|Part of the common law series|
|Element (criminal law)|
|Scope of criminal liability|
|Seriousness of offense|
|Offence against the person|
|Crimes against property|
|Crimes against justice|
|Defences to liability|
|Other common law areas|
Embezzlement is a kind of financial fraud. For instance, a lawyer could embezzle funds from clients' trust accounts, a financial advisor could embezzle funds from investors, or a person could embezzle funds from his or her spouse. Embezzlement may range from the very minor in nature, involving only small amounts, to the immense, involving large sums and sophisticated schemes.
More often than not, embezzlement is performed in a manner that is premeditated, systematic and/or methodical, with the explicit intent to conceal the activities from other individuals, usually because it is being done (by the perpetrator) without the other individuals' knowledge or consent. Often it involves the trusted individual embezzling only a small proportion or fraction of the total of the funds or resources he/she receives or controls; in an attempt to minimize the risk of the detection of the misallocation of the funds or resources. When successful, embezzlements continue for years (or even decades) without detection. It is often only when a relatively large proportion of the funds are needed at one time; or they are called upon for another use; or, when a major institutional reorganization (the closing or moving of a plant or business office, or a merger/acquisition of a firm) requires the complete and independent accounting of all real and liquid assets; prior to, or concurrent with, the reorganization, that the victims realize the funds, savings, assets or other resources, are missing and that they have been duped by the embezzler.
In America, embezzlement is a statutory offense so the definition of the crime varies from statute to statute. Typical elements are (1) the fraudulent (2) conversion (3) of the property (4) of another (5) by a person who has lawful possession of the property.
- Fraudulent: The requirement that the conversion be fraudulent means simply that the defendant wilfully and without claim of right or mistake converted the property to his or her own use.
- Conversion: Embezzlement is a crime against ownership; that is, the owner's right to control the disposition and use of the property. The conversion element requires a substantial interference with the true owner's property rights (unlike larceny, where the slightest movement of the property when accompanied by the intent to deprive one of the possession of the property permanently is sufficient).
- Property: Embezzlement statutes do not limit the scope of the crime to conversions of personal property. Statutes generally include conversion of tangible personal property, intangible personal property and choses in action. Real property is not typically included.
- Of another: A person cannot embezzle his own property.
- Lawful possession: The critical element is that the defendant must have been in lawful possession of the property at the time of the fraudulent conversion and not have mere custody of the property. If the defendant had lawful possession the crime is embezzlement. If the defendant merely had custody, the crime is larceny. Determining whether a particular person had lawful possession or mere custody is sometimes extremely difficult.