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Louie Miller disappeared, dear
—The Threepenny Opera, "Mack the Knife"
A character is suspected of being involved in illegal activities because he owns things he shouldn't be able to afford on his modest salary: a big house, fancy sports car, expensive watch, etc.
It might not actually be illegal money. It could be the spouse's money, or family money, or simply that the character has chosen to skimp in other areas to have one or two things that are nicer than they "should" be able to afford. Even in the cases where the money isn't obtained by illegal means, though, people suspect that it was.
- In The Crow 3, the corrupt chief of police comments this about one cop being killed by the Crow when the latter crashed into a wall with the sports car of the corrupt cop.
- In Superman III, after Gus's "shave and collect fractional pennies" scam is discovered, Corrupt Corporate Executive Ross Webster doesn't think there's any way of catching the perpetrator unless he does something really stupid. Immediately, Gus shows up in a fancy sports car far above what he could afford on his salary.
- Batman Begins had Commissioner Gordon say this to Detective Flass while they're sitting in the car on stakeout.
- Inverted in the 2004 Punisher movie's extended cut. Frank doesn't suspect his old partner of selling him out until he notices that nearly all of Weeks' luxury items are gone; he'd been selling them to cover his gambling debts.
- Pops up in the movie Clue.
Wadsworth: And Colonel, you drive a very expensive car for someone who lives on a colonel's pay.
- It's later revealed that he sold airplane parts on the black market to make his money.
- And that his mother is very much alive
- It's later revealed that he sold airplane parts on the black market to make his money.
- Murtaugh is suspected of this in Lethal Weapon 4. Nice suits, nice house (constantly needing to be completely remodeled), new cars and boats, and more than enough money to go around. Riggs eventually gets around to grilling him about why this is so on a cop's salary. It turns out the money is coming mostly from Murtagh's wife, who is a very successful romance novelist. Murtagh wouldn't admit it because his friends would never let him live it down.
- The movie Say Anything has this as a major part of the plot - the IRS is investigating Diane's father for tax evasion, fraud, and money laundering. Diane's discussion with the agent handling the case is a great rundown on trying to find someone doing this.
- Deliberately referenced in Goodfellas: One gangster gets upset when his girlfriend buys a really expensive coat because of this trope - he's worried the police will be suspicious if she's seen with it. The protagonist is also given some money from the heist and is cautioned to spend it carefully — Gilligan Cut to him entering his house with a huge Christmas tree and shouting to his wife, "I got the most expensive tree in the store, honey!"
- This happens near the end of the original Pink Panther movie when Clouseau is suspected of being the jewel thief. When questioned in this matter about how his wife (who is actually the thief) is able to afford such expensive clothing, on his police salary, Clouseau naively asserts that she's very frugal with the housekeeping budget.
- In Dial M for Murder, the cops begin to suspect Tony of something when he starts buying everything in cash, in used one-pound notes.
- The surviving robbers in Dead Presidents are caught because one of them starts spending the stolen money right away and way beyond his means. There is a good chance that he did it because he was feeling guilty for all the deaths they caused and wanted to be caught.
- In Twilight, the Cullens spent much more than they should have been able to on cool cars, designer clothes, etc. for Carlisle being a doctor and the only source of income. Bella wondered about this, before she knew about Alice being phychic and able to predict lottery results.
- The Sherlock Holmes novel The Valley of Fear had Holmes mention that Professor Moriarty owned a painting worth many times over his legitimate annual income. At the time, this was the most tangible piece of evidence Holmes could find against Moriarty.
- Mary Monica Pulver's Peter Brichter series has this. The hero lives in extremely comfortable circumstance for a police officer, which regularly causes other cops to regard him suspiciously. However, his wife is the wealthy one.
- In the Prey novel series by John Sandford, Lucas Davenport is a cop who has a fancy house, nice suits, a Porche and millions of dollars, but that's because he writes roleplaying games in his off-time. Who knew?
