Category Archives: Fraud Interviewing

On Motivation

The ACFE tells us that there is no simple profile for employees who commit fraud. However, some ACFE statistics are available. Its research has repeatedly shown that about 10 percent to 15 percent of employees are fundamentally dishonest and are likely to steal from their company if given the opportunity. About 66 percent of employees are likely to steal under the right circumstances, such as when under pressure, or when “everyone is doing it,” and the opportunity exists. In contrast, about 20 percent to 25 percent of employees are fundamentally honest and are unlikely to steal under any circumstances.

Furthermore, those employees who do steal from the company are unlikely to have a prior criminal record, and those with a good education, family, background, and work record can be just as likely to steal as anyone else.

On the other hand, research shows that the three elements of the standard fraud triangle, with which we’re all familiar, have proven themselves descriptive over many the years in explaining which employees may defraud our client companies.

• Pressure – Usually related to financial pressure such as large medical bills, gambling problems, drug habits, and extravagant living.

• Opportunity – Required to commit any fraud.

• Rationalization – Likely depends on the type of criminal and the criminal’s personality type or possible personality disorder.

The rationalization component of the fraud triangle suggests possible types of individuals who may commit fraud:

• The fundamentally dishonest employee without a personality disorder. This person could habitually be dishonest but does not have a personality disorder. Rationalization comes easily because the person is accustomed to dishonesty. Therefore, the rationalizations are likely to include statements such as “I need it more than they do” and “They won’t miss it.”

• The fundamentally dishonest employee with a personality disorder. Various personality disorders may contribute to the ability of the employee to rationalize fraud. Psychiatry uses the diagnosis antisocial personality disorder and the related diagnosis dissocial personality disorder. The following are characteristics that apply to persons with these types of mental disorders:

— Nonconformist behavior; tend to be misfits.
— Habitual lying and dishonesty.
— Impulsiveness.
— Irritability and aggressiveness.
— Insensitivity to harming self or others.
— Strong disregard for the needs of self and others.
— Tendency to blame others for personal faults and mistakes.
— Lack of responsibility.
— Difficulty in establishing and maintaining close relationships.
— Absence of the ability to feel emotions or the full range of normal emotions.

The deceitfulness dimension of these disorders could enable the person to hide some or all of his or her antisocial characteristics. This type of person is often able to steal without giving much conscious thought to rationalizations. The crime could simply arise out of the mental disturbance.

• Then there is the normally honest employee who steals given pressure and opportunity and rationalizes the theft. A person who does not normally steal is likely to give serious thought to rationalizing the theft. One common rationalization is that the person is only borrowing the money; often the person takes money with the intent to pay it back, and many times does in fact pay it back. The result is that the corporate till can become the employee’s personal lending institution; however, in many cases, the person is never able to pay back the ill-gotten loan. The normally honest employee is likely to steal out of a sudden financial need or because of a problem with a financially excessive lifestyle.

The ACFE advises us to consider possible motives when examining evidence related to an occupational fraud. Motive is the power that prompts a person to act. Motive, however, should not be confused with intent, which refers to the state of mind of the accused when performing the act. Motive, unlike intent, is not an essential element of crime, and criminal law generally treats a person’s motive as irrelevant in determining guilt or innocence. Even so, motive is relevant for other purposes: it can help identify the perpetrator; it will often guide the examiner to the proper rationalization; it further incriminates the accused; and it can be helpful in ensuring successful prosecution.

The examiner should search relevant documents to determine a possible motive. For example, if a fraud examiner has evidence in the form of a paycheck written to a ghost employee, s/he might suspect a payroll employee who recently complained about not having received a raise in the past two years. Although such information does not mean that the payroll employee committed fraud, the possible motive can guide the examiner.

During the process of interviewing suspects, interviewers should seek to understand the possible motives of interviewees. To do this, interviewers should suspend their own value system. This will better position the interviewer(s) to persuade suspects to reveal information providing insight into what might have pressured or motivated them and how they might have rationalized their actions.

In an interview situation, the examiner should not suggest reasons for the crime. Instead, the examiner should let the individual share his or her motivations, even if the suspect reveals those motivations in an indirect manner.

In interviewing suspects for motives:

• Leave your ego at the door.
• Talk to the suspected perpetrator as an adult.
• Do not patronize the suspect.
• Use good communication skills to develop rapport with subjects so that they will feel comfortable talking to you.
• Avoid being confrontational with the suspect. If the interviewer is confrontational, the perpetrator will be less likely to make an admission.

When conducting an interview with a suspect, the interviewer should begin by asking questions about the standard procedures and the actual practice of the operations at issue. This is necessary to gain an understanding of the way the relevant process is intended to work and how it actually works. Additionally, asking such basic questions early in the interview will help the interviewer observe the interviewee’s “normal” behavior so that the interviewer can notice any changes in the subject’s mannerisms and word choice.

Next, the interviewer might ask non-accusatory questions related to the issue at hand, such as:

• Why do you think someone would do something like this?
• What do you think should happen to a person who would do something like this?
• Of all of the people who work in this area, who could be involved?

The answers to these questions can help the interviewer understand the possible motives of various suspects, narrow the pool of suspects, or even obtain an admission. For example, a suspect who answers the question “Why do you think someone would do something like this?” with a sympathetic answer might be trying to appeal to the interviewer’s sense of compassion to reduce or minimize his or her punishment.

The more the interviewer knows about the perpetrator, the better chance s/he will have of identifying the perpetrator’s motive and rationalization. Once the perpetrator thinks that the interviewer understands her motive, she will become more likely to confess.

During the motivation identifying interview, fraud examiners must also remember that there are times when rational people behave irrationally. This is important in the interview process because it will help humanize the misconduct. Unless the perpetrator has a mental or emotional disorder, it is acceptable to expect that the perpetrator committed the fraud for a reason.

