Crime Does Pay -- Here's How

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- When FBI agents raided the small apartment in Santa Monica where fugitive Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger was hiding out, they seized more than $800,000 and a small arsenal of weaponry.

Given that other money is likely hidden away at various locales, the one-time head of the notorious Winter Hill Gang's ample "retirement savings" shows that crime does indeed pay. How much it pays -- at least until law enforcement comes knocking -- depends on deed and scale.

History is filled with criminals and con men whose dastardly deeds have reaped fortunes. Legendary bootlegger Al Capone was worth an estimated $100 million at the time of his death.

Columbian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar routinely paid out $250,000 to local authorities in exchange for their cooperation, and his fortress of a mansion included such luxuries as airplanes, helicopters, a stable of Arabian horses and even his own bullfighting ring. All of it was funded by the cocaine snorted with abandon during the 1980s.

Criminals such as these prosper because of the incredible demand that exists for illegal goods. Havocscope, which aggregates information and statistics on the global black market, estimates that the total value of these goods and "services" in the U.S. is about $460.6 billion a year. Their accounting includes everything from illicit drugs to pirated movies, counterfeit batteries and illegal organ trafficking.

The following are some of the ways bad guys try to make big money:

Drug dealers
According to the United Nations Office on Crime and Drugs' World Drug Report for the year, roughly 210 million people, or 4.8% of the population aged 15-64 years, use illicit substances each year around the world.

The world of drug dealers ranges from small-scale operations (a stoner or junkie merely looking to recoup their own costs) to mammoth smuggling operations. How much you can make is a matter of supply, demand and upfront cost.

The U.S. remains the world's largest market for cocaine, consuming an estimated 157 tons in 2009, $37 billion worth. Illegal marijuana accounts for about $18 billion in sales a year. By comparison, sales for the two best-best selling prescription drugs, Pfizer's ( PFE) Lipitor and Bristol-Myers Squibb's ( BMY) Plavix, were a combined $11.4 billion last year.

In promoting his platform of drug legalization, Ron Paul, libertarian congressman and presidential candidate, has cited that "cocaine ... has about a 17,000% markup and sells for more than gold in some areas."

Cheap to grow, marijuana also has a sizable markup by middlemen dealers. According to the crowd-sourced website PriceofWeed.com, marijuana prices across the country typically range from $160 an ounce for low quality to $439 an ounce (more than $7,000 a pound) for high quality.

Pill pushers also enjoy a massive profit margin. An oxycontin pill, $4 to $6 with a prescription, can be flipped for as much as $80 on the streets.

Counterfeit goods

The worldwide market for counterfeit goods is about $600 billion a year, according to the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition.

In New York City, as much as $23 billion in fake watches, knockoff bags and pirated videos are sold each year.

Much of the illicit trade goes on right in the open in the so-called "Counterfeit Triangle" of Canal, Walker and Centre streets and tourist areas such as Times Square and 30 Rock. Block by block it is easy to find shops with logoed fakes sold in tiny shops and along sidewalks atop blankets or in open suitcases. Buying a fake Rolex for $10 is virtually a rite of passage for anyone visiting the city for the first time.

Back in 2008, a raid organized by city law enforcement shut down 32 shops and seized more than $1 million worth of counterfeit goods.

The Big Apple's attack has escalated even more in recent weeks, with City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, whose district includes the piracy and counterfeiting hotspot of Chinatown, proposing legislation this week that would make it illegal to buy fake goods, threatening knockoff seeking shoppers with a $1,000 fine and potentially a year in jail.

Handbag maker Coach has taken matters into its own hands. Its "Operation Turnlock" has taken legal action against hundreds of counterfeit importers and sellers. It has even sued Chicago government, alleging officials have turned a blind eye to the counterfeit trade by failing to go after offending merchants in the New Maxwell Street Market.

It may take more than legal legwork to stop the lucrative trade. The Swiss watch industry estimates there are more than 40 million counterfeit watches sold each year, a $1 billion marketplace.

