“I went into prison thinking my life was over, but it turned out to be a lifesaving and life-changing experience,” said convicted fraudster* Nathan Mueller during the closing General Session of the 26th Annual Global Fraud Conference in Baltimore, Maryland. During his incarceration, he told attendees, he became “the person I always wanted to be.” Unfortunately, Mueller and his family had to travel a rocky and costly path so he could become a changed man.
He was released in September from the Federal Prison Camp in Duluth, Minnesota, after serving five and a half years for embezzling $8.5 million from ING, the insurance firm, from 2004 through 2007.
Mueller said he grew up in a loving family. “I had everything going on in my life,” he said. “The one thing I didn’t have was money, and that became my focus.” And his eventual downfall.
When he was an ING accounting manager, he discovered that he had the authority to approve and sign checks up to $250,000. He realized he could cut a check, sign it as somebody else in the department — the department employees shared passwords — and then approve the check as himself.
Mueller didn’t immediately take advantage of the check-signing privilege, but the temptation lurked. A few years later, his wife was pregnant and he had money worries. “The pressure I was feeling internally was to be the provider — the man of the house — and to be able to take care of my family and have my wife stay home,” he said. “And I thought if I can just get out of debt I would be okay. I went into work and said to myself, ‘I’m going to steal money, and I’m going to pay off my debt.’ It was really that simple. … So my first fraudulent check was for $1,100 and I sent it in. Worked like a charm. Way too easy. Over that summer I stole about $90,000.”
Mueller was now out of immediate debt, but then his money obsession reared its head about six months later. In his new scheme, he set up a sham company and registered it with the secretary of state with the same name as one of the company’s insurance brokers. He got a post office box and a federal ID number and opened a business bank account. Mueller would log on as somebody else in his department, request checks, log on as himself and approve them. He used this method to steal the $8.5 million.
He’d explain his lavish spending on cars and nightlife with supposed Las Vegas winnings. Unfortunately, Mueller developed a gambling addiction and he began to steal to support his new obsession.
“In the summer of 2007 I had spiraled so out of control — the guilt, the anxiety and the depression I was dealing with … and the way I was living — I was almost unrecognizable to the people in my life,” he explained. “I pushed away all my friends and family.” Mueller and his wife eventually divorced.
He was caught when a co-worker ran a query and found many checks that she’d supposedly requested and Mueller had approved. ING examiners, FBI agents and the U.S. attorney’s office investigated. “As a CPA, I kept records of every dollar that I stole … so the process was fairly painless [for the investigators],” Mueller said. “I pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud.”
Since his release from prison Mueller has been working to mend relationships with his 7- and 11-year-old children. And as director of education for a CPA firm, he gives talks on ethics and his crimes to business people and students.
“It was shocking to me that it took this kind of experience to become the person I wanted to be,” Mueller said. “Happy and healthy.”
*The ACFE doesn’t compensate convicted fraudsters.