Interviewing witnesses and suspects is a critical part of any fraud investigation. There are tons of resources out there to help fraud investigators learn how to be effective interviews. There are books, videos, courses, and certifications. I’m going to quickly cover some of the high points of interviewing here.
Fraud investigators are continually in question-and-answer mode when trying to understand a company, its operations, the players, and the suspected fraud. Much of this is done informally, with an information exchange between employees and investigators.
A big part of interviewing involves having the right demeanor and body language. People who are uninvolved in the fraud and are giving you information want to feel comfortable doing so, and they want to know that the investigator is listening. That has to be accomplished while directing the discussions so that time is not wasted on much unnecessary commentary. There must be a focus on the items that will help solve the case.
The best interviewers are able to connect with those being interviewed in a way that makes them want to help and provide information. They have a way of guiding the discussion while listening to the person giving information. They do not interrupt a lot, and even when they need to focus the interviewee, they do it in a way that does not seem like an interruption. Excellent interviewers have the ability to put the interviewee at ease. They are professional in their demeanor, yet relaxed enough that the interviewee feels comfortable sharing information.
Before going into a high-stakes interview, the fraud investigator must plan the interview. Putting together an outline will help meet the objectives and ensure that important information and questions are not missed. The closer the interviewee is to the fraud, the more helpful it is to have lots of information about the situation gathered before the interview.
So, for instance, if you are interviewing the main suspect, you want to have the bulk of the investigation done so that you go in knowing solid facts. It will be much harder for the suspect to fool you if you have done this, because you already know a lot about the fraud based on your work.
Do not try to pretend you are part of a television drama in which you walk into the interview with little knowledge or evidence and trick the suspect into a full confession. That does not usually happen in the real world, which is why it is better to be armed with lots of facts before conducting a critical interview.
If you are interviewing a potential accomplice or someone close to the suspect because of her or his position in the company (e.g., the suspect’s personal assistant), you should have plenty of information already uncovered. But you do not necessarily have to be done (or almost done) with the fraud investigation. You will be looking to this person to provide some background information to help you with your investigation, so it makes sense that you still have work to do when you go into this interview.
The room in which the interview takes place should be private and free from distractions. You do not want other employees looking in windows or otherwise interrupting the interview. You do not want a ringing phone to interrupt a critical line of questioning.
A few tips for questioning an employee:
- Interview only one person at a time. You do not want the answers of one person to influence the responses of the other.
- Be cautious with note-taking activities. Some notes usually need to be taken, especially on very technical issues. However, taking notes can be a turn-off to the respondent, so the interviewer should limit note-taking as much as possible.
- Use short, easy-to-understand questions. Avoid complex or compound questions.
- Try to avoid a lot of “yes” and “no” questions. Open-ended questions will help you gather more information.
- Allow the interviewee ample time to answer the question and ask her or him to expound on incomplete answers.
- Encourage an interviewee to provide a factual basis for their answers. For example, you might ask, “Why do you think that’s what happened?” or “What did you see that led you to that conclusion?” or “How do you know that he was the one who took the blank checks?”
- Keep the interview on track and do not let the interviewee talk at length about unrelated things. (Some do this to be evasive, while others do this because they are nervous, and still others do it because it is just their nature to ramble aimlessly.)
- Do not reveal too much evidence during the interview. You are there to gather information, not provide a lot of information.
- Maintain control of the interview. You are in charge.