Understanding the Main Types of Crimes: Motivations and Crime Protection

According to a Pew Research poll, violent and property crimes declined by 51% and 54%, respectively, between 1993 and 2018.

The motivations for criminal behavior vary. Crime rates in poverty-stricken areas are typically higher, for example, because people might resort to drastic measures when they believe they don’t have the financial resources to survive. Other motivators for criminal activity might include revenge, the thrill of committing a crime, a mental illness, or an addiction.

A police officer takes a statement from a crime witness.

Criminal justice professionals must become familiar with all types of crimes and what motivates some to choose this lifestyle, as well as how to identify criminals, apprehend them, and bring them to justice. Continue reading to explore seven key areas of crime, learn how prevalent they are in the United States, and discover how you can position yourself to make a positive impact in the criminal justice field.

Cyber crimes

The internet has given criminals a whole new way to exploit businesses and individuals for their own personal gain. Cybercrime can be defined as criminal activities performed via a computer and the internet.

What makes cybercrime difficult to litigate is that internet technology allows people to commit crimes from anywhere in the world. The hacker who drained your bank account could be your next-door neighbor or someone on the opposite side of the world.

Though they happen in the digital world, cybercrimes have real impact on people and the economy. A 2019 report by the Herjavec Group found that cybercrime could cost the global economy upwards of $6 trillion annually by 2021 — one-third of the U.S. gross domestic product. The report calls cybercrime “the greatest threat to every company in the world,” pointing to the data breaches suffered by Marriott, Yahoo, and Equifax, which exposed more than a billion people’s data to scammers and hackers.

Direct denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, which flood a network and renders it unusable, also cost economies and business billions of dollars.

Types of cybercrime include:

  • Identity theft: Stealing important information related to a person, such as one’s credit card information, Social Security card, or driver’s license. Oftentimes this information is misused to open new lines of credit, which the victim may take years to recover from.
  • Computer hacking>: Illegally entering computer systems to steal data, manipulate systems, or destroy hardware or software.
  • Fraud: Any form of financial criminal activity performed through deceit.
  • Online predation: Deceiving children and others into unsolicited and illegal sexual encounters.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the main federal agency for dealing with online threats such as hacking, terrorism, identity theft, harassment, and similar crimes perpetrated on a large scale or affecting large groups of people. The FBI has two main priorities when it comes to cybercrime:

  • Computer and network intrusions: The FBI’s 56 field offices each have cybercrime agents, as well as analysts, who help them track down cyber criminals. This type of cybercrime can include blackmail or extortion, as well as terrorism, identity fraud, and similar illicit acts. The FBI uses proprietary software to stay ahead of criminals and coordinate with agencies in other countries to stop or prevent international crimes.
  • Ransomware: Ransomware is a computer virus or program that hackers use to infiltrate networks and lock down information, demanding a ransom to unlock the files. Ransomware attacks have taken place in critical industries such as education, government, healthcare, and finance, curbing access to data that powers crucial infrastructure, resulting in billions of dollars in losses. The FBI helps businesses prepare and plan for such attacks, as well as develop contingency plans to avoid them.

White-collar crimes

The arrest of Bernie Madoff rocked the business world in 2008. People couldn’t believe that a man who had built what was ostensibly one of the largest securities firms on Wall Street was running a Ponzi scheme, using $36 billion of investors’ money either to pay fake dividends to other investors or make purchases for himself.

Some people lost their entire life savings to Madoff, and though authorities were able to recover some of the money, it was only a small percentage of the total investment. The government expects to pay back $4 billion from a fund it collected out of Madoff’s estate, according to CNN.

White-collar crimes are those committed by business people and those in government. They typically involve financial matters, property, and fraud rather than threats, intimidation, or physical violence.

Common types of white-collar crimes include embezzlement, theft from one’s place of employment; bank fraud, the use of counterfeit checks or fake identification to withdraw money; and healthcare fraud, when doctors and other healthcare professionals take advantage of insurance systems to bill for unnecessary or fabricated procedures and medications to obtain increased insurance payouts.

The FBI has several focus areas when it comes to white-collar crimes, as well as some programs to apprehend white-collar criminals. Those programs include asset forfeiture, where the FBI can freeze bank accounts or even seize the finances of those under investigation for serious crimes, ensuring they don’t flee the country or spend their money before the authorities can recover it.

The FBI also investigates the following crimes:

  • Money laundering: This is when criminals who obtain money through illegal means attempt to make it seem like that money has come from legitimate sources, turning “dirty” money into “clean” money.
  • Mortgage fraud: This type of crime is often committed by industry insiders who use their knowledge of the housing market for their own personal gain or by those who use illegal actions to represent themselves as the owner or buyer of a house.
  • Intellectual property theft and piracy: Since the rise of programs such as Napster and Kazaa, numerous peer-to-peer networks have allowed people to download and share music, movies, and other property without permission from the artists.