- Played straight in The Da Vinci Code, when the cops ask what the "driver" is doing with a Rolex. He claims it is actually a 'Folex' knockoff, and offers to sell it to the inquisitive officer for a paltry sum.
- In one of the Tarma and Kethry short stories, Tarma figures out who The Mole is by realizing that one of the guards is wearing jewellery he shouldn't be able to afford (Though this is considered to be grounds for suspicion, not proof in and of itself).
Live Action TV
- Brass mentions on an episode of CSI that when he joined the Las Vegas Police Department, one officer had a really luxurious cabin where he threw parties and, in retrospect, Brass realized what that meant.
- In the first season of Law and Order, when Cragen is suspected of being associated with a dirty cop, it's noticed he's getting a new swimming pool. Cragen later reveals that his wife (a flight attendant) is the one paying for it.
- When Dennis Farina was on Law and Order, his character had a nice car, wore expensive suits, and had a massive roll of cash on him at all times, causing his partner and Lt. Van Buren to be suspicious.
- Meadow from The Sopranos mentions this to Tony in one episode when he comes home with a massive wad of $20 bills, which she comments is somewhat unrealistic for a plumber.
- The Shield plays into this, Vic Mackey is the living embodiment of the idea. He's pretty smart about it, though: after robbing the Armenian money train at the end of season two, he forces the Strike Team to sit on the cash for at least six months (or closer to a year) before investing it in a real estate deal to launder it. Of course, everything goes pear-shaped by the end of season three, but it could have been a lot worse.
- Parodied in Father Ted's episode "Chirpy Burpy Cheap Sheep" when Ted notices that the villains have become ludicrously wealthy and can't resist showing it off (one of them even wears a crown).
- Michael Westen of Burn Notice uses this trope as part of a bluff: impersonating a professional hostage negotiator, the kidnappers asked how he could prove he wasn't a cop. He opens his jacket and says "This is Armani. Cops (salary) don't fit Armani."
- Season 3 of Dexter features a cop who is being investigated by Internal Affairs. The only other person on the squad who knows about the investigation can't help noticing that this officer has a very expensive watch and a car he couldn't afford on a cop's salary.
- The Wire: When the Stevedore's Union donates enough money for a great big stained glass illuminated window for a church, a police major becomes suspicious and investigates the union for corruption, setting up the plot for the season. Actually, it was because Frank Sobotka (leader of the union) upstaged the police major's own donation and the major was abusing his power. He didn't know (and probably wouldn't have cared) that it was also an arguably good use of a lot of money - a senator the union needed to influence was in that church's congregation.
- In the same season, Nick Sobotka warns his cousin, Ziggy, against this after the two of them steal a container of digital cameras from the docks. Ziggy ignores him.
- In one episode of I Dream of Jeannie, Jeannie magicks up some expensive treasures to show off for some random guy who knocks on the door. This random guy, of course, turns out to be an IRS Agent.
- In another one, Roger manages to have Jeannie as his servant. Tony manages to take a picture of him in front of his brand-new house and gets Dr. Bellows and the general suspicious about where the money came from.
- On NCIS, McGee's coworkers are suspicious when he starts buying such extravagant things as a new phone, watch, clothes, car, etc. Turns out that they're right to be, because he has the money as a result of his bestselling novel, which stars characters based on people he knows - based only on people he knows.
- In season two of Republic of Doyle the mayor starts driving a very expensive car which causes Jake and Leslie to suspect him of corruption. When confronted he explains that he is merely leasing the car for a few months so he can appear more successful for the upcoming re-election campaign. He lied and actually bought the car using kickback money
- Des manages to intimidate a drug dealer into backing off when he points out that the dealer will have a hard time explaining to the police how he could afford an expensive sports car and thus cannot report Des for stealing the car and shipping it back to the dealer in parts. The dealer does not want the trouble and stops threatening Des and Tinny.
