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Theft, embezzlement and fraud: What’s the difference?

Theft, fraud and embezzlement are all serious criminal charges. And one is not necessarily worse than the other. The penalties vary with the severity of the crime – the circumstances and the amount of money involved.

Here’s a closer look at these terms you often hear in the news and what they may mean in a legal context.

Examples of theft

The basic definition of theft is fairly straightforward – taking someone else’s money or property without the intent of returning it. The criminal statutes also recognize theft of services, such as leaving a restaurant without paying or rigging wires to get free cable TV.

Theft crimes are often charged as “larceny.” The charges can range from petit larceny (aka petty theft), such as shoplifting, to grand theft auto. Under South Carolina law, theft becomes a felony (grand larceny) when the value of the stolen property reaches $2,000.

Examples of embezzlement

Embezzlement is another form of theft. Embezzling usually refers to stealing from an employer or misuse of funds that are placed in one’s trust. Sometimes it involves elaborate bookkeeping schemes or electronic transfers. But it can be as simple as skimming bills from a cash-based business or charity. An employee, bookkeeper, treasurer or manager might be accused of embezzling funds.

Depending on the scale of the crime — how much money and the financial impact on the business or organization — embezzlement can be a serious felony charge.

Examples of fraud

Fraud is another category of theft. A person commits fraud when they obtain something of monetary value through deception. Convincing people to give you money under false pretenses, such as the “Nigerian Prince” email scam, is fraud. Lying about your income or employment to obtain a mortgage loan is fraud. Falsifying tax returns to get a bigger refund is fraud. Writing bad checks or using a stolen credit card is fraud. Financial advisor Bernie Madoff committed investment fraud on a massive scale when his multimillion-dollar pyramid scheme collapsed, costing some clients their life savings.

Sometimes fraud is charged based on the method of deception, such as mail fraud or wire fraud. Sometimes criminal charges stem from the cover-up, such as money laundering.

These charges must always be taken seriously

Fraud and embezzlement are sometimes referred to as “white collar” crimes because they are perpetrated through paperwork or computer keystrokes rather than physically stealing like a pickpocket or burglar.

But theft is theft, and the consequences of a conviction for any of these offenses can be far-reaching. Because of the high stakes, especially for business owners, finance employees or professionals, it is critical to seek legal representation as early as possible.