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Conducting Telephone Interviews for Theft Investigations

A few years back, I was asked to conduct my first telephone-based loss prevention interview with an hourly employee. He was suspected of merchandise theft, and my supervisor insisted that I conduct the interview over the phone as the suspect was 800 miles away in another state, and the case value was expected to be low.

How was I going to secure an admission if I couldn’t look him in the eyes, observe his body language, and gauge deception in all the ways interviewers are traditionally trained?

Until then, I had never heard of conducting telephone interviews for theft investigations, and, admittedly, I was skeptical of the idea. The whole concept that a loss prevention interview via phone would net any kind of an admission was the craziest idea that I’d ever heard. How would I evaluate this person’s behavior? How would I know when he was in a submissive place and ready to admit? How could I possibly take a written statement over the phone?

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After some cajoling on my boss’ part, I resigned myself to the idea, trusted the process, and conducted the interview. Much to my surprise, it worked.

The suspect admitted to the theft.

We live in a remote world with remote offices, remote communication through email and text messaging, remote digital surveillance, remote learning via webinars and online courses, and even television remotes on my beloved NFL Sunday afternoons. So, why can’t interviews be remote as well?

Let me start by saying that I am an advocate of face-to-face interviews, as they have proven to be the most effective way to get the truth and discuss and resolve integrity issues in the workplace. Having said that, there is no reason to simply dismiss the use of the telephone for investigative loss prevention interviews, including the accusatory interview or interrogation.

Working as an investigator and trainer for Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates for many years, I’ve always seen it as my responsibility to introduce investigative and interviewing theory to those people who attend our training seminars and webinars. In addition to teaching theory, I believe that it is my responsibility to instill the confidence necessary to go out and execute that theory.

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Gaining Confidence in Conducting Telephone Interviews

Let’s start by taking a big step back to the spring of 1996, when I was thrust into the world of telephone interviewing, a world in which I had absolutely zero confidence in being successful. I had been recently hired to start a loss prevention program and department for an international logistics company providing home delivery for retailers. I had North America as my territory with approximately 350 locations and over 1,600 delivery trucks and teams on the road daily who crossed the threshold of over 30,000 consumers’ homes every day. All of this and I was working as a one-man show. I needed help, and I needed it quickly. I found that help in the form of Ma Bell.

As I embarked into the uncharted territory of conducting telephone interviews, I thought, “There is no way this will work. There is no way I can get someone to listen to me ramble on the phone for a bit and then confess to his wrongdoings.”

However, much to my surprise, it did work.

Not only did it work, it was easier than I had thought and went rather smoothly. There I was in my office in Naperville, IL, staring at the phone, a case file, and assembly of investigative facts in front of me to review. I sat all wobbly kneed, butterflies floating through my core, with sweaty palms. I could hardly swallow. But guess what? My suspect did not know any of this because he was in South Florida, over a thousand miles away.

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As nervous and insecure as I was about conducting this first phone interview, it worked. My confidence began to grow. I could actually get someone to stay on the phone with me and confess and corroborate the facts of my investigation.

Soon, I was conducting phone-based loss prevention interviews on a regular basis and with great success. I began resolving cases throughout the United States and Canada from my office, warehouses, hotel rooms, and my home.

Despite where I was conducting telephone interviews, I was still able to have a direct impact on those three core areas where we in loss prevention tend to get evaluated—case resolution, impact on shrinkage, and management of our own P&L and budgets. My confidence in the process of phone interviewing began to soar.

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard, “I would never want to do a phone interview,” or “No way a phone interview works,” or “I could never foresee someone confessing over the phone,” I would be a regular at Augusta National Golf Club or have a permanent seat in a quaint pub on the west coast of Ireland.

I believe the reason most loss prevention professionals are afraid of conducting telephone interviews is due to inexperience, a lack of confidence, and a limited understanding of how the process works, just as I was when I dialed the phone for that first phone interview in 1996.

Yes, there are a few disadvantages to the phone interview. We miss the suspect’s nonverbal behavior. It may be more difficult to assess deception. We have limited control over our suspect and the environment in which he or she is seated. The suspect may be in a comfort zone on their own territory. A witness may be instructing the suspect as what to say and do. It may be more difficult to develop rapport and show our personal side. But there are a number of advantages that we can apply to the process if we make a decision to interview a suspect over the phone.

Exploiting the Advantages

The first thing to understand about conducting telephone interviews is that they are often a collaborative effort. Collaboration between the loss prevention department and the onsite management team is essential. Issues during the interview that we take for granted may be a new experience for them. The local management team needs to know where the conversation should take place, how to set the room, what sorts of notes, if any, should be taken, how the statement-taking process will work, what the disposition will be with or without a confession, and, if the issue will become a criminal matter, what their role in that process will be.

Because this is a collaborative effort, preparation and pre-planning on the part of the interviewer, along with the management team, may have a direct impact on the success of that particular interview as well as any subsequent loss prevention interviews at that location. A bad experience, or any unwanted and unnecessary surprises, may add to the reluctance for future participation on the onsite management’s behalf.

Whether you are doing a scheduled phone interview, quickly reacting to an “action case,” or helping an on-site LP manager recover from an interview gone bad, we can use these advantages as allies.

First, I found it easy to minimize the issue to my suspect. I might say, “Think about it; if it were really that big an issue, don’t you think we would make efforts to resolve this issue in another manner other than simply talking on the phone?” The suspect often accepted the concept and seized the opportunity to confess since it was perceived as a minor issue.

The phone conversation can be more intimate and far less intimidating to the suspect as well.

