The Fraud Triangle

To fight fraud one must not only realize that it occurs, but also how and why it occurs. Several decades ago, after considerable research, Donald R. Cressey, a well-known criminologist, developed the Fraud Triangle. Interested in the circumstances that led embezzlers to temptation, he published Other People’s Money: A Study in the Social Psychology of Embezzlement.

Cressey’s hypothesis was: "Trusted persons become trust violators when they conceive of themselves as having a financial problem which is non-sharable, are aware this problem can be secretly resolved by violation of the position of financial trust, and are able to apply to their own conduct in that situation verbalizations which enable them to adjust their conceptions of themselves as trusted persons with their conceptions of themselves as users of the entrusted funds or property."

Essentially, the three elements of the Fraud Triangle are: Opportunity, Pressure (also known as incentive or motivation) and Rationalization (sometimes called justification or attitude). For fraud to occur, all three elements must be present.

Fraud Triangle Fraud Triangle
Fraud Triangle


If one is talking about theft, there must be something to steal and a way to steal it. Anything of value is something to steal. Any weakness in a system—for example, lack of oversight—is a way to steal. Of the three elements of the Fraud Triangle, opportunity is often hard to spot, but fairly easy to control through organizational or procedural changes.


Pressure in this case is another way of saying motivation. What is it in one’s life that drives one to commit fraud? Pressure sometimes involves personal situations that create a demand for more money; such situations might include vices like drug use or gambling or merely life events like a spouse losing a job. At other times, pressure arises from problems on the job; unrealistic performance targets may provide the motive to perpetrate fraud.


There are two aspects to rationalization: One, the fraudster must conclude that the gain to be realized from a fraudulent activity outweighs the possibility for detection. Two, the fraudster needs to justify the fraud. Justification can be related to job dissatisfaction or perceived entitlement, or a current intent to make the victim whole sometime in the future, or saving one’s family, possessions or status. Rationalization is discernible by observation of the fraudster's comments or attitudes.

The Fraud Diamond


The Fraud Diamond, a newer theory of fraud proposed by David T. Wolfe and Dana R. Hermanson, asserts that the fraudster's capability must also be taken into account. The fraudster, it is said, must have the required traits (e.g., greed, weakness of character, excessive pride, dishonesty, etc.) and abilities (e.g., knowledge of processes and controls) to actually commit the fraud. It can be argued, however, that traits are components of pressure and that abilities are opportunity factors.

10-80-10 Rule*

The 10-80-10 Rule supports the general assumption of capability by breakdown of the population and the likelihood of fraud occurrences. Essentially:

  • 10 percent of the population will NEVER commit fraud. This is the type of person that will go out of their way to return items to the correct party.
  • 80 percent of the population might commit fraud given the right combination of opportunity, pressure, and rationalization.
  • 10 percent of the population are actively looking at systems and trying to find a way to commit fraud.

*Source: National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers (NASACT) and the Oregon State Controller’s Division