A Typology of Profit-Driven Crimes

1. Introduction

The Purpose of this Study

For obvious reasons, the primary functions of traditional law enforcement and the criminal justice system are investigation, prosecution, and punishment of persons deemed responsible for proscribed acts. The main purpose of criminological research, whether conducted by law enforcement or academics, has been to assist those functions, directly or indirectly. To be sure, there is much research that focuses on crimes as events rather than on the criminals who cause those events. But mostly, research has been devoted to studying the social conditions that facilitate the commission of offences. It has paid much less attention to understanding the methodology by which and institutional context through which particular actions take place.

The resulting deficiencies are particularly marked with respect to profit-driven offences. The type of information collected by police or prosecutors for the purposes of a particular criminal proceeding may be quite different from the type of information necessary in understanding the nature of on-going criminal markets or the modus operandi of the underworld economy as a whole. Nor is academic criminology much more helpful – generally speaking, crimes are used to define categories of offenders rather than being a subject of (more technocratic) interest in and of themselves. 

These shortfalls also afflict the categorization of acts. The practice of dividing criminal code offences into three broad categories – crimes against persons, crimes against property, and trafficking – provides little useful information with respect to context or process.  More spe­cifically, due to lack of systematic definition and subsequent overlap, umbrella terms such as economic, commercial, and white-collar crime are frequently used interchangeably, even by socalled "experts in the field." The fact that some of these terms refer to acts and others to persons doesn’t seem to matter (e.g., respectively, commercial vs. white-collar crime).  It is no surprise that the specified offences covered by these are similarly confusing and impractical.  For example, means (e.g., telephone pitches and computerized communications) and ends (e.g., fraudulent transfers of wealth) are oftentimes confounded.  All this creates problems that go beyond simple lack of terminological neatness. Without knowing just what a problem or objective is, it seems rather difficult, to say the least, to design a strategy or policy to deal with it.

Most databases employ static categories that shed little or no light, beyond the most elementary definitional sort, on what offenders actually do.  Crimes are typically lumped into groups based on degree of "seriousness," which, in turn, refers to the sentence length particular offences carry. This is, on one level, tautological – presumably the justice system does not hand out sentences in inverse proportion to the seriousness of the offences. It is also debateable if seriousness should be assessed by the institutions responsible for dealing with the offence, rather than by reference to more objective determinants. Moreover, when a concept like seriousness is used, it should be specified "serious to whom?" Perhaps most important, such taxonomies attempt to capture a dynamic process in a freeze-frame, ignoring the possibility of wide swings in public mood and opinion. It should never be forgotten that pretending to be a witch is still a criminal offence in Canada – so, too, a captain seducing female passengers on boats and the uttering of phoney one cent coins.

Indeed there is a sense in which the very term crime is misleading, except on a strictly tautological level (i.e., a crime is, by definition, something which violates statutes that prescribe criminal sanctions for particular acts). The term crime, particularly when applied to profit-driven offences, lumps together actions that, judged in terms of their inherent nature and/or consequences, are quite distinct. It could even be argued that the term crime as a composite category should be abandoned entirely. It conjures up an exogenous and amorphous menace, an "underworld" populated by an intrinsically evil subset of humanity, instead of the view that crimes are endogenous to modern society and could be committed by the boy or girl next door. Furthermore, what is truly important is not "crime" but "crimes," a term that automatically forces attention onto what makes them different instead of forcing upon a wide range of offences an artificial unity.

The question then becomes, is there an alternative system of analysis that can help to fill in shortcomings of more traditional methods of classifying offences?

There are many different ways to create such a taxonomy. Which is more efficacious depends on the analyst’s objectives. If the purpose is to focus the public’s attention on a broad category of concern, a phrase like crimes against the environment, for example, would suffice. But if the objective were to define more precisely what has occurred, with a view to prescribe preventive policy, such a broad term would be of little assistance. Rather, it would be necessary to understand how toxic waste is illegally dumped, endangered species are poached, or companies manage to evade the ban on CFCs. Alternatively, if the objective is to focus on social factors, offender characteristics might be the salient determinants – youth or white collar crime for instance. Yet again, the objective might be to focus on characteristics of victims – they might be individuals who could be divided by socio-economic class, age, or sex; or they might be businesses or "society" at large, etc.

But here the objective is more modest: it is to disaggregate the concept of profit-driven "crime" by examining a possible typology that is functional, rather than sectoral, that is process- rather than offender-based, and that is applicable to all offences where profit is at least partially the motive. This has a number of advantages.

One is to clarify the precise nature of the economic forces at work, and thereby gain a better understanding of the possible economic (and social) costs. It may be that once the economic logic of a particular offence is understood, not only can its relative seriousness be judged - in terms other than the circular one of calling a crime more serious if it merits a longer sentence - but in some cases it might serve to call into question whether something really should be a crime. At the same time it might help to better highlight points of vulnerability of both perpetrators and victims.

Second, and closely related, it might help put an end to wild numbers (e.g., "Bre-X was a 6 billion dollar fraud" or "Surfing the Web helped save CIBC from a $25-billion US hit") used by the mass media to titillate audiences. By better understanding the economic context and constraints under which profit-driven crimes operate, it may be possible a priori to set logical limits to the size and frequency of certain types of offences.

Third, once the actual division of labour is understood, it might help delineate responsibility within multiple-person crimes. A typical profit-driven crime, contrary to the impression given by legal definitions, is not an isolated act but a complex series of interrelated actions.

Fourth, the more is known about the actual economic "organization" of crimes, the more efficient and effective can be tools designed instead for deterrence and prevention.

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