People are committing fraud to maintain lavish lifestyles during tough economic times, claims a leading economic crime expert.

Nearly half of 85 New Zealand businesses that responded to a global survey on economic crime admitted experiencing fraud over the past 12 months.

This compared with 30 per cent across the globe and 24 per cent in the Asia Pacific region.

Speaking at a conference on white-collar crime and serious fraud in Auckland last week, Alex Tan of PricewaterhouseCoopers said people struggled to give up their luxuries when the recession struck.

"We have a very basic fraud environment, which is just that people want to spend the money, whereas in certain countries such as the US they have that but they also have Enron-type fraud involving CEOs and the like manipulating financial statements," Mr Tan told the Herald.

"A big reason is because we have comparatively low wages and we like our toys, we like the cars, boats, beach houses and some like to gamble to excess."

Of 3000 organisations that responded to the 2009 PwC global economic crime survey, 85 were from New Zealand - ranging from 21 per cent in the government and public sector to 8 per cent in insurance.

The average loss to fraud over the past 12 months was $492,000 - the largest topping $7 million.

Mr Tan, who spent nine years in the Hong Kong police and eight years in its Serious Fraud Office, said it was about raising awareness and putting practices in place.

"In the current economic environment, if people see a weakness there could be a large incentive to exploit it ... some people are finding it difficult to manage."

Mr Tan said the profile of the internal fraudster was moving away from junior staff to middle and senior management who had more ability to override controls.

It was about a change of mindset and accepting that it went on in this country.

Staff at one organisation Mr Tan spent four days reviewing refused to let him use the word fraud.

"We still have this inherent ignorance about fraud and corruption," he said.

Mr Tan said the percentage of fraud reported by New Zealand businesses was down on the 2007 study, because that accounted for two years.

* NZ eighth worst of 55 countries in global survey.
* 42 per cent of businesses experienced fraud in past 12 months.
* Largest company loss $7 million-plus.