Four years ago this month, Rita Crundwell was enjoying the tail end of a 12-week vacation from her job as comptroller and treasurer of a small town called Dixon, Illinois. Dixon had been in tough financial straits—they'd tightened the police department's budget and laid off a third of the street repair workers—and it seemed as though there just wasn't enough money to go around in the 15,000-person town. While Crundwell was away, her temporary replacement requested all of the city's bank statements. And that's when they figured out where all the money was going.
Crundwell had been siphoning city funds into her own bank account through a series of bogus bank accounts—on average, about $5 million per year. In the two decades she'd worked for the city, Crundwell had embezzled a total of $53 million, which had come at the expense of paving the city's roads and paying municipal workers. Crundwell (who is now serving her 20-year sentence in prison) used the money primarily to fund a stable of fancy horses, but she also bought jewelry, a Yamaha scooter, and a Viking stainless steel grill, which were auctioned off last month.
Crundwell's heist may be the largest example of municipal fraud in American history, but in some ways, it's just an exaggeration of shockingly common workplace scams. In the retail industry, employees steal more from their workplaces than dedicated thieves, according to a 2014 report by the Global Retail Barometer, which found that employee theft accounted for 43 percent of lost goods at retail stores (shoplifters were responsible for 37 percent). And there are plenty of other ways workers scam their employers—from big-scale scams, like workers comp fraud, to small-scale things like getting high or drunk on the clock.
We talked to a few people who witnessed these kinds of (small scale) workplace scams. Low-level crime is not the recommended way to get through the day, but if you're wondering how people like Crundwell likely got their start, consider these examples.
The Exotic Animal Heist
When I was 17, I took a summer job as a "small animal specialist" at Petco—which basically means I showed up early and cleaned hamster cages before running the register for six hours. In those three months, I met a shit-ton of puppies, learned to fear chinchillas, and nearly spent a quarter of my earnings on a parrot named Booger. I also got my first taste of employee theft.
Working at a pet store, you wouldn't think there would be all that much to steal. You would be wrong. People who work in pet stores are usually pet-obsessed; the girl who ran our grooming department was all but operating a kennel out of her apartment. They're also making minimum wage, so taking food and collars from the store is a given. There were big-ticket heists, too, like the one executed by my co-worker in the fish and reptiles department.
One morning, early on in my tenure, I showed up to work and was confronted by a visibly flustered manager. "Someone left the king snakes tank open last night," she told me flatly, "so keep an eye out." I spent the following eight hours on high-alert verging on panic-attack. The king snakes never resurfaced.
Throughout the summer, this scene repeated itself over and over again. Corn snakes escaped; geckos disappeared; at one point, 15 baby iguanas got loose, never to be seen again. Being a naïve teenager—or maybe a complete idiot—it took me until the end of my employment to link these Houdini-like reptilian feats to the guy who closed on weeknights. My light bulb moment came on a rare evening shift with this dude, where he talked my ear off about the insane terrarium setup he was building with lights and cages and filters he stole from the store. Whether that guy was trafficking Petco lizards or hoarding them all for himself, I will probably never know, but I still think of him every single time I am told to look out for snakes.
THE FAST FOOD EMBEZZLEMENT SCAM
In the summer of 2002, I worked at Taco Bell, and my manager, Tyler (not his real name), wanted to live más than anyone I have ever seen.
Tyler and I worked the closing shift at Taco Bell, which is the most boring shift. We'd all go out back and get high behind the dumpsters during the shift because it was so slow. But on nights when there was a concert at the nearby outdoor venue, it was scarily busy. Cars were backed up onto the street while they waited for their Grande Combos to be made, which always took a minute because we couldn't thaw out our bags of beef or congeal the frijoles in time, and Tom and I were often too stoned to do anything with speed or alacrity.
One night, while Tyler worked the drive-thru window, he told us: "I'm going to clear some of these orders, so we get our times up."
"Clearing some orders" was Taco Bell slang for cheating the company computers. If you cleared some of the orders and wrote them down on pieces of paper, the average wait time on the print-out that the general manager received would be drastically lower, while in reality you were moving at a leisurely pace as cars full of angry people waited for their Grilled Stuft Burritos.
What we didn't know was that Tyler was taking the car's order and then canceling the order on the screen. The customer still got their food, but Tyler kept the cash in his pocket and made change from the register.
At the end of the night, when it was almost four in the morning, Tyler gave $20 bills to me and my co-worker Tom. "Thanks guys," he said. "You made this go a lot faster." We thought he'd tipped us because we were cool and good at our jobs.
Two weeks later, as I pulled in to work one afternoon, I saw two cop cars parked near the front door. Tom came out and told me Tyler was in the back room and that he was going to be arrested for stealing. He'd stolen thousands of dollars over the past few months and was caught when an audit of food weight didn't match up to what was in the end-of-day receipts.
In that moment, it became clear that our tips had been hush money. We should have realized it earlier, but who was I to question Tyler? He was perp walked out of the Taco Bell and placed into the back of the cop car. I never heard from him again.
Boozing on the Job
Working a shit service industry job can go one of two ways: focus real hard on doing a good job and angle for a promotion, or slack your way through the day while looking for various ways to rip the company off. I definitely did the latter when I worked part time for Starbucks. Things were pretty tight as far as inventory, and the money in the register went, but there was always leftover food at the end of the night that we snuck into our bags instead of throwing out. After a while you get sick of eating day-old lemon loaf, but until I got laid off, I never got tired of drinking on the job.
We had this blender that we used to make assorted Frappucinos and fruit smoothie–type drinks, and when things quieted down—which they usually did after around 8 PM—we'd use it to create delicious frozen cocktails. We had lemonade, iced tea, and a bunch of fruit and flavors at our disposal, so we could make really fancy concoctions if it was quiet enough and the chill night manager was on duty. To this day, I think Starbucks could make another billion if they started serving the sort of blended alcoholic drinks we came up with—and some stores sell beer and wine now, so maybe they're moving in that direction, and I was a pioneer. I've got fond memories of getting buzzed while cleaning the store top to bottom, then heading to my co-worker's apartment to smoke weed with his parents in the next room. I think that guy is in the Marines now.