Why I stole from my employer for five years

by North & South / 13 August, 2017
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Princess of thieves

A clean-living, middle-class fraudster admits she stole simply to spend – on clothes, nice haircuts and lunches.

It seemed such a simple scam. Send out an invoice to the client, but instead of your company’s bank account number for payment, replace it with your own.

For former office manager “Grace”, it was offending that netted her $162,000 and went undetected for nearly five years. She remembers checking her bank account and seeing that first illegal payment – for just $100 or so – pop up. “I felt sick to my stomach. Some people get a thrill from it, but I definitely didn’t feel like that. I had this churning feeling in my stomach. But then you don’t get caught.”

Grace still can’t answer why, if that first fraud made her feel so bad, that she didn’t stop right there. “It’s a really good question. I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. Probably shame. I felt this massive sense of guilt and shame and my way of dealing with it was to spend money. I didn’t have endless amounts of money so I would loop back around to taking more money because I felt so shitty about myself.”

At 28, she has almost finished an 11-month home detention sentence for her fraud, which was finally detected near the end of 2015, a year after she’d left the job. “I got a call from a policeman saying, ‘We’d like to come and chat with you.’ Obviously, I knew exactly what it was about. We arranged a time, and then on the morning of the interview, he cancelled because something more serious had come up.”

It was another year before she heard anything more from the police. “The anxiety was destroying me. I basically stopped eating for six weeks. I’d just got pregnant when the police called and six weeks later I miscarried, I think because of the stress. I was pretty close to killing myself. I’d figured out how I was going to do it – I was going to take a whole lot of pills and go somewhere really remote and throw my phone in the lake.”

After confiding in a close friend, she told her husband, her parents and in-laws, and found a counsellor. “My husband was devastated. He said I broke his heart. He couldn’t understand why I’d done it. He felt a little bit of responsibility that he didn’t see it – that I had nice clothes and that kind of thing. It was just disbelief and the trust was broken. His parents told me I’d dragged their family name through the mud and my parents were pretty devastated as well, but they were really supportive.”

Grace is serving her sentence at her parents’ home in Christchurch, because the home she shared with her husband in the North Island didn’t have adequate mobile phone reception. Though she and her husband speak daily, they haven’t seen each other since before she was sentenced. They have agreed to do all they can to save their marriage.

The offending was Grace’s second dishonesty conviction. At 19, she was sentenced to community service after admitting stealing $10,000 from the retail store she worked in, by refunding money to herself for returns that weren’t made. Her subsequent employer didn’t ask about prior convictions, and she didn’t tell them.

“I think I always had an inclination to taking things. I shoplifted twice – when I was about 10, I took a drink from Pak‘nSave. They caught me and took me down to the police station for a friendly chat. I also took money a few times from my parents’ purse. I’ve tried to figure out where the root of it is and I can’t.”

Grace says she didn’t offend because she thought she deserved to be paid more, or had any gripe against her employers. “I’ve never blamed anyone but myself. No alcohol or gambling was involved – mine was more driven by spending. It was almost like I had an addiction to spending money and I used it as a way to regulate my mood, to deal with negative emotions. I also had some pretty skewed ideas of what success and happiness looks like. I tied that up with being wealthy, and everyone is telling you the same thing: that the more stuff you get, the happier you’ll be. It’s bullshit, it’s never going to work.”

The money went on incidentals. “I didn’t have a high-roller lifestyle even though I did take a lot of money. I didn’t drive a fancy car, I didn’t live in a really nice house. I never went on a big holiday. It was just absorbed into my lifestyle. I did have nice clothes, and I went out for lunch every day and got nice haircuts.”

The loophole she exploited “wasn’t sophisticated at all”, she says. “You kind of just see there aren’t checks and balances in certain places. The thought just dawned on me, that if this payment wasn’t made into their account, they would have no knowledge it even existed.”

The Auckland office of the company did regular audits, but whenever questions about discrepancies were raised – and they were – she was able to explain them away. “There were lots of varied reasons – invoices being issued incorrectly and cancelled, for example – that made it easy to fudge things.”

Tall, slim, sharply dressed and pretty, Grace says everyone is shocked by her offending because she doesn’t look capable of it. “I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I’ve had two boyfriends and then got married to my husband. I’m not like a bad girl. I’ve never smoked. I’m very straight… aside from this… very normal and I err on the side of caution. I didn’t go to parties in high school or bars at uni. I was very boring.”

In both court cases, she repaid the money she took; she and her husband had to sell their house the second time.

Grace, who has a BA, worries she won’t find another job but acknowledges she’d never want to be put in charge of money again. “I wouldn’t expect anyone to give me a job like that. Obviously people aren’t going to want to hire me. I’m aware of that, but I can’t be banished to unemployment for the rest of my life. I have to find somebody who’s willing to give me another chance.

“I’ve got a debt I’ll be paying back for the rest of my life to my husband and family and society. I intend to make them proud of me.”

Grace's story was told to Donna Chisholm as part of her 'The female fraud squad' feature.

This was published in the July 2017 issue of North & South.

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