down on white-collar criminals. This follows a wide-scale investigation of the financial sector during 2018’s Financial Services Royal Commission undertaken by former High Court of Australia judge, Kenneth Hayne. The final report pointed to an alarming culture in the financial sector, where profit is put ahead of the interests of customers – including remuneration practices aimed at rewarding sales and profitability.

The outcome has subsequently put pressure on regulators and enforcement authorities to address the issue with increased force, including the creation of The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) in 2023.

Man in prison; image by Damir Spanic, via
Man in prison; image by Damir Spanic, via

As a result, key amendments have been made to legislation resulting in harsher penalties for white-collar criminals. If convicted, you could be looking at up to 15 years in prison, hefty fines, restitution to victims, and disqualification from holding managerial positions.

Factors considered when determining a sentence include how much money has been stolen, the level of sophistication, and the extent of organisation and planning.

What is the legal process?

Australia has a comprehensive legal process to address white-collar crime, involving investigation, prosecution, and trial. Law enforcement agencies, such as the Australian Federal Police and state police forces, collaborate with regulatory bodies like ASIC (Australian Securities and Investments Commission), ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption), and the ATO (Australian Taxation Office) to investigate and bring perpetrators to justice.

Some white-collar offences are handled in criminal courts, but many have civil proceedings – which can still be a complex and lengthy process with dire consequences. Depending on the conduct, these may take place at either state or federal level.

The legal framework includes statutes such as the Corporations Act, which specifically addresses offenses related to corporate misconduct.

It’s a lengthy, complex legal procedure with potentially severe consequences, but you can save significant legal fees and headaches by engaging a lawyer experienced with white-collar offences early on.

There is almost always a victim with white-collar crime, and it’s often individuals who may experience significant and life-changing financial losses – so it’s a crime not taken lightly. However, a knowledgeable solicitor can navigate through this complexity, building a strong defense strategy to protect the rights and interests of the accused.

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