Organized crimes

There might not be any crime category that’s more glorified than organized crime. TV series such as Breaking Bad and The Sopranos make organized crime look glamorous, dramatic, and appealing to those drawn to power and money.

In reality, organized crime is a major international issue, causing economic instability, violence, and public safety issues. With some organized crime syndicates controlling large amounts of money and power, many groups have gotten better at concealing their activities and making it difficult for authorities to eliminate their expansive criminal networks.

This type of crime is not limited to one area of the world. The yakuza are a well-known Japanese crime syndicate, and the Colombian cartels run by Pablo Escobar in the 1970s and 1980s also gained widespread notoriety. On its website, the FBI notes that it has programs to respond to threats from national and transnational organized crime groups, including criminal organizations based in North and South America, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia.

In 1970, Congress passed the Organized Crime Control Act, which gave the federal government more power to investigate and prosecute criminal organizations, allowing it to use grand juries to investigate crime rings that operate over multiple jurisdictions.

Title IX of that legislation created the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which allows the government to arrest anyone who has committed “at least two acts of racketeering activity” in a 10-year period.

Racketeering acts are part of a “racket,” an organized criminal venture that involves illegal acts to form an illegitimate business or income stream, such as drug sales and prostitution. Other examples include:

  • Bribery/sports bribery
  • Obstruction of justice
  • Kidnapping
  • Interstate shipment theft
  • Extortion
  • Human trafficking

Violent crimes

Over the last quarter-century, violent crime rates have declined across the U.S. According to the most recent FBI data, violent crimes fell 9% from 2009 to 2018, with 1.2 million offenses occurring in 2018. That’s about 368.9 violent crimes for every 100,000 people — 14% lower than the 2009 statistics.

The FBI tracks four types of violent crimes:

  • Murder: The taking of another human life can be either murder or manslaughter, though the latter has a connotation of negligence. Murder requires intent. There is also felony murder, which is a death that results from the actions of another crime, such as a burglary. The FBI reported an estimated 16,214 murders occurred in the United States in 2018, a 14.5% decrease from 2014 but a 5.3% increase from 2009. Nearly half of all murders in the U.S. (46.2%) took place in the South, 22% in the Midwest, 19.9% in the West, and 11.9% in the Northeast.
  • Rape: While overall violent crime is down, the rape rate has risen 18% in the last six years. However, this may partially result from the fact that the FBI redefined rape in 2013, removing the word “forcible” from the definition and expanding it to include a much wider range of activities, all of which include nonconsensual acts performed by one person on another. The FBI counted an estimated 139,380 instances of rape reported to law enforcement in 2018, but it’s documented that many victims do not report their crimes for fear of retribution or not being believed.
  • Robbery: Robbery is the combination of violence and theft, which can involve intimidation or fear instead of actual violence. The FBI reported that an estimated 282,061 robberies took place in the United States in 2018. Robberies can happen anywhere: on a street or highway (36.9%), at a commercial location (16%), someone’s residence (15.9%), a convenience store (6.9%), gas or service stations (3.1%), banks (1.6%), or other locations (19.6%).
  • Aggravated assault: Aggravated assault requires an intent to cause severe bodily injury, often accompanied with a weapon. Even the display of a weapon such as a knife or gun can be considered aggravated assault because of the threat of serious harm. Aggravated assault during the case of a larceny-theft qualifies as robbery. The FBI reported that an estimated 807,410 aggravated assaults occurred in the U.S. in 2018, only a 0.6% decrease from 2009.

Sex crimes

Society has come a long way in the last half-century with respect to sex crimes. Prosecution rates are climbing, and the treatment of victims is slowly improving. Sex crimes make headlines all too often, detailing crimes wherein people are taken advantage of in painful and violent ways. The FBI does not keep specific data on all sex crimes, instead focusing only on rape, which it groups with other violent crimes.

The factor that distinguishes sex crimes is consent. Sexual crimes occur when there is nonconsensual activity between individuals. Sex crimes include inappropriate sexual touching, harassment, and sending unsolicited sexual photographs or media.

Forced sexual acts are rape, and sexual activity with people who are too young to consent legally (generally meaning under the age of 18) is statutory rape. There are other forms of sex crimes, including revenge porn — the posting of nude photographs online as a form of blackmail or extortion — and elder abuse, which can happen in nursing homes or in-home care.

A major development in the way American society views sex crimes came with the growing prominence of the #MeToo movement in the latter half of the 2010s.

Though prosecutors had exposed and convicted people in power of sexual assault, rape, and other similar crimes before, when victims of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein came out publicly, it gave the movement momentum. The public plea to believe victims of sexual assault when they come forward with their stories helped many women and men expose people in power who had taken advantage of them.

Hate crimes

On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof walked into an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina, and opened fire, killing nine people and wounding one other. After a manhunt involving local and federal law enforcement agencies, Roof was captured and taken into FBI custody. He confessed to federal agents that he committed the shooting in hopes of sparking a race war.