- In one episode of Unforgettable, a murdered cop was suspected of being dirty because he was able to pay of his wife's extensive medical bills despite being seriously in debt. He had gotten the money by selling his boat.
- In one of Max Allan Collins's early Dick Tracy strips (the final "Big Boy" continuity), someone points to one cop's extravagant lifestyle when they are looking for a mole inside the Organized Crime Unit. Tracy agrees that is suspicious, but far from conclusive.
- Tracy himself wasn't immune to this either, having been investigated during the forties for how exactly he could afford all his fancy gadgets, his spacious house, his top-of-the-line car, etc. on a cop's pay (answer: in addition to being abnormally thrifty, many of the electronics and cars were provided free of charge by his friend Diet Smith as "test" models.)
- The song "Little Tin Box" from the musical Fiorello!
- Max Payne's confrontation with B.B. in the first game is all over this trope.
Max Payne: The garage was dead. B.B. showed up in his tailor-made suit, gold watch and cufflinks to match. All way beyond a cop's pay.
- Fortunately, Max can be forgiven for not noticing B.B. was corrupt before: he never interacted with him, except via phone.
- One of the missions for the Italian Mafia in Grand Theft Auto III is a slightly atypical example of this trope. A bartender working for a made man is suspected of leaking information to the Columbian Cartel, who have been showing a remarkable amount of foreknowledge of Mafia movements. The bartender is a suspect because he is spending more than the Mafia is paying him, and because he is not pimping women or selling drugs, which would account for the discrepancy.
- Fridge Logic sets in when you wonder how the Don knew he wasn't doing either of those things: the Mafia probably would have taxed him if they found out he was making money in such a fashion, which could be an incentive to keep his mouth shut about it. Although it would have been a problem in its own way, untaxed criminal activity probably would have explained the extra money. The point is partially moot. He was indeed selling out his bosses. He was, however, paid in drugs, which would not have accounted for the extra money unless he was selling them secretly.
- Brucie Kibbutz from Grand Theft Auto IV is stated, in his police record, to be spending money more freely than his declared taxable income should allow.
- A suspected corrupt police captain in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, has items in his office that could not have been purchased merely on his own salary. The implication (later proved to be true, if the player has him arrested rather than killed) is that he is imposing outrageous fines on the cityfolk in order to bankroll his spending, including a large home for himself and his family for when he retires.
- In Dragon Age II the guard that allowed a Qunari delegate to be captured by fanatics is quickly spotted since he's buying expensive alcohol far beyond a city guard's salary. He's also openly boasting about what he did, since he believes — with good reason — that he acted on behalf of the Chantry.
- In The Fairly Odd Parents, Timmy is constantly showing up with stuff his fairy godparents got him through magic. His usual answer when asked how he got the stuff is, "From the Internet?". There's even an episode where he is suspected of shoplifting for this very reason. He then manages to catch a real shoplifter using a camera he wished for, leading his parents to stop questioning his excuse, even if they don't seem to believe it.
- A couple of Soviet moles in the U.S. government were caught this way.
- A lot more spies should have been caught this way but no one paid any attention to the fact they were spending more than they were legally earning. It was only after they were caught that someone finally looked at their finances.
- Aldrich Ames was caught this way, too.
- It was more a case of "OMG! We should have noticed that this guy was living way beyond his means years ago!" after other evidence finally clued them in.
- A standard real-life investigative technique used when a seriously large theft of money is accomplished: see if all of a sudden someone is making large purchases and take a look at them.
- In one case, a man was arrested under suspicion of breaking into vending machines to steal the money they contained. It didn't help his case when he made bail using nothing but quarters.
- Al Capone's arrest was derived from this. While the government couldn't prove that the millions of dollars he spent on entertainment alone (Far more than he earned in his official job as a hotelier) every year was earned illegally, they could prove that he hadn't paid taxes on it.