Situational fraudsters, those who rationalize their right to an illegal enrichment and perpetrate fraud when the opportunity arises, do not tend to view themselves as criminals. This is in contrast to deviant fraudsters, who are more proactive than situational fraudsters and who are always on the alert for opportunities to commit fraud. Situational fraudsters rationalize their crimes. Situational fraudsters feel that they need to commit fraud to regain control over their lives. Thus, an interviewer will be more likely to obtain a confession from a situational fraudster if s/he can genuinely communicate that s/he understands how anyone under similar-circumstances might commit such a crime. Genuineness, however, is key. If the fraudster in any way detects that the interviewer is constructing a trap, s/he generally will not make an admission of wrongdoing.

In summary, the fraud triangle is always helpful in explaining motivations for employees to defraud their employing organization by drawing attention to pressure, opportunity, and rationalization. Pressure is typically caused by sudden financial needs arising from things such as medical bills, gambling problems, drug habits, and extravagant living. The opportunity depends on the employee’s position and the strength of the company’s internal control processes. Rationalization depends on the type of criminal. The pure sociopath may need little or no rationalization. The fundamentally dishonest employee may give some conscious thought to rationalizing crimes, but the rationalization comes easily because the person is accustomed to dishonesty. Finally, the normally honest employee generally expends the most effort in rationalizing the crime, and often this type of person will really think that s/he is only borrowing the money.

Then & Now

I was chatting over lunch last week at the John Marshal Hotel here in Richmond with a former officer of our Chapter when the subject of interviewing came up; interviewing generally, but also viewed in the context of the challenges and obstacles that fraud examiners of the next generation will face as they increasingly confront their peers, the present and future fraudsters of the Millennial and Z generations.

Joseph Wells says somewhere, in one of his excellent writings, that skill as an interviewer is one of the most important attributes that a CFE or forensic accountant can possess and probably the one of all our skills most worthy of on-going cultivation. But, as with any other professional craft, there are common pitfalls of which newer professionals especially need to be aware to increase their chances of successfully achieving their interviewing objectives.

Failure to plan sufficiently is without a doubt, the primary error interviewers make. It seems that the more experience an interviewer has, the less he or she prepares. Whether because of busyness or overconfidence, this pitfall spells disaster. Not only does efficiency suffer because the interviewer might have to schedule another interview, but effectiveness suffers because the interviewer might never discover needed information. Fraudsters often take time before interviews to prepare answers to anticipated questions. The ACFE reports having briefed career criminals on their tactics, thoughts and behaviors about interviews, and they typically respond, “I had my routines that I was going to run down on them” and “I always had my story made up”.

During his or her planning for an interview, the CFE must carefully consider the interviewee’s role in the fraud and his or her relationship to the fraudster (if the interviewee isn’t the fraudster), available information, desired outcomes from the interview and primary interview strategy plus alternate, viable strategies. The success or failure of the interview is determined prior to the time the interviewer walks into the room. Either the interviewer is part of his or her own plan or she is part of someone else’s. The CFE, not the interviewee, has to control the interview.

An interviewer whose mind is made up before an interview even begins is courting danger. Confirmation bias (also known as confirmatory bias or myside bias) greatly decreases the likelihood that an interviewer dismisses, ignores or filters any contradictory information during an interview, whether the interviewee expresses it verbally or non-verbally. Thus, interviewers might not even be aware that they’re missing important information that could increase the examination’s effectiveness.

How many times have experienced practitioners been told by colleagues that they believed that particular interviewees were guilty only to later discover they were actually innocent? If such practitioners hadn’t been aware that their colleagues could have caused them to have confirmation bias, they might have dismissed contradictory interviewee behaviors during subsequent interviews as minor aberrations. It’s imperative that the interviewer maintain an open mind, which isn’t so much a skill set as an attitude. The effective interviewer gives the interviewee a chance by looking at all the data, listening to others and theorizing a hypothesis without precluding anything. Also, the ACFE tells us, if the interviewer maintains an open mind, the interviewee will perceive it and be more cooperative.

A guiding principle should be, the interview is not about the CFE; the CFE is conducting the interview. The interview is a professional encounter. If you don’t conduct the interview, someone else can conduct it, but the interviewee remains the same. Interviewers are replaceable; interviewees aren’t. Never lose sight of this foundational truth. If the interviewer personalizes the interview process s/he will focus on his or her inward emotions rather than on the interviewee’s verbal and non-verbal behavior. An interviewer’s unfettered emotions will have a debilitating impact on a number of levels.

If the interviewer becomes personally involved in an interview, the interviewer becomes the interviewee and the interviewee becomes the interviewer. Most of us want to search for connections to others. But if we connect too strongly, we will become so similar (at least in our own minds) to interviewees that we might have difficulty believing the interviewee is guilty or is providing inaccurate information. Once that occurs, the interviewer probably wont obtain necessary evidence or could discount incriminating evidence.

Before each interview, remind yourself that your objective is to collect evidence in a dispassionate manner; you won’t become emotionally involved. Focus on the overall objective of the interview so that you won’t be caught up in details that could connect you too closely with the interviewee. If, for example, you discover that the interviewee is from the same part of the country you’re from, remind yourself of the many persons you know who also are from that area so you’ll dilute the influence that this information could have on your interview.

With regard to interviewing members of the present and up-and-coming generation, a majority of our youngest future citizens spend an inordinate amount of time looking at plastic screens as a significant mode for learning, communicating, being entertained and experiencing the world instead of interacting directly with others in the same space and time. This places novice CFE interviewers at a disadvantage because they have been formally trained that much of the communication between an interviewer and an interviewee takes place non-verbally. Concurrently, the verbal aspects of communication are replete with meta-messages. For example, what kind of impression does an individual make whose voice inflection rises or falls at the end of a sentence? Can this inflection be as adequately and consistently communicated via a text message compared to in-person communication? This example (and there are many more) contains the essence of the interviewing process. Unfortunately, nuances, interpersonal communication subtleties and appropriate responses that were previously thought to be integral parts of the social modeling process aren’t as readily available to the current generation of interviewers and interviewees as they were to previous generations. Research has shown that electronic devices, such as tablets, cellphones and laptops shorten attention spans. Web surfers usually spend no more than 10 to 20 seconds on a page before ads or links distract them and they move on to burrow down into succeeding rabbit holes.

