Imagine waking up one morning to discover that a dear friend, a person you trusted with the intimate details of your business, has been robbing you blind for years, leaving you and your business near bankruptcy.

This is embezzlement, and it happens every day.

Deputy Prosecutor Karla Painter is the investigator who handles financial crimes for the Missoula County Attorney’s office. She said embezzlement can range from a business that uses a simple program like QuickBooks, to the most complicated spreadsheets of a large corporation.

“I’ve had one that involved some QuickBooks scamming,” said Painter. “This particular employee had absolute control of QuickBooks, and she would go in and essentially print out a check that was made out to her, and then she would go back in and change the payee to Wal Mart, so it would look like a business expense.”

Painter said tracking down an embezzler takes a skilled investigator who knows what to look for.

“It’s not just a matter of looking at the spreadsheets that your embezzler may be creating, because she, or he, might have a way to manipulate that,” she said. “You actually have to go back and look specifically at the bank statements and specifically at the actual deposit slips and track the money from the time it comes in to where it goes, and who’s accountable for it.”

Once an embezzler is investigated and charged, they will be sentenced and ordered to pay restitution, but that can bring even more criminal activity.

“One case that was very frustrating for me was a woman that had stolen $200,000 from her employer, and while she was out on felony probation, she actually started doing the same crime with two other victim businesses,” she said. “The reason was to steal the money from these people to pay off what she owed.”

Any business, organization or charity can be victimized by an embezzler, from a local church to the University of Montana.

Painter said any business owner who suspects embezzlement should contact law enforcement immediately, and they will refer the case to the Missoula County Attorney's Office.

Painter is hoping to organize a seminar for local business owners to help them know what to look for should they suspect embezzlement.