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  • Use employee discounts to purchase goods for friends and relatives.

  • Take products belonging to the organization.

  • Get paid for more hours than worked.

  • Collect more money than due on expense reimbursements.

  • Take a long lunch or break without approval.

  • Come to work late or leave early.

  • Use sick leave when not sick.

  • Do slow or sloppy work.

  • Work under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Over the years abuse has taken on a largely amphoteric meaning; Webster’s definition of abuse might surprise you. From the Latin word abusus—to consume—it means: “1. a deceitful act, deception; 2. a corrupt practice or custom; 3. improper use or treatment, misuse. . . .” To deceive is “to be false; to fail to fulfill; to cheat; to cause to accept as true or valid what is false or invalid.”8

Given the commonality of the language describing both fraud and abuse, what are the key differences? An example illustrates: Suppose a teller was employed by a bank and stole $100 from her cash drawer. We would define that broadly as fraud. But if she earns $500 a week and falsely calls in sick one day, we might call that abuse—even though each has the exact same economic impact to the company—in this case, $100.

And, of course, each offense requires a dishonest intent on the part of the employee to victimize the company. Look at the way each typically is handled within an organization, though: In the case of the embezzlement, the employee gets fired; there is also the remotest of probabilities that she will be prosecuted. In the case in which the employee misuses her sick time, she perhaps gets reprimanded, or her pay is docked for the day.

But we also can change the “abuse” example slightly. Let us say the employee works for a governmental agency instead of in the private sector. Sick leave abuse—in its strictest in- terpretation—could be a fraud against the government. After all, the employee has made a false statement for financial gain (to keep from getting docked). Government agencies can and have prosecuted flagrant instances. Misuse of public money—in any form—can end up being a serious matter, and the prosecutive thresholds can be surprisingly low.

Here is one real example. In 1972, I was a rookie FBI agent assigned to El Paso, Texas. That division covered the Fort Bliss military reservation, a sprawling desert com- plex. There were rumors that civilian employees of the military commissary were steal- ing inventory and selling it out the back door. The rumors turned out to be true, albeit slightly overstated. But we did not know that at the time.

So around Thanksgiving, the FBI spent a day surveying the commissary’s back en- trance. We had made provisions for all contingencies—lots of personnel, secret vans, long-range cameras—the works. But the day produced only one measly illegal sale out the back door: several frozen turkeys and a large bag of yams. The purchaser of the stolen goods tipped his buddy $10 for merchandise valued at about $60. The offense oc- curred late in the day. We were bored and irritated, and we pounced on the purchaser as he exited the base, following him out the gate in a caravan of unmarked cars with red lights. The poor guy was shaking so badly that he wet his pants. I guess he knew better than we did what was at stake.


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