A great deal of communication now takes place via 244-character communication snippets on Twitter. The average person checks his or her phone once every six minutes. Psychologists have recently coined the term ‘nomophobia’, the fear of being out of cellphone contact; shortened from ‘no-mobile-phone-phobia. A 2015 global study reported that students’ ‘addiction’ to media is similar to drug cravings.

The attention span of the average adult is believed to have fallen from 12 minutes in 1998 to five minutes in 2014. If interviewees’ attentive capacities are just five minutes, or less, then after that point interviews provide diminishing returns. Our attention deficits probably result from a lack of self-discipline and the delusional belief that we can cognitively multi-task. We can’t do anything about our natural limitations, but we can discipline ourselves to pay attention. We can also plan and conduct our interviews with few distractions. Interviewers new and experienced should require that all participants turn off their cellphones and, when possible, interviewers should try to ask questions in an unpredictable order.

So, we can expect that a new generation of fraud examiners will soon be interviewing individuals for extended periods of time who have as much of a dearth of direct, face-to-face interpersonal communication as they do. At the extreme, we can envision two or more uncomfortable people in an interview room. All of whom can only remain in the moment for five minutes or less and are fidgety because they need plastic-screen fixes.

An additional challenge will be that CFEs of the Millennial and Z generations will soon be spending hours interviewing older interviewees who are more familiar, explicitly and implicitly, with the subtleties of interpersonal communication. These are people who have spent significantly more time in direct, face-to-face communication. The interpersonal communication-challenged interviewer will be at a significant disadvantage when interviewing guilty, guilty-knowledge, deceptive and/or antagonistic interviewees. As my lunch companion pointed out, many experienced fraudsters are master manipulators of inexperienced interviewers.

It is urgent that younger fraud examiners and forensic accountants be instructed in the strongest terms to put down their plastic screens and practice engagement with others in direct communication, with friends, family and those who cross their paths in the normal flow of life. As a lead CFE examiner or supervisor, encourage your younger employee-colleagues to write down their communication goals for each day. Suggest they read all they can on face-to face interviewing and questioning plus verbal and non-verbal behaviors. They can take interviewing and public-speaking classes or join a toastmasters group. Anything to get them to converse and observe body language and expressions.

Interviewing techniques are the vehicles that ride up and down the road of interpersonal communication. If that road isn’t adequate, then drivers can’t maneuver their vehicles. Your younger employees are the only persons who can bring themselves up to the necessary interpersonal speed limit to make their one-on-one interviews successful.

The Right Question, the Right Way

As every CFE knows, an integral part of the fraud examination process involves obtaining information from people. Regardless of the interview’s objective, all CFEs should embrace the role of interviewer and use the time-tested techniques recommended to us by the ACFE. But asking the right questions does not necessarily ensure key information will be uncovered; an effective interviewer also recognizes the need to separate truth from deception. Consequently, crafting effective questions, understanding the communication dynamics at play, actively participating in the interview process, and remaining alert to signs of deception will help examiners increase the effectiveness and efficiency of our interviews and of our overall engagements.

Some interviewers try to gather as much information using as few questions as possible and end up receiving convoluted or vague responses. Others seek confirmation of every detail, which can quickly turn an interview into an unproductive probing of minutia. Balancing thoroughness and efficiency is imperative to obtaining the necessary and relevant facts without overburdening the interviewee. Because the location of this line varies by interviewee, CFEs can find this balance most effectively by ensuring they ask only clear questions throughout the interview.

Some individuals might respond to a question in a way that doesn’t provide a direct answer or that veers off topic. Sometimes these responses are innocent; sometimes they are not. To make the most of an interview, examiners must remain in control of the situation, regardless of how the interviewee responds.  Being assertive does not require being impolite, however. In some instances, wording questions as a subtle command (e.g., “Tell me about…. or “Please describe….) can help establish the interview relationship. Additionally, remaining in control does not mean dissuading the interviewee from exploring pertinent topics that are outside the planned discussion points.  Interview questions can be structured in several ways, each with its own strengths, weaknesses, and ideal usage. Open questions ask the interviewee to describe or explain something. Most examination interviews should rely heavily on open questions, as these provide the best view of how things operate and the perspective of the staff member involved in a particular area. They also enable the reviewer to observe the interviewee’s demeanor and attitude, which can provide additional information about specific issues. However, if the CFE believes an individual might not stay on topic or may avoid providing certain information, open questions should be used cautiously.  In contrast, closed questions can be answered with a specific, definitive response, most often “yes” or “no.” They are not meant to provide the big picture but can be useful in gathering details such as amounts and dates. Examiners should use closed questions sparingly in an informational interview, as they do not encourage the flow of information as effectively as open questions.

Occasionally, the questioner might want to direct the interviewee toward a specific point or evoke a certain reply. Leading questions can be useful in such circumstances by exploring an assumption, a fact or piece of information, that the interviewee did not provide previously. When used appropriately, such questions can help the interviewer confirm facts that the interviewee might be hesitant to discuss. Examples of leading questions include: “So there have been no changes in the process since last year?” and “You sign off on these exception reports, correct?” If the interviewee does not deny the assumption, then the fact is confirmed. However,  before using leading questions, the interviewer should raise the topic with open questions and allow the interviewee the chance to volunteer information.

The examiner should establish and maintain an appropriate level of eye contact with the interviewee throughout the interview to personalize the interaction and build rapport. However, the appropriate level of eye contact varies by culture and even by person; consequently, the examiner should pay attention to the interviewee to determine the level of eye contact that makes him or her comfortable.

People tend to mirror each other’s body language subconsciously as a way of bonding and creating rapport. CFEs can help put interviewees at ease by subtly reflecting their body language. Further, the skilled interviewer can assess the level of rapport established by changing posture and by watching the interviewee’s response. This information can help CFEs determine whether to move into sensitive areas of questioning or to continue establishing a connection with the individual.

Confirming periodically that the examiner is listening can encourage interviewees to continue talking. For example, the interviewer can provide auditory confirmation with a simple “mmm hmmm” and nonverbal confirmation by nodding or leaning toward the interviewee during his or her response.

