Before we get to white collar crime books, the first question we must ask: what exactly is white collar crime? Basically, white collar crimes are financial crimes typically perpetrated by “white collar” workers, i.e. people of a higher social class than so-called “blue collar” laborers. One might say theirs are crimes of greed rather than crimes of desperation. The way “white collar criminal” is used in modern parlance has implications of crimes that are more abstract, perhaps victimless. These are not the criminals to be feared, right?
And hoo boy, is there a lot to unpack there. While white collar crimes aren’t generally violent, the violence is often just a step away. If someone is laundering money, for example, that money can be coming from decidedly violent activities, like sex trafficking. And despite the glow-up Elizabeth Holmes has tried to manifest, her crimes had real ramifications for thousands of people who received inaccurate medical information.
White collar criminals often get off with the proverbial slap on the wrist. One study of why judges are so lenient on these kinds of criminals found that judges believe a year in prison for a white collar criminal is actually more punitive than 3-4 years in prison for someone who is convicted of “street crime.” I don’t have all day to rant about that. But suffice it to say it’s wildly dehumanizing to people with lower social standing. There’s also an argument that punishments are less harsh because the recidivism rate is lower. Meanwhile, Billy MacFarland announced Fyre Fest 2 is coming.
So let’s learn some more about these criminals with white collar crime books. The grifters, the swindlers, the scammers, the forgers, the frauds. Whether they’re craven ghouls or weirdo hucksters you find yourself rooting for, their stories are decidedly fascinating.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
Honestly, this is the definitive must-read among nonfiction white collar crime books. The story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos has really captured the imagination, from this book to podcasts to the Hulu dramatization The Dropout. If you don’t already know, Theranos was a company purporting to analyze minute amounts of blood. But their device never worked. My jaw was on the floor as I read this book. Between the hilariously toxic workplace culture, the audacity of Holmes in forging ahead when nothing was working, and the drama of journalist John Carreyrou uncovering the scam, it’s a riveting read.
Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
This book outlines discriminatory actions that have systemically held back Black people from homeownership in the United States. Many know about the redlining policies that codified housing segregation. The Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968 supposedly established equal treatment for Black homebuyers. But banks and realtors simply pivoted to predatory lending practices. It’s similar to what caused the subprime mortgage crisis that spurred the Great Recession of 2007. Reading corporate crime books like this will help you understand the nefarious ways the wealth gap purposefully persists.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger by Lee Israel
Forgery is one of the more fascinating white collar crimes, and Lee Israel is a real character. Perhaps you saw Melissa McCarthy’s dynamite portrayal of her in the movie adaptation of this memoir. If you enjoyed that movie, you’ll likely enjoy this book. It’s biting and petty. She’s frankly proud of her forgeries and mostly unrepentant about the crimes. Still, there’s a lot of sadness to her story. Nevertheless, she’s one of the criminals you might just find yourself rooting for.
If you’re looking for a book that is less a profile of a particular criminal and more a look into the large-scale effects of white collar crime, here’s your pick. This book details the way ordinary Americans suffer at the hands of these supposedly victimless financial crimes that keep corporations and the U.S. government so enmeshed. While the book may leave you feeling a lot of rage, it does also suggest how to direct that ire in productive directions.
Guilty Admissions: The Bribes, Favors, and Phonies behind the College Cheating Scandal by Nicole LaPorte
It was a fun day on Twitter when the fallout of the Varsity Blues scandal arrived. This book is a great analysis of what led to that whole situation. There are the blinkered SoCal parents who only recognize a few colleges as acceptable destinations for their kids. Then there’s the total fraudster who turned his trauma from being called fat as a kid (get in line, Rick!) into absolutely everyone’s problem. And of course, there’s the celebrity angle. It’s a delicious and fascinating tale that will make you glad you don’t have the pointless and desperate dissatisfaction that seems to infect people with too goddamn much money.
Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street by Sheelah Kolhatkar
Hedge funds are sort of confusing, because they only seem to exist to make rich people richer by playing with money, but they still have ramifications for the entire economy. I clearly do not understand the economy. Anyway, hedge fund guy Stephen A. Cohen seemed like a trading wizard, but surprise! It was insider trading all along. But it took a huge and years-long effort to take him down, which this nonfiction legal thriller chronicles. Again, this one will make you mad because of who actually faces the consequences. Sigh.
The Billionaire’s Apprentice: The Rise of The Indian-American Elite and The Fall of The Galleon Hedge Fund by Anita Raghavan
(DJ Khaled voice:) Another hedge fund! This story, tracing the fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund, analyzes how first and second generation Indian Americans have gained and abused power in the financial sector. What’s especially interesting about this story is that when the insider trading charges came about, the prosecutor Preet Bharara, the son of Indian immigrants, was tasked with taking down white collar criminals whose roots were also in South Asia. The author takes great pains to bring out the humanity and the human foibles in this book, which makes it a standout.
It’s not all corporate greed and insider trading with the white collar criminals here. Sometimes it’s art forgery! This memoir is from the 20th century’s most prolific art forger. King Charles III himself was in possession of Tony Tetro works purported to be by Picasso, Dali, Monet, and Chagall. Tony’s heyday was in the 1970s and ’80s, until getting busted in 1989. So if you love a story of wild excess, here you go. How much will you take Tony Tetro’s word as truth? Read and decide for yourself.
The Less People Know About Us: A Mystery of Betrayal, Family Secrets, and Stolen Identity by Axton Betz-Hamilton
Identity theft is a white collar crime, but it’s anything but victimless. This memoir comes from a person whose parents were plagued by identify theft in her youth, making their lives precarious, paranoid, and isolated. Then the author herself became the victim of identity theft, having her credit ruined before she could ever use it. You’ll be shocked at how dramatic a story can be about a crime that might seem kinda boring on the surface.
I think back on the early days of the tech boom, how I really did think that technology would make our lives so much better, maybe even solve the world’s problems. Now I’ve grown cynical, seeing most tech ventures as cash grabs that reinvent the wheel, skirt important regulations to deliver iffy services, and destroy privacy. Thankfully, this book about how Google devolved from its early utopian ethos is written by someone more hopeful than me. She outlines how innovation can happen without companies succumbing to the worst of what technology can do.
For more, check out books about scams curated by a fan of The Dream podcast, as well as nonviolvent true crime books. (It’s no coincidence Bad Blood shows up on all three; it is the GOAT.) Then make sure all your passwords are secure and that you haven’t invested any money in something that sounds too good to be true. Because it probably is, and your story doesn’t need to be featured in any future white collar crime books.