The rich antithesis found in the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ famed A Tale of Two Cities (“. . . it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity . . .”) reminds me of the alarming dissimilarity between the two types of embezzlers; that is, those who are caught and those who are not. The former thieves I call mice and the later snakes.
Of all the questions that were asked of me, following my arrest, the most common one was, “How did this go on so long without anyone noticing?” Ironically, it was in my role as Internal Auditor where I had preemptively discovered the answers to this off repeated question.
There are Four Key Marks, under the acronym MATE (Motive, Approach, Trace Evidence, and Exit Strategy), which distinguishes those who are caught with their hand in the cookie jar from those who are caught only after all the cookies are gone. All Internal Auditors and Fraud Investigators, alike, are better empowered to minimize and prevent theft by being keenly aware of these Four Marks.
Motive: When my employers learned that my wife and I were considering divorce, they rightly limited my access to the companies’ wire transfer account. Perhaps this would have worked if I had been a mouse and had basic needs. There is no obstacle or challenge that ambitious people are not interested in conquering. Trying to hinder a very driven person is like telling snow to stop being wet – it doesn’t work.
We have all heard it said before that there are only two reasons why people steal – those being need and greed. There is much truth in this saying, but for embezzlers these two reasons need to be better nuanced, only for the reason that this crime involves much more finesse, than, say, the bullying tactics used in armed robbery. For embezzlers, this crime is personal, but also very calculated. Yet, because their approach requires extensive planning and forethought, they have all of the time that they need to reconsider their deviant audacity and back out, but something continues to motivate and push them into the act.
Indeed, part of their preparation work and planning includes the time that they need to hammer out their own moral justification for doing wrong. For most people, good deeds are almost instantaneous, they pour out of us like a reflex, depending on how well formed our conscience is. In contrast, bad deeds need to be well thought-out; stories (lies) need to be told and repeated to ourselves until enough delectation is finally found and stirred up into action. And it is in that delectation where their core motivation is always rooted and grounded – firmly or unfirmly.
It’s just all about the money, right? No, not completely! Like many people, snakes and mice have a real self-thought need for more money, but their needs have much more to do with their social demands (such as, procuring more spending money, meeting financial obligations, keeping up appearances, comfort, and etcetera), rather than perceived life threatening demands (such as, food, shelter, security, drugs, and etcetera). Yes, of course, they do delight in having more money, but they delight even more in the crime itself.
This is why the mouse nibbles and the snake goes for the whole kit and caboodle. These two rodents have very different appetites. The snake ups the ante every time, taking more and more, challenging himself. He has too, so that he can feel accomplished and, thereby, good about himself. In contrast, the mouse never raises the ante. She is content to just slowly nibble away at your cheese and laugh at you under her breath. In addition to their social demands, snakes and mice have the additional motivator of self-delusional pride. That is, they truly like to believe that they are smarter than everyone else, and even a criminal act will not stop them from proving their self-declared brilliance to themselves and/or others. The snake, even more so than the mouse, has this obsession to prove his audaciously depraved intellect to the world.
Their APPROACH to the crime is also different. When a mouse spies a piece of cheese, it spends only a little amount of time attempting to investigate any nearby or approaching dangers, traps, or enemies. In contrast, a snake will carefully plot, plan, calculate, and only strike at the most opportune time.
Their different MotiveS have everything to do with their APPROACH to the crime. The mouse only has a few ‘little’ social demands that need to be met, and she really does not even see the harm in nibbling off of your food. After-all, she is only taking a ‘little bit’. In contrast, the snake cares less about the money than he does in stroking his massively growing ego. He has being cunning all of his life, has a good reputation, is involved in the community, and etcetera. His ultimate goal in all of this is to not to get rich, but, rather, not to get caught, because doing so would destroy what he holds most dear – his social standing and over inflated self-worth.
Because their APPROACH to the crime is radically different, so is their Trace Evidence. Mice leave droppings, snakes leave behind a trail. Wind and rain will cover a snake’s trail, but mouse droppings cannot hide – they are obvious to the naked eye.
Those who are caught with their hand in the cookie jar do so only because they had failed to control 100% of all of the inputs and outputs of their crime. Again, mice are not careful, they make noise, and they almost beg to be caught because of their carelessness.
I investigated a woman who, as an accounts payable clerk, was processing bogus vendor invoices and cashing their checks into her own bank account. Her crime was only uncovered due to one of the vendors complaining that his 1099 was thousands of dollars overstated. If this woman had been a methodical snake, she would have spent more time in her APPROACH by investigating the entire payables process.
Snakes blend in with the background. You cannot catch a snake by looking for a needle in a haystack, because they do not leave needles behind – they leave hay! That is, snakes take the time to pattern their fraudulent transactions to look, smell, feel, and taste exactly like hay. Bernie Madoff offered limited reporting to his investors. I made up my own esoteric reports and often delayed so that they would not be carefully examined. If you play by the snakes rules, you will never catch him.
This brings us to the fourth and final dissimilarity between the two types of embezzlers – Exit-Strategy. Mice have none whatsoever – they will keep stealing a little bit at a time until the accounting process finally catches up with them. In a bad accounting shop, without the necessary controls, mice may nibble away at the bottom-line forever.
Initially, all snakes do have an exit strategy, but what once began as an exercise of the ego often concludes with an excessive lifestyle that needs to be maintained. Madoff was caught primarily because his well finally ran dry. I was caught because I accepted a promotion to another department. It is true, some snakes will slither away into the open and suffer the consequences of their actions, while the rest will become just like the mice who they had ate and finally be found whisker deep in the cookie jar.
The mice will always be with you. You will always have employees who will deign to steal – whether it be office supplies, time, or product. Mice nibble, but enough little can eventually add up to be a whole lot of cheese. The Pied Piper had a great idea about how to get rid of mice! That is, show them a better way. Take the time to give your employees generous amounts of employee ethics and values training, incentives, and encouragement – they just might follow the new route.
I am sorry to say that the only way to catch a snake is to accept the fact that everyone has the potential to be a one. As hikers dress in layers and carry sticks to protect themselves from wandering snakes – we should follow the same approach in our own organizations. Never let a single person control 100% of all the inputs and outputs of any financial activity, distribute the workload, standardize reporting, and maintain adequate controls, and perhaps you may avoid being bit.