When the interviewee finishes a narrative response, the examiner can encourage additional information by echoing back the last point the person made. This confirms that the interviewer is actively listening and absorbing the information, and it provides a starting point for the person to continue the response.

Occasionally, the examiner might summarize the information provided to that point so that the interviewee can affirm, clarify, or correct the interviewer’s understanding.

Most often, the greatest impediment to an effective interview is the interviewer him or herself.  While it is clearly important for the interviewer to observe, to listen, and to assess the subject in a variety of ways, the role of the interviewer, and the effect he or she has on the interview process, cannot be minimized.

The interviewer typically focuses on the subject as the person who will provide the information he or she seeks. The interviewer concentrates on establishing rapport, listening effectively, analyzing the subject’s verbal and nonverbal communication, and gauging how much or how little the subject is telling her. These are valid areas of concentration for the interviewer. One significant risk is that the interviewer may pay too little attention to the negative influences s/he can bring to the interview, process. The terms interview and communication are interchangeable, and effective communication is a two-way street. What makes the interviewer an effective communicator and effective interviewer is not just the signals he or she picks up from the subject but also the signals, the information, the tone, and the body language he or she sends to the subject. It is highly presumptuous of the interviewer to think he or she has little or no effect on the subject and that the subject is not evaluating, assessing, and analyzing the interviewer.

The interviewer’s style of dress, jewelry, and grooming may tell the subject as much about the interviewer as does the interviewer’s demeanor. If the interviewer is overdressed for the occasion, does it make the subject feel inferior or intimidated? If too casual, does the interviewer send a signal of the lack of importance of the interview and, as a result, does the subject become too relaxed or not as attentive? Attire should have a desired effect. For example, when interviewing an enforcement officer or other professional who is familiar with uniforms and clothing as indicators of status, it may be appropriate to wear a coat and tie. In general, it is best to always to err on the side of conservative dress for the circumstances.

The examiner should not attempt to interview two or more persons at one time unless there is no other option. It is more difficult to control an interview with two or more subjects. One subject may be more dominant than the other. The subjects will influence each other’s memories. Some subjects will not want to embarrass themselves in front of a peer or supervisor. The environment for confidential communications will be adversely affected.

When the interviewer responds to the subject’s responses, he sends signals. At times, it might be advisable to not write notes down at the time the individual tells the interviewer something sensitive. Rather, the interviewer might consider devoting his attention to the subject and writing down the sensitive information after the conversation has moved away from the sensitive area.  The interviewer should never become argumentative, antagonistic, or belligerent. The use of the  “Good Cop, Bad Cop” routine can have unwanted results, especially long term. The CFE interviewer should use tact, speak clearly and with authority but without use of threatening language. The interviewer should consistently set a professional tone.

Finally, all individuals want to be shown respect. Maintaining the personal dignity of the subject is critical for the success of the interview and follow-up efforts. Everyone wants respect, from homeless persons to top executives. To be shown respect, especially if the subject is not accustomed to it, is disarming and contributes to that essential, professional tone.

Asked and Answered

Some months ago, I was involved as a member of an out-of-town fraud examination team during which the question of note taking during an investigative interview arose. A younger member of the team (a junior internal auditor) wanted to know about approaches to the documentation of not just one, but possibly of the several prospective interview sessions it initially appeared might be necessary regarding the examination.

As the ACFE tells us, notes, whether handwritten or recorded, always send an unambiguous signal to the subject that the interviewer is memorializing his or her comments. Interviews without notes are significantly limited in their value and may even signal to the interview subject that it may later be just a question of her word against the interviewer’s. If the interviewer takes only cryptic or shorthand notes and later reviews those notes with the subject to confirm what was said, the interviewer should recognize that the notes, while confirmed and edited to a certain extent, will still be less than complete.

On the other hand, tape recording an interview is a significant obstacle to full cooperation. People are reluctant to be recorded. For the most part, the use of tape recorders to take notes is not recommended in situations involving a potential fraud. Most subjects will resist the use of recorders and, even in circumstances where the subject may have agreed to their use, their responses will be more guarded than if a recorder was not used. If a recorder is used, be sure to begin the taping by recording the date, time, names of the individuals present, and an acknowledgment by the subject that they know the interview is being recorded and they have agreed to be recorded.

Once the interviewer has determined how s/he will document the interview, s/he should ask the subject if it is okay to take notes or record the session. It is the polite and professional thing to do and it serves two purposes:

–It is part of the process by which the subject is encouraged to be a participant;
–If the subject balks or tells the interviewer she does mind that the interviewer takes notes, it can open a line of questioning by the interviewer to determine the exact cause of the subject’s objections;

The subject should always be advised that note taking is critical to the integrity of the process and that notes ensure that what the subject says is documented properly. Failure to take notes limits the information to the memory and interpretation of the interviewer.  In a professional setting, most subjects will understand the critical nature of notes. Very few people will say it is not all right to take notes, regardless of how they feel about it. If they are absolutely opposed to the taking of notes, find out why and concentrate on what the subject says and reduce the interview to notes as quickly as possible after the interview. With a hostile subject who opposes note taking, the interviewer can ask if it is okay for her to make selected notes regarding dates or things the interviewer might not remember later. The interviewer can explain that it is important that s/he understand the subject’s position or communication correctly. If the subject is still adamant about the interviewer not taking notes, it should be documented in the interviewer’s report.

As the fraud interviewer develops his or her interviewing skill set, s/he should concentrate on taking verbatim notes which, among other things, include, at a minimum, nouns, pronouns, and verbs. Some practitioners recommend that the interviewer not attempt to write everything down. The argument is that, in doing so, the interviewer will not have an opportunity to observe the subject’s nonverbal communications.

The generally accepted recommendation is, therefore, where feasible, that the interviewer take down verbatim as much of what the subject says as is possible. This includes repeated words and parenthetical comments. This practice allows the interviewer to later review what the subject said as opposed to what the interviewer thought the subject said. Note taking also provides additional documentation of what the subject is communicating and (when reviewed after the fact in the light of additional knowledge) of what the subject has excluded.

