• Date: 3/13/2013

“Clues need to be followed up” 

Interview with: Anne van Heerden, Head Forensic and Risk Consulting at KPMG

You have published a study on white-collar crime. What were the most surprising findings?

Anne van Heerden: We are now fairly well aware of the phenomenon of white-collar crime. However, time and again, we are surprised by the scope of a crime or the way in which it was committed. In the current survey, which was conducted across three countries, I was surprised at the average sum of money involved in an offence: in Switzerland, the loss caused amounts to CHF 360,000 in each case. This amount is significantly higher than that in Germany and Austria, and shows that companies are indeed still suffering substantial losses as a result of white-collar crime.

What constitutes a typical white-collar offence?

Anne van Heerden: In the three countries that took part in the survey, theft and embezzlement were at the top of the list of offences. In Switzerland, SMEs are particularly affected by these types of offences - specifically, by the theft of goods or misappropriation of funds. We asked the companies how they assess the risks of being affected by individual offences. The infringement of property rights and copyright, or the theft of data, for instance, are real dangers that companies are obviously aware of. Crimes such as theft and embezzlement, however, are significantly underestimated. This is surprising, mostly because these crimes cause by far the most damage.

The current study focuses primarily on SMEs. How does white-collar crime in SMEs differ from white-collar crime in large companies?

Anne van Heerden: Cases of fraud, tax evasion and embezzlement in large companies are often reported in the media. However, it is by no means the case that white-collar crime occurs much less often in SMEs. These companies in particular involve close relationships of trust, which are often abused because, for example, people don’t tend to look at things too closely. In cases involving SMEs, in particular, outside perpetrators also play a significant role. Over half of the perpetrators in crimes involving SMEs do not come from within the SME itself, but from outside. In contrast, in cases involving large companies, it is usually employees of the company itself that are behind the crime.

What happens when a crime is discovered? Does this even become public knowledge?

Anne van Heerden: Uncovering a crime is often unpleasant for the company. In many cases, the controls were inadequate or insufficient precautions had been taken. It is thus not always advantageous to make such information public. If the company chooses not to press charges, investigations can be conducted more flexibly or an individual repayment agreed. As well as pressing criminal charges, companies can also take action against the perpetrators under employment or civil law, for example, making a claim for damages or terminating an employee’s contract.

Can a company take steps to ensure that such cases are discovered more quickly, or do not happen in the first place?

Anne van Heerden: Yes, absolutely. After all, white-collar crimes do not occur of their own accord. Mostly, indications within or outside the company eventually lead to crimes being discovered. This has also been confirmed by our study. It is, therefore, extremely important that there are appropriate bodies which deal with and follow up such clues. Whistle-blowing hotlines play an important part in such cases, but there can also be an internal point of contact or some form of ombudsman. In addition, preventative measures can be taken to stop white-collar crimes from being carried out as far as possible. It is not enough to introduce guidelines. An ethical corporate culture must be entrenched within the company and reflected in practice. Targeted training can be carried out, for example, to achieve this.

Is it enough to create a responsible environment and an ethical corporate culture?

Anne van Heerden: These are very important aspects. However, it is clear that effective controls are also necessary. The dual-control principle is already proving useful in many areas. However, these measures also include the management of access rights, data security and thorough monitoring of sensitive areas. This makes it as difficult as possible to carry out criminal acts. However, it is also important to ensure that employees know that such controls exist and that they are aware of internal guidelines.

Have you personally become more suspicious on the whole?

Anne van Heerden: Actually, I have become more watchful, even in my private life (laughs). It always amazes me how resourceful the offenders are. When we are called to investigate a case and the suspicions are confirmed, it is not uncommon for us to uncover other crimes that no one had anticipated.
Interview: Michael Frei, Marketing & Communications

Anne van Heerden

Anne van Heerden


Head Forensic and Risk Consulting at KPMG

Economic Crime Study Switzerland, Germany, Austria

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This is an extensive study conducted by KPMG on economic crime in Switzerland, Germany and Austria.