If someone called the FBI and told them that a bank robbery was in progress downtown, you can bet the place would be surrounded by police and federal agents within minutes.

But what if the robbery were taking place in the bank's executive suite and the crooks were wearing three-piece suits instead of ski masks -- and it took 17 telephone calls over eight days to get a response from the Federal Bureau of Investigation? The average American would figure it was just another Woody Allen parody of life in our times.

This very episode occurred in California not too long ago, and nobody laughed. William Crawford, the state's no-nonsense savings and loan commissioner, can be forgiven if he cried a little. He placed the 17 calls to the FBI and waited eight days for action -- while the S&L owners he was calling about were carting off cash by the carload.

Crawford, who is fair as well as tough, doesn't blame the FBI. As he explained to our associate Michael Binstein, the bureau's Santa Ana office had only 12 agents to deal with the deluge of white-collar crime that threatens to engulf their office and every other FBI outpost in the West.

Only about 40 prosecutors in all of California have the know-how to follow the devious tracks of financial swindlers. Small wonder, then, that it sometimes takes two years to prepare a fraud case -- or that California has become the world capital of white-collar crime.

One reason for California's preeminence is laws that make life difficult for prosecutors. The prosecution must compile all available evidence before bringing its case. That includes bank records, obtainable only by search warrant. To persuade a judge to approve a warrant, investigators generally need an inside source. That's not easy.

The FBI has declined to pursue many tenuous cases to concentrate on those it has a chance to win. But this strategy often comes to naught when judges are lenient toward white-collar criminals.

Consider this recent appeal by the attorney for a California banker: "It was not an intentional act of thievery or stealing, Your Honor. It was manipulation of funds, and I hope you can see the difference." The judge apparently did see a difference -- and sentenced the banker, involved in a scheme to steal millions of dollars, to one year in prison. Not long after that, another thief was sentenced in California to three years -- for purloining a parrot.

Misconduct by California S&L insiders over the past several years has cost shareholders, creditors and the federal deposit-insurance fund hundreds of millions of dollars, according to investigators for a House Government Operations subcommittee. In a review of 35 failed or failing financial institutions, they found insider misconduct in 27 cases.

The criminal misconduct ranged from tellers stealing small amounts of cash to executives and their buddies conniving in sophisticated schemes that netted them millions. A common thread the investigators detected was that many of the corrupt S&Ls were owned by an individual or a small group, with passive managements and directors.

They also found that insider fraud is not confined to failing financial institutions; the successful ones can just cover it up longer.