During the act of taking notes, the interviewer should exercise caution. Taking notes intermittently can signal to the subject that the interviewer takes notes only when the information is important. Conversely, if, during the interview, a very sensitive area is broached, or if the subject indicates that s/he is uncomfortable with an area or issue, the interviewer can put her pencil down, lean forward, establish good eye contact, and listen to the subject. The simple suspension of note taking may place the subject at ease. As soon as the interview moves to a less sensitive area, the interviewer should try to reduce the previously mentioned sensitive area to notes. If the subject associates note taking with core interview information, the subject may interpret continued note taking as encouragement to continue talking.

The interviewer should not write down interpretive comments while taking notes. The interviewer should however make notes, where appropriate, in cases where verbal and
nonverbal indications of both resistance or cooperation are found.

The interviewer should always take notes with the possibility in mind that the notes may be subjected to third party scrutiny. This scrutiny may extend to opposing counsel in the event of litigation. The interviewer’s notes may or may not be privileged materials. With this in
mind, the interviewer should consider the following:

–Begin each separate set of interview notes on a clean page;
–Identify the date, time, and place of the interview and all the individuals present at the interview;
–Obtain as much background data on the subject as possible, including telephone numbers, and identify means of contacting him or her, including alternate numbers for family and friends;
–Initial and date the notes;
–Document the interviewer’s questions;
–Take verbatim notes if possible. Concentrate, but do not limit notes of the subject’s responses to:
• Nouns
• Pronouns
• Verb tense
• Qualifiers
• Indicators of responsibility, innocence, or guilt
–Do not document conclusions or interpretations;
–Report any unusual change in body language in an objective manner. Document the changes in body language and tone, if applicable, in conjunction with notes of what the subject or interviewer said at the time the body language or tone changed;
–At the conclusion of the interview, review the notes with the subject to confirm what the subject has said.

Finally, following the interview, your notes should be reproduced in printed form as quickly as possible.  Enough cannot be said for the value of a well-documented set of interview notes for every aspect of a subsequent investigation; their presence or absence can make or break your entire case.

Situational Assessment

fraud-examinationAs a follow-on to our last post, newly minted CFE’s working for their first client can find themselves at something of a loss about the best way to initiate an investigation; I know that was certainly true of me at what now seems so many years ago.

Every fraud investigation is a minefield whose first steps can impact the final outcome significantly. Insufficient care, coordination or discretion at the launch of the investigation may tip off the suspect, causing the destruction of potentially vital evidence. Moreover, information collected hastily without sufficient attention to procedure might prove inadmissible in court, or even lead to sanctions and fines. Any experienced practitioner will tell you that a whole host of challenges beset those of us responsible for looking into potential wrongdoing. But, as the ACFE also tells us, taking the right steps before an investigation can significantly reduce the risk of error, helping to ensure the entire investigation is planned correctly and carried out efficiently.

The ACFE advocates the performance of an initial fact finding or situational assessment phase of every investigation.  The CFE (and his or her employing attorney, if there is one) first need to assess whether an allegation has merit. This process should begin with consideration of the complainant’s credibility and motives (when that person’s identity is known) as well as other possible indications of the allegation’s likely validity. The examiner should avoid snap, simplistic judgments. Just because a complainant lacks credibility or may have ulterior motives doesn’t necessarily mean there is no need for an investigation. By the same token, even a highly credible individual can make an unfounded allegation. Upon close examination, allegations often contain specific facts, especially those related to the workings of the organization, that can help support assertions and provide the CFE a basis for corroboration moving forward.

The recommended initial situational assessment can be additionally vital because insider wrongdoing especially can have a significant impact on the organization, even more so when committed by a member of senior management. The assessment should include examination of monetary, regulatory, reputational, and other known risks.

An obvious goal for the CFE in every fraud case we work is to determine the extent of existing damage and prevent further losses. This can be difficult, as allegations rarely include an exact amount of stolen funds or an assessment of organizational impact. For example, the monetary impact of vendor kickbacks to employees is often hard to assess, as it involves gauging the extent to which the organization may have received insufficient value for the products it purchased. In these circumstances, the CFE may want to assess the extent to which the vendor is used and consider the common fraud risk associated with the industry, organization and type of vendor.

What’s more, in today’s gold fish bowl regulatory environment, issues of concern to regulators increasingly include insider trading, bribery of public officials, manipulation of publicly listed companies’ financial statements, money laundering, and privacy or data breaches. If an organization fails to conduct an adequate fraud investigation or take appropriate corrective measures, the regulator may initiate its own investigation or, where a funding relationship exists, withdraw support from the organization altogether. If allegations relate to an organization’s foreign operations, or involve activities in jurisdictions with extraterritorial legislation, international regulatory requirements should also be considered. Many countries have enacted anti-bribery legislation, including the United States’ Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), Canada’s Corruption of Foreign Officials Act, and the United Kingdom’s Bribery Act. Running afoul of these laws can have significant consequences for any of our clients.

And finally, the potential reputational damage to an organization from fraud must never be taken lightly. Examples of circumstances that may pose significant reputational risks include payments to foreign government officials, circumvention of local or foreign laws, and accepting incentives from suppliers.

The CFE and the employing attorney are in a unique position in carrying out the initial situational assessment to collect and evaluate available evidence to assist the organization in its initial understanding of the case and to plan the investigative response. This process may include preparing a preliminary evaluation of the losses or follow-on risks to which the organization has apparently been exposed.  Once the attorney has communicated to the organization the facts and issues, consideration should be given to whether to pursue criminal charges or civil remedies (i.e., recovery of funds), as it will affect the CFE’s approach to the entire inquiry process. For instance, in the United States and Canada, the standard of proof for criminal charges is higher than that of civil remedies. Further, the makeup of the CFE’s investigative team may be different depending on the objectives of the investigation. Decisions may change over time and as new circumstances of the case come to light, the investigative strategy may also need to change.

