Theft vs. Embezzlement vs. Fraud

Charges in relation to theft, embezzlement, and fraud can hold very large penalties.

While one can typically be released on bail if they are not a flight risk, the trial and conviction for these crimes can still lead to substantial jail time depending on the severity of the crime. In order to understand the different degrees of sentencing for these crimes, it is first important to distinguish the differences between them. Below is the fundamental differences between theft, embezzlement, and fraud explained in detail.


Theft, otherwise known as larceny, is a term that relates to stealing another’s property. The key element of theft that must be satisfied is that the individual must be stealing the property with the “specific intent to deprive them of possession permanently.” For example, borrowing is not associated with theft because one has the requisite intent to bring the item back to the rightful owner. Crimes relating to theft can be related to minor shoplifting offenses, stealing one’s automobile or embezzling a great deal of money. Furthermore, theft becomes classified as grand theft when there is a substantial amount of money involved or when property is stolen in a certain manner.


Embezzlement has a different element to the common crime of theft. The reason for this is that embezzlement typically transpires in the business world. By definition, an employee commits embezzlement when they or another company representative divert or transfer money or property owned by the employer for their own personal use. Crimes in relation to embezzlement have become quite commonplace in American corporate culture, which is why the SEC regulates corporations that are publicly held on a regular basis due to the executive’s tendency to have advance knowledge about the stock market. This advantage in the stock market leads to many cases of embezzlement where top employees still the assets of the company and leave the shareholders and lower level employees having to lose a great deal of stock options and benefits.

Embezzlement is a crime that can cause a severe prison sentence depending on the quantity of money involved and how the employee learned of the advantage in the market. For example, if they merely embezzled money, the sentence is severely less; however, if they embezzled due to insider trading, the SEC takes these sentences quite seriously and in many cases, it can bankrupt the entire business due to the settlement payouts that have to transpire.


Fraud is a different type of thief that is substantially altered from the traditional thief or embezzler. Fraud transpires when an individual tricks a victim into voluntarily giving away money or property under a false deception. Fraud has become quite common by way of mail, e-mail, and telephone campaigns. What is even more alarming about fraud, particularly in regards to e-mail, is that there are some fraudulent individuals who have mastered e-mail campaigns that are identical to government and corporate e-mails, which makes it quite difficult to ascertain which e-mail is real and which e-mail is false. It is wise to be careful any time that an e-mail asks for personal information such as social security number or bank account information. Usually, it is best to call the company or agency to double check whether the e-mail is authentic.

Depending on the severity of the fraud involved, the sentence can vary a great deal. An example of a recent case involving fraud was Bernie Madoff, who stole millions of dollars under false pretenses. In cases such as these, naturally the prison sentence is substantially longer with the objective of protecting the public. That being said, the individual that stole $100 in a fraudulent way is going to likely only have to pay a fine rather than serve a prolonged prison sentence.

It is important to understand the difference between theft/larceny, embezzlement, and fraud. Even though each crime is related to the common crime of theft, the principles are varied slightly and lead to entirely different punishments. If you have been charged with any of these offenses, it is highly recommended that you speak with an attorney to ensure that you are putting your best foot forward in your upcoming case.

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