By Guy Robarts
BBC News business reporter
Theft in the workplace has evolved beyond light-fingered staff pinching the odd pen or box of A4 paper into something far more catastrophic for companies.
White collar fraud is easy to execute
The spotlight in the last few years has been on fraud committed by senior management, notably through a string of accounting scandals which have helped topple the reputation of major multi-nationals.
But the problem is much more widespread, a new report says, involving office workers at all levels.
Driven by greed, boredom or a grudge against their employer, fraudsters at work are costing UK companies billions of pounds a year by taking advantage of lax financial and regulatory controls.
And few companies are taking the anti-fraud precautions that would reduce this figure.
A study by risk management firm Protiviti and top criminologist Professor Martin Gill of Perpetuity Group found that the amount of money being siphoned off by individual white collar staff ranged from thousands to millions of pounds.
However, with many crimes still going unnoticed, the billions already uncovered could just be the tip of the iceberg.
"It is common knowledge that most incidences of fraud go unreported as most companies choose to deal with the problem internally," said Mike Adlem, managing director of Protiviti.
The minimum amount stolen by fraudsters interviewed for the survey was £65,000 and the maximum an astronomical £25m.
Giving a "conservative estimate" Mr Adlem said, the total cost of employee fraud to UK listed companies alone amounted to about £2bn.
"And this constitutes less than 1% of UK businesses," he pointed out.
The floodgates are wide open to fraudsters because too many firms have poor financial controls and inadequate audit procedures, the report said.
Greater scrutiny in the workplace may be the only solution
Fraudsters already behind bars for their crimes were interviewed for the study, in a bid to expose their motives and methods and help companies wake up to the problem.
Some stole money to pay off debts, while others jumped on the fraud wagon and habitually ripped-off companies long after debts are cleared.
Even more worrying for companies, however, was the "staggering ease" with which the perpetrators carried out their embezzlement.
Most offenders gained all the skills and knowledge they needed to defraud their company in the normal day-to-day course of their jobs.
Indeed, the relaxed nature of most firms' internal audit systems meant fraudsters were confident that their crimes
would never be exposed and most considered it bad luck that they were ever rumbled at all.
Further research from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) found that effective internal controls can prevent the majority of this type of fraud.
However, it stressed that only 50% of the UK's top 350 companies were bothering to adopt extra anti-fraud measures.
In the meantime, attorney-general Lord Goldsmith has launched a review of the situation, pooling the talents of various government departments with the aim of launching a salvo against white collar crime.
One man stole about £250,000 by issuing and signing-off spurious invoices for up to £75,000 and paying them directly into his private savings.
TRIGGERS FOR FRAUD
According to George, it was: "extremely easy from a practical point.....we did such vast volumes that no one would have questioned me".
Another convicted fraudster, Robert, explained: "I was in massive debt and it started from there. I had taken loads out and once I had paid my loans off I had less than £100."
"So I had to do something."
Meanwhile, fellow offender Geoffrey became hooked on his fraud habit, continuing to steal long after his debts were cleared:
"I was living the high life. I was keeping up with the lifestyle," said Geoffrey.
"The three words that sum it up are lies, pride and greed."
The interviewees names have been changed for the sake of anonymity.