Despicable me: 37 percent admit cheating financially

MoneyRates.com Senior Financial Analyst, CFA
November 05, 2013

If you think financial dishonesty is restricted to Wall Street and Washington, you may want to look closer at those around you. A new survey suggests you will find people who cheat with money among your neighbors, your friends and possibly even in the mirror.

A survey of 2,000 American adults, conducted by Op4G on behalf of MoneyRates.com, found that more than a third of Americans have engaged in at least some form of financial cheating. The types of cheating in question aren't elaborate financial scams, but the types of everyday occurrences that test people's ethics.

Before you get too comforted by the fact that most Americans seem disinclined to cheat financially, keep in mind the numbers involved. With a population of roughly 240 million adult Americans, it only takes a third of them bending the rules for there to be 80 million cheats out there. That's more than enough to populate most of the nation's neighborhoods, and even a good share of the households.

Here is a look at some of the ways ordinary Americans cheat with money, including who they are most likely to cheat, how men and women look at cheating differently and how age affects the way people feel about financial fiddling.

The hierarchy of cheating

The survey asked about cheating in dealing with four possible types of victims: retail businesses, the government, people's employers and their insurance companies. The incidents of cheating varied greatly according to those possible victims. The following is the hierarchy of cheating, from those most likely to be cheated by ordinary Americans, to those least likely:

  1. Retail businesses. A total of 37.2 percent of survey respondents reported that they have pocketed excess change from a cashier -- and more than 25 percent said they would or might do it in the future, even if they noticed the cashier's error immediately.
  2. Employers. One-quarter of the respondents report having taken company property home for personal use.
  3. The government. Twenty-three percent of respondents have cheated the tax man by not declaring all their income. An even greater number -- 30.2 percent -- would at least consider cheating on their taxes if they were completely confident of not getting caught.
  4. Insurance companies. Only 12.6 percent of respondents who have had a son or daughter on their auto insurance policies report having understated the child's usage of the vehicle in order to keep premiums down.

Why so much love for insurance companies? They may not actually be held in higher esteem than these other institutions. The incidents of cheating that come up in other cases are usually pretty direct, meaning there is a clearly identifiable reward involved. By contrast, insurance companies tend to be a bit opaque about the relationship between how younger drivers use their cars and the difference in premiums, which could make potential cheaters less likely to take the risk of faking this information.

The guilt factor

So, depending on the situation, between 12.6 and 37.2 percent of Americans have cheated about financial matters, but how do they feel about it? Apparently, guilt does play a role.

Of those who admitted having cheated about money, slightly more than half say they felt bad enough afterward that they wouldn't do that kind of thing again. Only 21 percent of those who have cheated in the past say definitively that they would have no problem with engaging in that kind of behavior in the future.

Who cheats about money more: men or women?

There were often gender differences in the responses, with women generally coming across as more honest than men. Men are more likely to pocket excess change from a cashier, cheat on their taxes, mislead an insurance company and pad an expense account.

Perhaps men are more likely to cheat because they seem less driven by guilt -- at least where cashiers are concerned. While 35.2 percent of women admit to having pocketed excess change in the past, only 20.8 percent of women say they would or might do so if given the opportunity in the future. For men, 39.2 percent have pocketed excess change previously, and 31 percent would do so in the future.

Do people get more honest with age?

As for the impact of age on financial honesty, it depends on the type of opportunity. Younger adults are more likely to say they have pocketed excess change from a cashier or padded an expense account. Older adults are more likely to admit to taking company property home, and express more interest in the idea of avoiding taxes by sheltering income offshore.

The age-based responses suggest that there may be some selective memory at work in how people respond to questions about financial cheating. When questions were phrased in terms of "have you ever," you would think the longer someone had lived, the more likely it would have been that they had engaged in that behavior at some point. And yet, in more than one instance, younger respondents were more likely to admit to having engaged in certain forms of financial wrongdoing.

In other words, today's older generation may not always have been that much more scrupulous than their younger counterparts, but they'd at least like to see themselves that way now.

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