Ideally, the investigative team for the initial assessment should be kept as small as possible, and participation should be on a “need-to-know” basis. Moreover, team members must not have any conflicts that would, or even be perceived to, impair their judgment or objectivity in the investigation.

ACFE Standards also require that the team be comprised of appropriately skilled and qualified individuals to perform, or at least oversee, the evidence collection process, particularly of electronic evidence. Team members need to be informed that any one of them may be called upon to testify as a witness in court and that notes and work papers are discoverable and could appear before a judge or jury. Therefore, work paper files, including interview notes and communications, should be thorough and carefully maintained. Numerous additional considerations should be kept in mind when choosing members of the investigation team on the front end, including participants’ independence, as well as the potential need for additional legal counsel, supplementary investigative experts, and other expertise. Maintaining independent oversight is crucial to the investigation’s credibility; failure in this area leaves all the investigative findings open to criticism by opposing counsel, regulators, or law enforcement agencies. In many cases, especially those involving financial matters, corporate counsel supported by CFE’s or forensic accountants might be in the best position to manage the overall investigation.

To protect litigation privilege, the employing attorney or independent external counsel will be included in the CFE’s investigation from the beginning. These experts can also advise the CFE on legal matters such as employee suspensions or terminations and evidence gathering techniques to help ensure future court admissibility. Moreover, by adding credibility, counsel, internal or independent, provides assurance that the investigation will stand up to external legal scrutiny.

The independent, reputable CFE can add credibility to a fraud inquiry from first to last, bring current knowledge of relevant issues, and provide or coordinate the acquisition of skills that many companies lack in areas such as computer forensics, analytics, and forensic accounting. Such help is also important if opinion testimony may be required, as the testimony is admissible only if it comes from witnesses (like CFE’s) whom the courts determine are experts. When needed, for example, in cases that may lead to pursuit of criminal charges or civil remedies, supplementary experts should be retained early on. To maintain litigation privilege, investigators and experts should always be retained through the CFE’s employing attorney or external counsel.

The Auditor and the Fraud Examiner

financial-statementsOur Chapter averages about three new members a month, a majority of whom are drawn from the pool of relatively recent college graduates in accounting or finance, most of whom possessing an interest in fraud examination and having a number of courses in auditing under their belts.  From the comments I get it seems that our new members are often struck by the apparent similarities between fraud examination and auditing imparted by their formal training and yet hazy about the differences between the two in actual practice.

But, unlike the financial statement focus in financial auditing, fraud examination involves resolving fraud allegations from inception to disposition. Fraud examination methodology requires that all fraud allegations be handled in a uniform, legal fashion and be resolved on a timely basis. Assuming there is sufficient reason (predication) to conduct a fraud examination, specific examination steps usually are employed. At each step of the fraud examination process, the evidence obtained and the effectiveness of the fraud theory approach are continually assessed and re-assessed. Further, the fraud examination methodology gathers evidence from the general to the specific. As such, the suspect (subject) of the inquiry typically would be interviewed last, only after the fraud examiner has obtained enough general and specific information to address the allegations adequately.  However, just like a financial statement audit, a fraud investigation consists of a multitude of steps necessary to resolve allegations of fraud: interviewing witnesses, assembling evidence, writing reports, and dealing with prosecutors and the courts. Because of the legal ramifications of the fraud examiners’ actions, the rights of all individuals must be observed throughout. Additionally, fraud examinations must be conducted only with adequate cause or predication.

Predication is the totality of circumstances that would lead a reasonable, professionally trained, and prudent individual to believe a fraud has occurred, is occurring, or will occur. Predication is the basis upon which an examination is commenced. Unlike a financial audit, fraud examinations should never be conducted without proper predication. Each fraud examination begins with the prospect that the case will end in litigation. To solve a fraud without complete and perfect evidence, the examiner must make certain assumptions. This is not unlike the scientist who postulates a theory based on observation and then tests it. In the case of a complex fraud, fraud theory is almost indispensable. Fraud theory begins with a hypothesis, based on the known facts, of what might have occurred. Then that hypothesis or key assumption is tested to determine whether it’s provable.

The fraud theory approach involves the following steps, in the order of their occurrence:

  • Analyze available data.
  • Create a hypothesis.
  • Test the hypothesis.
  • Refine and amend the hypothesis.
  • Accept or reject the hypothesis based on the evidence.

With that said, fraud examinations incorporate many auditing techniques; however, the primary differences between an audit and a fraud investigation are the scope, methodology, and reporting. It’s also true that many of the fraud examiners in our Chapter (as in every ACFE Chapter) have an accounting background. Indeed, some of our members are employed primarily in the audit function of their organizations. Although fraud examination and auditing are related, they are not the same discipline. So how do they differ?  First, there’s the question of timing.  Financial audits are conducted on a regular recurring basis while fraud examinations are non-recurring; they’re conducted only with sufficient predication.

The scope of the examination in a financial audit is general (the scope of the audit is a general examination of financial data) while the fraud examination is conducted to resolve specific allegations.

An audit is generally conducted for the purpose of expressing an opinion on the financial statements or related information.  The fraud examination’s goal is to determine whether fraud has occurred, is occurring, or will occur, and to determine who is responsible.

The external audit process is non-adversarial in nature. Fraud examinations, because they involve efforts to affix blame, are adversarial in nature.

Audits are conducted primarily by examining financial data. Fraud examinations are conducted by (1) document examination; (2) review of outside data, such as public records; and (3) interviews.

Auditors are required to approach audits with professional skepticism. Fraud examiners approach the resolution of a fraud by attempting to establish sufficient proof to support or refute an allegation of fraud.

As a general rule during a financial fraud investigation, documents and data should be examined before interviews are conducted. Documents typically provide circumstantial evidence rather than direct evidence. Circumstantial evidence is all proof, other than direct admission, of wrongdoing by the suspect or a co-conspirator.  In collecting evidence, it’s important to remember that every fraud examination may result in litigation or prosecution. Although documents can either help or harm a case, they generally do not make the case; witnesses do. However, physical evidence can make or break the witnesses. Examiners should ensure that the evidence is credible, relevant, and material when used to support allegations of fraud.

