An executive at Tiffany & Co. allegedly stole $1.3 million worth of jewelry from the company. How’d she do it?
Very slowly, it seems. Ingrid Lederhaas-Okun, 46, worked as the vice president of product development at the jeweler’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters from January 2011 to February of this year, when her position was terminated due to downsizing. The F.B.I. claims that between November 2012 and her dismissal, 165 pieces of jewelry went poof, including “diamond bracelets, platinum, or gold diamond drop and hoop earrings, platinum diamond rings, and platinum and diamond pendants.” Lederhaas-Okun, authorities say, would check out the jewelry for professional reasons—marketing purposes, showing potential buyers, and so forth—and then not return them.
“She was careful to only keep items that were valued at under $10,000,” says Scott Selby, the co-author of Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History. “Tiffany’s has a policy of only investigating missing inventory that’s valued over $25,000. That’s what enabled her to do this; it was slow and systematic.” Lederhaas-Okun has since been charged by the F.B.I. with wire fraud and interstate transportation of stolen property and she faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted. Carson Glover, a spokesperson for Tiffany’s, says the company is “not in a position to comment at this time.”
What did she do with her millions in stolen Tiffany’s jewelry?
The details are still coming together, but according to the Feds, she sold the merchandize to an unnamed “leading international buyer and reseller of jewelry with an office in midtown Manhattan.” Ice-T (né Tracy Marrow), the longtime rapper, actor, and former professional jewel thief, suspects that Lederhaas-Okun may have had a buyer in advance. “When you steal things in that kind of quantity, that’s what we call consignment theft,” he says. “You don’t just put it on the fence and hope somebody picks it up. Everything is bought and paid for long before you steal it.”
Selby thinks the arrangement may have been less nefarious. Manhattan, he says, is filled with “pawn shops for rich people,” auction houses like Christie’s or Sotheby’s. “If you show up at Christie’s with a Grecian vase worth two million dollars, and you’re in a nice suit and you give them an address that’s in a nice neighborhood in Connecticut, they won’t ask any questions—or at the most, perfunctory questions,” says Selby. Neither Christie’s nor Sotheby’s responded to requests for comment.
How did Lederhaas-Okun finally get caught?
Tiffany’s discovered that the jewelry was missing when it conducted a company-wide inventory review, and e-mails between Lederhaas-Okun and the unnamed jewelry reseller were found on her computer. At first, Lederhaas-Okun claimed all jewelry had been checked out for a PowerPoint presentation for her supervisor. (The supervisor denied this.) Lederhaas-Okun later said that the missing jewels could be found, according to the Feds, “in a white envelope in her office.” Searches turned up nothing.
Chris E. McGoey, a Los Angeles-based security advisor, believes that other employees at Tiffany’s may have had suspicions long before the investigation, but were afraid to speak up. “I guarantee you that a company like Tiffany’s has checks and balances,” he says. “But it didn’t apply to [Lederhaas-Okun.] People reported to her, and they had to relinquish their inventory to her, based on her say-so.” Even if they had concerns about why the jewelry she was checking out wasn’t being returned, he says, they might’ve been reluctant to raise any red flags. “Nobody wants to rat out their boss,” he says.
There seems to be a spate of jewelry thefts of late. Is this part of a larger trend?
Actually, yes. The first big jewelry theft of this year occurred at the Cannes Film Festival in May, when $1.4 million worth of jewelry was taken from the hotel room of an employee of Chopard, the Swiss jeweler. (The thieves apparently walked off with an entire safe.) The second robbery occurred a week later at another hotel, during a star-studded party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Swiss luxury jeweler De Grisogono. There, despite 80 security guards at the event, thieves walked off with a diamond necklace worth $2.6 million. The jewelry in both cases remains missing, and there are currently no suspects.
Selby, who’s written extensively about the famous $500 million Antwerp Diamond Heist of 2003 (regarded as the largest diamond heist ever), thinks most of the clues point to an inside job. “How did the thieves know the jewelry exec would store her jewels in the room safe?” he asks. “How did they get in and out of the room without the magnetic lock recording them? An insider, especially one high up in the company, had the most opportunity to do something like this and get away with it.”
What can a thief possibly do with highly-publicized jewelry?
There are many options besides Manhattan auction houses. According to Selby, they could have melted down the precious metals, or removed the diamonds from their settings and sold them loose. “Or they could put them away for a while,” he says. “Wait for the heat to die down, and then try selling them quietly someplace like Dubai or Hong Kong.” Neither Chopard nor De Grisogono seem particularly worried about the stolen property. De Grisogono’s founder and creative designer Fawaz Gurosi said in a statement, “These incidents are rare; it is actually the first time it has happened in our 20-year history.” Caroline Scheufele, Chopard’s co-president, told a reporter at the time, “We have plenty of insurance. It’s great publicity. It’s no big deal.”
Could my employees be stealing from me?
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, employee theft accounts for about $50 billion in lost revenue every year. 75% of all employees, in all industries, steal at least once from their employers, and half of them steal more than once. They’re even getting more brazen in recent years. Just last January, a 26-year-old man allegedly stole $2,136 from a register on his very first day on the job—actually, within just a few minutes of being hired, while waiting to receive his name tag—at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Morristown, New Jersey.
How do I stop this from happening to me?
In a nutshell, trust no one. Especially the people in power at your business. “People tend to trust you if you’re in a management or executive position,” says Mcgoey. “But that’s a mistake.” These are the people who are most capable of doing major damage to your company. “They know the system,” he says. “They know when audits happen, and how strict or how loose the accountability is.” If you already have checks and balances in place, make them more rigorous. “You have to monitor employees coming in and out,” he says. “You need periodic unannounced audits. The key is layer upon layer upon layer of bureaucracy.” That includes every employee on every level, from the janitor all the way up to the president and C.E.O.
That sounds really complicated and annoying.
If you’re doing it right, it will be. “The best systems are a pain in the ass,” says Mcgoey. “It should feel like going through airport security. You have to take all these extra steps—take off your shoes, open your luggage, go through a scanner. All this bullshit you have to do even if you’re obviously not a security threat.” Mcgoey once worked as security director for Neiman Marcus, the New York-based luxury department store. “I made everybody follow the same security procedures; the employees, the executives, even the owners. It definitely annoyed everybody and made it tougher for them to do their job.” But, he says, it sent a company-wide message every day: “If you try to steal, we will catch you.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Bloomberg Businessweek.)