Thieves in Three-Piece Suits | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 13.03.2003
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Thieves in Three-Piece Suits

Every year, white collar crime costs the German economy some €36 billion ($39.8 billion). Investigators have to battle with legal gray areas, social attitudes and limited resources.


The "Respectable" Criminal

The sight of police and state prosecutors knocking on the doors of business leaders, politicians and companies in the early hours, and leaving with box-loads of files and computer disks, is not entirely uncommon in Germany. Tens of thousands of cases of white collar crime are brought to the authorities' attention every year, and it's believed thousands more go unnoticed and unpunished.

The crimes include fraud and embezzlement, insider trading and breach of antitrust rules. The fraudsters and business cheats who commit them often feel above the law, because of the many legal "gray areas" and the mild view society takes of financial crime compared to "ordinary" crime.

False trading with false teeth

One high-profile case emerged in 2002, when some 50 dental firms and 2,000 dentists, acting in cahoots with employees at the state-run health services, imported false teeth, crowns, bridges and other dental replacements from Asia at low prices and sold them to patients as German products -- at German rates. Damages were estimated in the millions.

One of the men whose job it is to track down such white-collar criminals and bring them to to justice is Friedhelm Friebe, the deputy chief commissioner of the economic crime unit in Cologne.

Friebe's job is a far cry from what most people view as typical police work: he spends most of his time studying mountains of documents, page by page, until he has enough evidence to secure a search warrant and launch a raid. Sometimes he sends up to 400 police officers into a company headquarters to make sure that no piece of potential evidence is left behind.

Male, German, well-educated

Friebe has been investigating this pin-striped branch of the underworld for more than 20 years. And he has created a profile of the typical white-collar criminal. "Usually, the culprits are men, the large majority are German, always well-educated," he told DW-RADIO. "They are people who are well established in society by virtue of their professions, but who spot an opportunity that they can turn to their personal advantage."

Official statistics back up Friebe's analysis. Figures published by the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (Bundeskriminalamt) show that more than 80 percent of convicted white collar criminals are men. Often, they're doctors, dentists, politicians or respected businessmen.

Furthermore, one in a hundred citizens commits an economic crime every year. The culprits don't form a large portion of the population, but that's in keeping with their status as members of society's elite.

Tolerated by society

Yet, these criminals remain hard to prosecute. Friebe says society often takes a mild view of, or even condones, their actions. And although millions of euro might be at stake, even judges can be inclined toward leniency. According to Friebe, prosecutors face two main problems in bringing the culprits to justice.

"Firstly, many courts take the view that it's only about money, and nobody's been hurt or killed, so there's no need to impose harsh sentences; secondly, economic crimes can be extremely difficult to prove, and the well-heeled suspects can afford to hire the best lawyers," he says. Friebe adds that courts often end up striking a deal with the accused in order to close the case, and he has never seen a case where the criminal expressed regret.

More resources needed

According to Federal statistics, the police succeed in solving well over 90 percent of the cases brought to their attention. But that's not good enough for Friebe; he says he could do more with additional staff and resources to pursue more cases. But in these times of budgetary austerity, there is little hope that his wish will come true.

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