From the moment evidence is received, its chain of custody must be maintained for it to be accepted by the court. This means that a record must be made when the item is received or when it leaves the care, custody, or control of the fraud examiner. This is best handled by a memorandum of interview by the custodian of the records when the evidence is received.

Fraud examiners are not expected to be forensic document experts; however, they should possess adequate knowledge superior to that of a lay person.

In fraud investigations, examiners discover facts and assemble evidence. Confirmation is typically accomplished by interviews. Interviewing witnesses and conspirators is an information-gathering tool critical in the detection of fraud. Interviews in financial statement fraud cases are different than those in most other cases because the suspect being interviewed might also be the boss.

In conclusion, auditing procedures are indeed often used in a financial statement fraud examination. Auditing procedures are the acts or steps performed by an auditor in conducting the review. According to the third standard of fieldwork of generally accepted auditing standards, “The auditor must obtain sufficient appropriate audit evidence by performing audit procedures to afford a reasonable basis for an opinion regarding the financial statements under audit.”  Common auditing procedures routinely used during fraud examination, as during financial statement examination, are confirmations, physical examination, observation, inquiry, scanning, inspection, vouching, tracing, re-performance, re-computation, analytical procedures, and data mining; these are all vital tools in the arsenal of both practitioners as well as of all financial assurance professionals.

Liar’s Poker

Liar's-PokerOur Chapter Member’s Lecture for CPE credit for this month (Interviewing for Prosecution) elicited a number of questions about the distinction between lying and deception from attendees of our May Training Event so I thought I’d address them in a post.

Our May-June lecture states that everyone lies and, in most people, lying produces stress. The human body will attempt to relieve this stress (even in practiced liars) through verbal and nonverbal clues. So a practiced interviewer will be able to draw inferences from subjects’ behavior about the honesty of their statements. The ACFE tells us that conclusions concerning behavior must be tempered by a number of factors. The physical environment in which the interview is conducted can affect behavior. If the respondent is comfortable, fewer behavioral quirks might be exhibited. The more intelligent the respondent, the more reliable verbal and nonverbal clues will be. If the respondent is biased toward the interviewer, or vice versa, this will also affect behavior. People who are mentally unstable or under the influence of drugs will be unsuitable to interview because their behavioral symptoms are generally unreliable. Likewise, the behavioral symptoms of juveniles are generally unreliable.

Additionally, during an investigation, it’s always important to never lose sight of the fact  that people do things for a reason. The fraud examiner might not understand the reasons a fraudster commits his or her crime, but the motivations make sense to the perpetrator. For example, a perpetrator might commit fraud because his life has spiraled out of control, although it might not be out of control under a reasonable person’s definition. In the perpetrator’s view, his life has become so problematic that fraud is the only way he can restore balance. And during the fraud examination, if the examiner can get the perpetrator to talk about the lack of control in her life, the examiner can use this information to compel the fraudster to admit guilt and provide valuable insight into ways to prevent similar frauds in the future.

When conducting interviews leading to possible prosecution with suspects, interviewers should seek to understand the possible motives of various suspects. To do this, interviewers should suspend their own value system. This will better position the interviewer to persuade the suspect to reveal information providing insight into what might have pressured or motivated them and how they might have rationalized their actions. In an interview situation, the examiner should not suggest reasons for the crime. Instead, the examiner should let the individual share his motivations, even if the suspect reveals his motivations in an indirect manner. Remember to:

  • Leave your ego at the door.
  • Talk to the suspected perpetrator as an adult.
  • Do not patronize the suspect.
  • Use good communication skills to develop rapport with subjects so that they will feel comfortable talking to you.
  • Avoid being confrontational with the suspect. If the interviewer is confrontational, the perpetrator will be less likely to make an admission.

When conducting an interview with a suspect, the interviewer should begin by asking questions about the standard procedures and the normal, actual practice of the operations at issue. This is necessary to gain an understanding of the way the relevant process is intended to work and how it actually works. Additionally, asking such basic questions early in the interview will help the interviewer observe the interviewee’s “normal” behavior so that the interviewer can notice any changes in the subject’s mannerisms and word choice. Next, the interviewer might ask non-accusatory questions related to the issue at hand, such as:

  • Why do you think someone would do something like this?
  • What do you think should happen to a person who would do something like this?
  • Of all of the people who work in this area, who could be involved?

The answers to these questions can help the interviewer understand the possible motives of various suspects, narrow the pool of suspects, or obtain an admission. For example, a suspect who answers the question ”Why do you think someone would do something like this?” with a sympathetic answer might be trying to appeal to the interviewer’s sense of compassion to reduce or minimize her punishment.

One of our attendees brought up the issue of fraudsters’ seemingly irrational behavior.  It’s a good point.  During the interview, fraud examiners should be aware that there are times when otherwise rational people behave irrationally. It’s important in the interview process because it will help humanize the misconduct. Unless the perpetrator has a mental or emotional disorder, it’s acceptable to expect that the perpetrator committed the fraud for a reason. Situational fraudsters-those who rationalize their right to an illegal enrichment and perpetrate fraud when the opportunity arises–do not tend to view themselves as criminals. In contrast to deviant fraudsters, who are more proactive than situational fraudsters and who are always on the alert for opportunities to commit fraud, situational fraudsters rationalize their crimes. As indicated above, situational fraudsters feel that they need to commit fraud to regain control over their lives. Thus, an interviewer will be more likely to obtain a confession from a situational fraudster if he can genuinely communicate that he understands how anyone under similar circumstances might commit such a crime. Genuineness, however, is key. If the fraudster in any way detects that the interviewer is presenting a trap, he generally will not make an admission of wrongdoing.

