'Pink collar' crime: A rise in women embezzling funds

“They’re moms, grandmas and wives. They’re not your typical thug,” a fraud examiner told KGW about the rise in women embezzling funds.

More women arrested for embezzlement than men

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PORTLAND, Ore.— Embezzlers aren’t your typical criminals.  Most are business professionals- bookkeepers or office managers.  Often they have no criminal history, not even parking tickets.  And most embezzlers are women.

“They’re moms, grandmas and wives.  They’re not your typical thug,” explained Kelly Paxton, founder of PinkCollarCrime.com.  The fraud examiner has seen a rise in the number of women in the workplace who steal from their employers.

“One day I’m like, ‘All of my suspects are women,’” said Paxton.

The latest FBI crime statistics show that nationwide more women were arrested for embezzlement than men. 

“They’re in trusted positions: Accounting, bookkeeping, mid-level manager,” Paxton explained. 

KGW reviewed more than a dozen recent cases in Oregon involving female embezzlers.  The women were caught stealing anywhere from $6,000 to more than $1 million from businesses, community groups and schools. Most of the women were sentenced to probation and restitution.  A few of them went to prison.

Photos: Female embezzlers

Cecelia Braaten of Gresham agreed to pay back more than $23,000 she stole while she was president of the Hollydale School Parent-Teacher Club.  As part of a plea deal in January 2016, Braaten also agreed to three years of probation and community service.

“I felt betrayed,” said Cyndi Smith who served with Braaten on the parent-teacher club.  “A lot of times she was just going and getting like $200 out of the bank machine.”

Smith said Braaten covered her tracks by doctoring bank statements and avoiding face-to-face meetings.

“I didn’t notice at the time but there were a lot of excuses why we couldn’t meet up,” said Smith. 

Braaten finally got caught when a check bounced after the annual cookie dough sale, the school’s biggest fundraiser of the year. 

“We were saving up for a new playground,” Smith said.  “There should have been much more money.”

Braaten declined to comment for this story.

Forensic psychologist Dr. Linda Grounds of Portland has evaluated 40 women charged with embezzlement. 

None of the women had any criminal history, except for two who had previous drunk driving arrests.  A majority of them experienced childhood neglect or abuse and many suffered depression, anxiety and PTSD.

The women stole for a variety of reasons, Grounds said.  Some embezzled to support a gambling problem, while others used the money to indulge shopping or vacations.  The majority of the women said they embezzled simply to make ends meet.

“The most common motive is something called ‘Higher Loyalties,’” Grounds explained.  “That means the woman is motivated by a rather desperate financial situation, the need to provide for her family the basics of shelter, rent, food and clothing.”

“You don’t get that from men,” said Dr. Darrell Steffensmeier, criminologist at Penn State University.  “If men embezzle it is more likely to protect their reputation or status.”

Steffensmeier explained that men typically steal from their workplaces because of gambling debts, extramarital affairs, drinking problems or bad business investments.

“They often have a financial problem that they can’t easily share with others, including their spouse,” said Steffensmeier.  “The motive for men is to protect their own ass.”

Experts say women typically embezzle less money than men, and when they are caught, most women confess to the crime.

Bookkeeper Jane Lynn Sanders admitted to stealing from her employer after being confronted by police.  KGW obtained audio recordings of the confession made to Sandy Police detective Jason Bickle through a public records request.

Det. Jason Bickle: “Okay, did you intentionally steal from the company?”

Jane Sanders: “It didn’t start out intentionally.”

Det. Jason Bickle: “It didn’t start out intentionally?”

Jane Sanders: “No”

Det. Jason Bickle: “But it wound up intentionally?”

Jane Sanders: “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”  

Police say Sanders stole roughly $150,000 by paying her company’s vendors with her personal credit cards, then over-reimbursing herself.  In 2013, a Clackamas County judge sentenced Sanders to more than three years in prison and ordered her to pay $112,000 in restitution.

Women who embezzle are typically remorseful. 

“It was a horrific, horrific thing,” said Lisa Sundquist who was released from prison in May 2015 after serving nearly four years for embezzlement.  As the office manager at a Southwest Portland medical practice, she stole close to $250,000 from her employer between July 2008 and November 2009.

“I didn’t need the money.  I’m not a drug addict, not an alcoholic and I didn’t have a gambling habit,” explained Sundquist, who said she used the money for shopping.  “It was that euphoric feeling, just like a drug.  I bought everything for everybody.”

Sundquist said she remembers the exact moment she first stole from her employer by embezzling an $8,000 check. 

“It destroyed my life,” said Sundquist, who hopes to use her experience to help companies avoid embezzlement.

“My main message to any business owners is: Do not trust anyone, ever.  You have to have checks and balances in place,” she said.  “I don’t care if they’ve worked there for 30 years: Do not trust anyone.”

Tips to Detect Fraud:

  • Watch for key employees becoming secretive about their work.
  • Look for an employee with an extravagant lifestyle- possibly living beyond their means.
  • Be aware of an employee who refuses to take vacations.
  • Be mindful of employees experiencing financial, family or medial problems.  Help them.
  • Watch for accounting irregularities. 
  • If something seems wrong- look into it.  Investigate.

Published: February 13, 2017

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