As much as we wish this was an isolated incident, the facts show a disturbing trend, with similar hate-motivated shootings and attacks targeting people of a particular race, ethnicity, gender, or orientation. Such attacks have taken place in El Paso, Texas; Orlando, Florida; Isla Vista, California; and many other cities across the country and world.

According to a New York Times report based on FBI data, racially motivated bias attacks and hate crimes reached a 16-year high in 2018, with a particular rise in cases against Latinos, while attacks on Muslim-Americans have witnessed a noticeable decrease.

The FBI investigates hundreds of cases involving hate crimes or bias attacks every year. Through partnerships with local law enforcement, the use of advanced tracking technology and other resources at their disposal, they work to detect and prevent incidents through investigation activities, training initiatives, public outreach, and partnerships with community groups.

Property crimes

Property crimes affect an individual, business, or government’s property, including places of residence, places of work, or personal belongings. Property crimes do not include violence or a threat of violence, though violent crimes can occur during the execution of property crimes.

More than 7.19 million property crimes were committed in the United States in 2018, according to the FBI. That represented a 6.3% drop from 2017 and a 22.9% drop in total property crimes compared with 2009. In total, the rate of property crime witnessed a 27.7% drop from 2009 to 2018, when there were 2,200 property crimes per 100,000 people. Nevertheless, these crimes still had a profound effect, with an estimated $16.4 billion in losses.

The FBI keeps statistics on the following four types of property crime:

  • Larceny-theft: The most common type of property crime, constituting 72.5% of all property crimes in 2018, larceny-theft is the unlawful removal of property. This includes shoplifting, pickpocketing, bicycle theft, and attempts at such offenses, which all come without violence or the threat of violence. There were 5.2 million larceny-thefts in 2018, with an average property value of $1,153.
  • Burglary: The FBI defines burglary as the “unlawful entry of a structure to commit a felony or theft.” Burglary does not require an element of force; someone who opens an unlocked door into a house and commits theft has still committed a burglary. The FBI reports that there were 1.2 million burglaries in 2018, causing an estimated $3.4 billion in property losses, or $2,799 per burglary.
  • Motor vehicle theft: This entails the theft or attempted theft of a motor vehicle, though it’s limited to those that travel on roads, including cars, trucks, motorcycles, sport utility vehicles, ATVs, and snowmobiles. It does not include farm equipment, airplanes, construction equipment, or any type of watercraft.
  • Arson: The FBI defines arson as “the burning or attempt to burn any house, public building, dwelling, motor vehicle or aircraft, personal property, etc.” The FBI, which includes only confirmed cases of arson in its data, reported that 36,127 arsons were committed in 2018. More than 43% of arson cases targeted structures, 23.8% targeted mobile property, and other types of property (crops, fences, etc.) accounted for 33.1%.

Learn more about stopping crime with Maryville University

Criminal science is a challenging field. There’s no single motive for why people break the law or a way to predict who might do something to put themselves or others at risk. The more you understand different crimes, why laws exist, and crime prevention efforts and tactics, the better you can create a culture of safety in your community.

Safety at the town, city, state, and national levels is a collective effort among criminal justice organizations across the country, from small-town sheriff’s departments to the FBI.

Understanding types of crimes is only one piece of reducing the overall crime rate. All those who work in the criminal justice world — from police and federal agents to lawyers, judges, and prison workers — can benefit from an education that introduces them to the breadth of the criminal justice system through courses in criminological theory, corrections in society, and more.

Explore how Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice can equip you with the practical skills and knowledge necessary to enter the criminal justice field.

Recommended Readings

Future of Cybersecurity: Threats, Tools, and Technologies

How Criminal Justice Professionals Will Fight Future Crimes

How Future Police Officers Will Adapt to Trends in Law Enforcement


Bureau of Justice Statistics, Crime Characteristics and Trends

Bureau of Justice Statistics, Crime Type

Bureau of Justice Statistics, Property Crime

Bureau of Justice Statistics, Violent Crime

CNN, “Madoff Victims Set to Receive $772 Million Payout”

Encyclopedia Britannica, Code of Hammurabi

FBI, 2018 Crime in the United States

FBI, Cyber Crime

FBI, Organized Crime

FBI, White-Collar Crime

Federation of American Scientists, “Organized Crime in the United States: Trends and Issues for Congress”

Herjavec Group, “2019 Official Annual Cybercrime Report”

Justia, “Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Law”

The Marshall Project, “New FBI Data: Violent Crime Still Falling”

The New York Times, “Hate Crime Violence Hits 16 Year High”

Pew Research Center, “Five Facts About Crime in the U.S.”

USA Today, “Cities Where the Crime Rate Is Soaring in Every State in the U.S.”

Vox, “The #MeToo Movement and Its Evolution, Explained”

World Population Review, Crime Rate by State 2019

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