Post-COVID 19 fraud examiner…

Over the years, fraud examinations and investigations have seen several advances. The use of new technologies, new methods and approaches with an integrated and holistic approach are just some of the aspects springing to mind.

The COVID-19 pandemic had significant impacts on both investigative approaches as well as the functioning of the criminal justice system. Some have risen to the challenge of the new way of working quicker than others, but in general, criminals and fraudsters have gained a significant advantage during the period.

One of the biggest challenges fraud examiners still battle with is adapting to video-call interviewing. Interviewing, whether speaking to witnesses to get a better understanding of what happened, or confronting a person suspected of being involved in criminal activities, are critical elements in the examiner’s quest to discover the truth.

Conducting an investigative interview has progressed from what was considered an art (i.e., the Reid-technique, and accusatorial-and confession-based approaches) to more of a science (i.e., the PEACE model – a science-based approach using various sources and behavioural analysis).

Examiners and investigators know that crime evolves and that crime most often evolves much faster than our responses to crime. New challenges demand new approaches and the incredible speed of technological advances, specifically in how we virtually engage since the onset of COVID-19 (Zoom, MS Teams etc.), raises one question:

“Have we successfully adapted to the new post-COVID 19 reality?”

COVID-19 has furthermore amplified gaps and challenges within the criminal justice system—frequent absenteeism due to health-related issues causing delays in the investigative process as well as long delays in court processes and between appearances, just to name a few.

Fraud examiners, amongst others, heavily rely on observing the behaviors of people suspected of fraud, corruption, or other forms of white-collar crime. One of the biggest reasons why more fraudsters get away that I come across is fraud examiners exclaiming that they find it difficult to get a holistic view without these observations (body language, non-vocal indicators, micro-expressions etc.) during virtual interviews.

In my view, it is more about evolving and adapting your approach to an interview from behind a computer screen. Preparation, the most important aspect of the fraud examination and specifically the interview, is the key. Now more than ever before, the examiner needs to study the subject he/she wants to interview. If you do not try to get a better understanding of the person you’re about to interview, you will not be successful in that interview, whether face-to-face or virtual.

Then comes the next excuse often used by examiners—protection of personal information legislation hampering the profiling of a suspect. Although I am not going to try and interpret or argue the legal basis of these excuses, one thing is certain – these pieces of legislation are in no way aimed at preventing or limiting our abilities or responsibilities in the processes of detecting and preventing fraud. We live in an era where most people have an online or digital life – open for the world to see in the public domain. In my view, it has become much easier to profile a suspect today compared to the times before the world wide web, Facebook, and the multitude of other media and social media platforms.

From these online profiles, it is easy for the examiner to see and learn more about both the social and work activities of a subject of interest.  Several deductions can be made about a multitude of other important background information from these public sources—i.e., lifestyle, the community they live in, their culture, job levels, social and political views, introverted or extroverted—and a host of other traits and activities.

With the details of the fraud, evidence gathered as well as some context of who the suspect is, the examiner can properly plan the interview. Yes, it requires more preparation and different preparation than what we were used to before COVID 19, but once the preparation is completed, the examiner should simply follow the same interviewing process used during face-to-face interviews.

It is, however, imperative to set and agree to the terms of virtual engagement during the interview before explaining the purpose of the interview. For example, agree to screen sharing, videos, and microphones on for the duration of the interview. What happens when the call drops (loadshedding is our reality)?

Virtual interviews tend to take much longer than face-to-face interviews.

  • It takes more effort to build rapport with the subject.
  • It takes longer to get a sense of the subject’s style of interaction-how he/she expresses themselves,
  • It takes time to monitor how quickly they react to questions and which questions cause hesitation in response.
  • It is necessary to pay more attention to what they say and how they say it-verbal queues without observing body language.
  • It is easier, but probably requires some study/training to identify facial and micro-expressions, blink rate, and movement of the eyes when all you are looking at is the interviewee’s face.
  • In some instances, depending on the distance from the camera lens, even body language can be observed if more than just the face is visible.

Interruptions during the interview are another factor to consider and plan for, such as colleagues, animals, or even children in the background distracting both the subject and the interviewer.You need to be prepared to deal with it – I prefer to postpone and agree to a more appropriate time rather than try to push forward with such an interview, as do-overs are seldom as effective and successful as doing it right the first time around.

As fraud examiners and investigators, we have a responsibility to develop, evolve, and stay well-informed of advances in criminal endeavours. Our jobs have become much more complicated, but rather than trying to find excuses, we need to adapt faster to the new norm, we need to continuously learn and develop new skills, and very importantly, if you have not embraced the many advances in technology yet, it is time to do so if you don’t want to become extinct.

In close, we have more access to learning than ever before – you are literally a click away from any topic you want to research, professional bodies like the ACFE SA and all of its MOI partners drive continuous learning and there are several specialists and experts in our field very eager to share their experiences and methods in our continuous battle to make South Africa a better place for all.

Servaas du Plessis
CEO – XTND (proudly EOH)

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Mouna Eksteen
Executive head