Pimps and prostitutes
In their 2007 research paper, Steven D. Levitt (of Freakanomics fame) and Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh of the University of Chicago studied the sex trade in that city and found prostitutes earned roughly $25 to $30 an hour. At the time, they estimated there were 4,400 street prostitutes active in Chicago in an average week.

"Given the relatively limited hours that active prostitutes work, this generates less than $20,000 annually for a women working year-round in prostitution," they found.

A scary addendum: "A woman working as a prostitute would expect an annual average of a dozen incidents of violence and 300 instances of unprotected sex."

The muscle behind street-level prostitution -- alternately offering protection and violent threats to their stable -- typically carve out 80% or more from what the working girls earn. A top-earning girl can yield them upward of $500 a night, according to a review of various police reports and media accounts. With several women working neighborhoods each night, they can net $1,000 to $2,000 a day.

The big money comes from the high end of the marketplace, a realm often cornered more by upscale madams than Huggy Bear wannabees.

Kristin Davis, the so-called "Manhattan Madame," offered $2,000-a-night prostitutes to Wall Street's movers and shakers (among them New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer), some of whom paid $300,000 or more over time for services.

Davis was arrested and convicted in 2008 for running a prostitution ring around the corner from the New York Stock Exchange. The business netted upward of $200,000 a week, she has claimed. As part of a plea agreement, she surrendered roughly $500,000 made from running the ring.

Car thieves
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau and FBI statistics, nearly 800,000 vehicles are stolen each year, with more than one snagged every 40 seconds.

The estimated total value of vehicles stolen nationwide was over $5.2 billion in 2009. More than 56,000 motorcycle were reported stolen in 2009, a value of more than $370 million.

Ruling out joyriding, getaway cars and insurance fraud, professional car thieves can make hundreds by turning a stolen car over to a chop shop that can dismantle the vehicle and sell individual parts at a markup that makes the sum of the parts more valuable than the whole.

In recent years, a more lucrative effort has been to ship higher-end cars overseas to the Middle East or Russia, where they are re-sold, netting all involved thousands of dollars per unit. Many are "stolen to order," with thieves working from a list of desired makes and models.

Identity thieves
Cyber crime, in particular identity theft, can net a big payday for outlaws.

In its annual tracking of identity fraud, Javelin Strategy & Research tallied 8.1 million adults in the U.S. who were victims.

Total annual fraud decreased to $37 billion from $56 billion last year, the smallest amount in the eight years the firm has tracked such data. The mean fraud amount per victim declined from $4,991 in 2009 to $4,607.

While fraud incidents decreased, the mean consumer out-of-pocket cost due to identity fraud increased 63%, from $387 in 2009 to $631 per incident in last year. This may be attributable to changes in the types of fraud perpetrated in 2010, including new account and debit card fraud. Consumer fraud costs include those incurred by the victim toward payoff of fraudulent debt as well as fees (legal or otherwise) to resolve fraudulent claims.

Bounty hunters
Crime can even pay for noncriminals.

Aside from cops and federal agents, there is another group that makes its living off catching unsavory characters.

Bounty hunters, hired to chase down those who skip out on their court appearance and bail bond obligation, can earn upward of 20% of the fronted bail money once they hunt down their on-the-lam prey.

A go-to bounty hunter in a given area can take on 100 or more cases a year and earn $40,000 to $80,000 a year doing so. Bigger bails mean bigger bounties.

Research on fugitives conducted by Eric Helland and Alexander Tabarrok of George Mason University found that approximately one-quarter of all released felony defendants fail to appear; roughly 200,000 felony defendants fail to appear every year, and of these, approximately 60,000 will remain fugitives for at least one year.

That means plenty of work for skip tracers.

According to the National Association of Bail Enforcement Officials, there are about 300 full-time bounty hunters in the U.S. and nearly 2,000 who work at it part time.

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Joe Mont.

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