Utah County Prosecutors Take Aim at White-Collar Criminals

Utah County Prosecutors Take Aim at White-Collar Criminals

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PROVO, Utah (AP) -- White-collar criminals may steal hundreds of thousands of dollars, but robbers who stick guns in victims' faces to take a wallet will spend more time in prison -- an inequity Utah County officials hope to remedy.

Investigators and prosecutors in Utah County say they are working full-time to halt the con artists while also educating unsuspecting residents.

Jeff Robinson, investigations chief for the Utah County Attorney's office, has asked for two more investigators to add to the current four so the division can arrest and prosecute more swindlers. But a budget crunch makes it unrealistic to expect extra help anytime soon, he said.

Meanwhile, white-collar crime investigators are seeing an increased workload.

The toughest investigations often involve elderly people, County Sheriff James Tracy said. Especially in telemarketing scams, the elderly get involved in investment schemes or just buy junk.

"A lot of the elderly make very good victims but terrible witnesses," he said. "They forget, they don't know, they're embarrassed, they don't want to admit what they've done."

Other problems in Utah County are construction fraud and investment schemes, including those involving real estate, Robinson said.

"Every year, we see the same things over and over again," he said.

The county attorney's office is investigating crimes that have taken more than $58 million from local residents. Since 1996, investigators have looked into more than 600 cases, involving more than $216 million.

Investigators are still working on cases from 1999, and often take two to five years on any one case, said investigator Terri Lawrence.

Prosecutors will take on 99 percent of the cases the investigators send to them, Robinson said. A lack of evidence could cause county attorneys to send the case back to investigators for a closer look.

Educating the public about what to watch for has been important for investigators, Robinson said. Last year, they spoke to numerous people about crime prevention.

"We spoke at every rest home in the county," he said.

The county attorney's Web site lists scams under investigation.

But investigation does not necessarily mean quick justice.

"These crimes take a long time to investigate and to prosecute," Tracy said. "They're not like a DUI or a burglary. These investigators sometimes spend years on the investigation of a case to get it to go to court."

White-collar criminals receive inappropriately light sentences, Robinson said. He would like to see more of the criminals sent to prison and spending more time in prison.

Nationally, white-collar criminals spend an average of 40 months in prison, while robbers spend an average of 106 months in prison, according to Bureau of Justice statistics.

County prosecutor Dave Wayment said one of the reasons for the difference may be the Board of Pardons and Parole, which ultimately decides the amount of time a criminal stays in prison.

White-collar criminals could be easier to release early than those who committed violent crimes. "They present much better than a guy with scars and tattoos and a nickname, like 'Snake,' " Wayment said.

But victims of white-collar crimes often feel the same as victims of violent crimes.

"These people are very much like victims of the more personal crimes, like assaults or even sexual assaults," Wayment said. "They feel very violated. It's almost misleading to say they're property crimes."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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