Are You the Liar?

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Investigators are always seeking to identify the truth and obtain actionable intelligence that can be used to further an investigation. Through this process, we are talking to witnesses, complainants, and suspected wrongdoers. We encourage honesty and transparency, and hope our interviewees are forthcoming and cooperative. But wait—are we leading by example? We know rapport is the foundation for an effective interview, and a core principle of rapport is honesty. Effective and professional interviewers should routinely evaluate their performance, starting with the understanding that honesty and truthfulness generally create a reciprocal relationship.

Rapport

We initiate rapport in an attempt to create a positive and cooperative environment for the interview. The goal is to establish a framework for the conversation through principles like transparency, autonomy, adaptability, and, of course, honesty. In the early stages of the interview is where an investigator may feel they must find something in common with the interviewee. This is also where the first impression of trust can break down.

For example, if the interviewer learns the interviewee enjoys playing video games and watching soccer, the interviewer may be tempted to pretend they enjoy the same. This slippery slope can come to a halt when the interviewee starts to ask about the interviewer’s favorite game, favorite team, or gaming system they use. An attempt to connect through false similarities may actually break down trust and confidence at the onset of the interview. Being authentic is a much more effective way to develop a genuine relationship.

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Expertise

An interviewer may also feel they need to enhance their credibility during the conversation. This is especially common when the investigation involves expertise in a specific subject-matter. These cases may include drug diversion, vendor fraud, data breaches, or sophisticated financial crimes.

For example, if an interviewer is tasked with talking to a subject-matter expert, like a pharmacist, they may feel compelled to exaggerate their own knowledge or experience within a pharmacy. This fabricated information puts the interviewer at risk of losing all credibility as soon as the actual expert in the room identifies the bluff. Additionally, the interviewee may now assume the interviewer has a thorough understanding of industry jargon, acronyms, and other slang that will go unchecked.

An interviewer doesn’t necessarily have to admit their lack of knowledge, but they should be focused on remaining credible. A better strategy may include having a witness to the conversation who is a subject‑matter expert, or for the interviewer to talk to experts in that role prior to the conversation. Transparency of the investigator’s role may heighten credibility.

Consequences

Presenting false promises or suggestions of leniency to an interviewee can create a risk of obtaining false information, and also disrupts trust and rapport. There are several issues that can result from this type of fabrication. The highest risk is incentivizing an innocent person to confess to a crime or policy violation. If the interviewer suggests there are no consequences to their actions, this provides an opportunity for the subject to disclose information allowing them to escape the conversation with no repercussions for their actions.

Another risk of lying about consequences is potential litigation after an employment decision is made. If the interviewer made comments like, “I think what you did will be okay” or “I’m sure we can work this out,” it may pose a risk at unemployment hearings, employment grievances, or wrongful termination lawsuits. These types of statements, from a representative of the company, may suggest the person did nothing wrong.

Last, an additional risk of this deceptive tactic is when it is used with someone who knows the statement is a lie. This may occur in an organized retail crime investigation where the LP personnel suggests to the “shoplifter” that they just need to “fill out some paperwork and they’ll be on their way.” Although this may be an effort to de-escalate the situation, if the subject knows police will be called and this statement is false, it will have the reverse effect.

Empathy Statements

Showing empathy and understanding is critical during investigative interviews. Victims, witnesses, and suspects are all put into a rather uncomfortable setting when asked to disclose sensitive information. Sincere empathy allows the interviewee to share information without feeling further judged or embarrassed.

However, the presence of empathy, if fabricated or disingenuous, may cause more resistance during the conversation. The interviewer may want to show understanding of a person’s difficult life circumstance by sharing a story of a similar experience. An employee who stole money from their employer because of financial difficulties may feel more comfortable disclosing this information if they know they aren’t the only person who has struggled financially. However, if the interviewer creates a story about their own financial struggle, and the story is clearly not true, this may cause the subject to distrust the entire conversation. Making connections through storytelling is impactful, but interviewers should be aware that the sincerity of their story may impact the trust they are building.

Evidence

The perception of the strength of evidence and a credible investigation are known to incentivize a person to disclose information. However, the use of the “false evidence ploy,” or the investigator describing or presenting exaggerated evidence, may have a reverse effect. In general, an investigator should be transparent as to some of the tools and resources at their disposal.

The danger of the false evidence ploy generally increases when an investigator starts to personalize the evidence to the crime, with statements such as, “We have video surveillance of you taking the cash” or “We have multiple witnesses that saw you do it.” If these statements aren’t true, they can result in multiple issues. Primarily, it may incentivize a false confession as the interviewee may start to distrust their own memory or feel they must comply with the investigator. It’s also possible the interviewee believes the “video” does exist, believing the lie told by the investigator. An innocent person may then think their confession won’t matter, because they believe the video will exonerate them—only to find out that it never existed.

If the interviewee can identify the investigator’s bluff, this will have a catastrophic impact on the development of trust and rapport. If the investigator lied about having a video, what else may they be lying about? This doubt will negatively impact any credibility the investigator had and may have a ripple effect on future interactions with this employee. Developing trust with employees for future cooperation may be difficult because of deceptive tactics used during any one of these interviews.


Dave Thompson is the president and partner at Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates, providing investigative interview and interrogation training to a global audience. He has served as a subject-matter expert in developing curriculum and providing consultation to investigators, attorneys, and the academic community. He can be reached at dthompson@w-z.com.

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