Deception refers to actions designed to mislead or deceive someone into believing an inaccuracy or untruth. Studies tell us that people lie an average of three times during a ten-minute conversation. By definition, fraud involves deception for personal gain. Most humans commit deceptive acts to protect themselves from various consequences of the truth.  Lying refers to the deliberate act of departing from the truth. A lie is an untruthful statement, especially one made with an intention to deceive others. The capacity to lie is noted early and nearly universally in human development. At about the age of five, most children begin to be able to lie convincingly. Before this, they seem simply unable to comprehend why others do not have the same view of events that they do and assume that there is only one point of view-their own. When children first learn how lying works, they lack the moral understanding of when to refrain from doing it. In this stage of development, children will sometimes tell outrageous and unbelievable lies, because they lack the conceptual framework to judge whether a statement is believable, or even to understand the concept of believability. Developing a proper understanding of these concepts takes years of watching people tell lies and the results of these lies. It is this observation, however, that typically allows young children to learn that stating an untruth can avoid punishment for misdeeds, often even before they understand why it works.

Finally, many people consider withholding the truth to be the same as lying, and while they both do involve deception, there is a distinct difference between the two: Lying requires an active approach to deception, whereas withholding the truth involves a passive approach. For example, a fraudster might withhold the truth by disappearing to Brazil after embezzling enough money to retire. Thus, if the perpetrator is missing, he cannot be confronted or punished for his actions. Most people would prefer avoiding the truth when compared to lying because it is easier to be silent than to lie. Additionally, it’s difficult to be consistent with lies, and a person who has committed fraud is generally aware of this risk and wants to avoid it at all costs!  Remember, people can become so engaged in managing how others perceive them that they become unable to separate the truth from fiction in their own minds.

Communication is Who We Are

BusinessMeet2One of the most frequently requested topics for ACFE lead instruction concerns the art of fraud interviewing, one of the most complex and crucial disciplines of the many comprising the fraud examination process.  And at the heart of the interviewing process lies communication.  As we all know, communication is the process of effectively sending and receiving information, thoughts, and feelings. First and foremost, an effective interviewer is an effective communicator and being an effective communicator depends on building rapport. According to the ACFE, if you don’t establish rapport with a subject at the outset of the fraud interview, the possibilities of your spotting anything are very low. Rapport is the establishment of a connection between two individuals that is based on some level of trust and a belief in the existence of a relationship that is mutually beneficial to both parties.

The interviewer who thinks s/he will find a cooperative subject without making a connection with that individual is in for a disappointment. Rapport is determined by our attitude toward the subject. Just as we as interviewers use our powers of perception to “read” the subject, the subject reads us as well. If he senses condemnation, superiority, hostility, or deceit, you can expect little but superficial cooperation from any interaction.  Besides, above all else, as the experts tell us, we are professionals. As professionals, personal judgments have no place in an interview setting. Our job is to gather information empirically, objectively, and without prejudice towards our subjects.  Why do we identify with and speak more freely to some people than to others? We’re naturally drawn to those with whom we share similar characteristics and identities. Techniques and tools are important, but only to the extent that they complement our attitude toward the interview process. So, effective communication is, in this important sense,  not what we do – it’s who we are.

And along with rapport, the analysis of the quality of the interaction between both interview participants is critical to the communication process.  An interview is a structured session, ideally between one interviewer and one subject, during which the interviewer seeks to obtain information from a subject about a particular matter.  And just as we signal each other with voice pitch and body language patterns when we’re sad, angry, delighted, or bored, we also display distinct patterns when trying to deceive each other. Fortunately for those of us who interview others as part of our profession, if we learn to recognize these patterns, our jobs are made much simpler. Of course there is no single behavior pattern one can point to and say “Aha! This person is being deceptive!” What the professional can point to is change in behavior. Should a subject begin showing signs of stress as our questions angle in a certain direction, for example, we know we have hit an area of sensitivity that probably requires further exploration.  If you interview people regularly, you probably already know that it is more likely for a subject to omit part of the story than actually lie to you. Omission is a much more innocuous form of deceit and causes less anxiety than fabricating a falsehood. So even more importantly than recognizing behavior associated with lying, the interviewer must fine tune her skills to also spot concealment patterns.

ACFE experts tell us that each party to a fraud interview may assume that they understand what the other person is conveying. However, the way we communicate and gather information is based in part on which of our senses is dominant. The three dominant senses, sight, hearing, and touch influence our perceptions and expressions more than most people realize. A sight dominant subject may “see” what you are saying and tell you he wants to “clear” things up. An auditory dominant person may “hear” what your point is and respond that it “sounds” good to him. A touch dominant person may have a “grasp” of what you are trying to convey, but “feel uncomfortable” about discussing it further.

By analyzing a subject’s use of words, an interviewer can identify his dominant sense and choose her words to match. This helps strengthen the rapport between interviewer and subject, increasing the chances of a good flow of information. Essential, of course, to analyzing and identifying a subject’s dominant senses are good listening skills. Effective communication requires empathetic listening by the interviewer.  Empathetic listening and analysis of the subject’s verbal and nonverbal communication allows us to both hear and see what the other person is attempting to communicate. It is the information that’s not provided and that’s concealed, that is most critical to our professional efforts.

In developing your listening abilities, and by practicing them with others with whom you communicate every day, the vast array and inexhaustible variations of the human vocabulary are bound to strike you. The most effective way to communicate is with clear, concise sentences that create no questions. However, the words we choose to use, and the way that we say them, are limited only by what is important to us. A subject, reluctant or cooperative, will speak volumes with what they say, and even more significantly, what they don’t say. Analysis of the latter often reveals more than the information the subject actually relates. For instance, the omission of personal pronouns could mean unwillingness on the part of the subject to identify himself with the action.

One final note of caution.  If you ask the experts about the biggest impediment to an effective interview, they will probably give you a surprising answer. Most experienced interviewers will tell you that often the greatest impediment to a successful interview is the interviewer herself. Most interviewers use all of their energies observing and evaluating the subject’s responses without realizing how their own actions and attitudes can contaminate an interview. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to conduct an interview without contaminating it to some extent. Every word used, the phrasing of a question, tone, body language, attire, the setting – all send signals to the subject.  The effective interviewer, however, has learned to contaminate as little as possible. By  retaining an objective demeanor, by asking questions which reveal little about what s/he already knows, by choosing a private setting and interviewing one subject at a time, s/he keeps the integrity of the interview intact to the best of her ability.