Your voice is in his ear, not bouncing off the walls of the manager’s office, and he may find it easier to open up on the phone, a conversational context he experiences every day, as opposed to the fear factor associated with the face-to-face conversation in a back office, a conversation he may have never had in the past.

While conducting telephone interviews, we can also have easy access to investigative resources. In addition, we may have an outline or script to follow during the conversation at our fingertips—or even a simple list of questions we’ve deemed necessary to ask during the interview. The fact that the suspect can’t see us may be beneficial because we don’t show our own nervousness, frustration, size, or demeanor.

These advantages, along with many others, can make it a wise decision to interview a suspect over the phone. Now that we recognize there are advantages to conducting telephone interviews, the next thing we must ask is, “When should I do it, and how?”

When Is Conducting Telephone Interviews a Good Idea?

The decision on when it is appropriate to conduct a phone-based loss prevention interview will be related to organizational protocol, but there are variables to consider, including the potential size of the case or on the surface case value; the amount of evidence currently obtained; the cost of travel associated with the interview; the suspect’s tenure and position within the organization; the potential of co-conspirators; and the need to react immediately. All these variables may influence the decision to conduct the interview over the phone.

Early in my telephone interviewing career, the above variables seemed black and white to me, but I soon learned that any investigation and case could be interviewed over the phone if necessary. Rather than taking a clear-cut stance on when it would be appropriate to interview a suspect over the phone, I considered each of the variables and evaluated the case in its totality before making the decision. However, I would not recommend doing “cold” interviews over the phone, although that would be an organizational decision as well.

Interview Tactics

Tactically, there are subtle things we can do as interviewers to become effective at obtaining confessions over the phone.

First, we must consider the importance and value of our initial contact and introduction to the suspect along with our tone. Tone establishes everything, including our ability to gain credibility and, more importantly, rapport with our suspect.

We must be effective listeners and be able to read the suspect’s behavior in both what he or she is saying and how it is said. Sure, we can recognize when someone is being dishonest by what he is doing in front of us, but can we hear dishonesty in his voice? If we listen hard enough, we can.

We might also consider the use of a speakerphone during the interview versus talking into a handset as a tool to have an impact on our suspect. There is an impersonal side to a speakerphone conversation, but that can be altered by picking up the phone at a key point in the conversation.

During the interview, we must also keep the suspect engaged in the conversation to ensure he is listening to us and getting the message that we are trying to send—the value of sharing the truth.

We must engage the suspect in a way that does not invite dialogue that could result in a denial.

We also need to ensure we are asking the questions in the correct manner and at the appropriate time, similar to a face-to-face loss prevention interview.

Years ago, one of our investigators took a $24,000 admission by phone. That suspect implicated five other dishonest employees at that location. Those five employees admitted to a total of $19,800 in theft. The total investigation netted $43,800 in admissions…all over the telephone.

Phone interviews are particularly beneficial for new investigators who may find it helpful to use notes or an outline to guide them through the interview process. Without having the subject in the room, the investigator can use and take notes more freely and with less distraction.

The Reality of Conducting Telephone Interviews

We required that all of our investigators attend Wicklander-Zulawski (W-Z) basic and advanced courses on interview and interrogation techniques in addition to participating in a W-Z telephone interviewing webinar.

As of 2008, we conducted a majority of our loss prevention interviews over the telephone. When we interviewed by telephone, we followed the W-Z method and changed our interview very little from a traditional face-to-face interview.

During a phone interview, we consciously engaged the subject in conversational questions a little more than we would in a face-to-face interview by using techniques designed to ensure that the subject is paying attention and is engaged in the conversation. For example, we might ask:

  • “Do you know what I mean?”
  • “Do you follow me?”
  • “Wouldn’t you agree?”

These type of questions elicited short yes or no responses. This is not only a way to check in with them and see if they are paying attention, but also a method to take their verbal temperature.

If the response to the engagement question is cooperative and clear, this is an indication that they are paying attention. If they take the opportunity to say, “Are you accusing me of something?”, this indicates that they might be feeling anxious.

Even though we invited them to talk a little more during our introductory statement on the phone, we still maintained control of the conversation. This process helps to replace some of the loss of reading behavioral cues that would be present in a face-to-face interview. With practice, I have found that I can read almost as much from a person’s tone, pitch, volume, and speed of voice on the phone as I can observing their physical behavior in a face-to-face interview.

Using a witness for a phone interview is as easy as placing a three-way call.

Handling the Admission

We have found that admissions often come more easily over the phone. Since subjects do not directly face the investigator, they tend to be more comfortable with confessing.

Once we have fully developed the admission, we then ask the subject to open the office door, allow the manager to enter the room (with a minor, we ask that the manager stay in the room for the duration of the interview), and invite the manager on the phone. We inform the manager of the admission and ask to be placed on speakerphone so that we can secure the verbal admission again in the presence of the manager. We email the appropriate forms to the manager and have the manager assist in the process of completing them while we are on the speakerphone.

We are able to proofread the statement and other forms remotely. We ask for any corrections and initials while we are still on the line. When complete, we have the manager escort the suspect out of the building or call the police. The whole interview from start to finish takes about the same amount of time as a face-to-face interview.

The Benefits of Conducting Telephone Interviews

Generally speaking, a face-to-face interview is preferable over a phone interview for local work, major cases, and when economically feasible. A face-to-face interview gives us the advantage of observing behavioral cues, facial expressions, and eye contact, all unavailable during a phone interview.

We prefer investigators to visit stores and conduct face-to-face interviews for internal blitzes, general LP interviews, complex cases, and major cases involving higher-level executives. These situations require a physical presence that phone interviews cannot offer.

However, given that most have a geographically distributed workforce, telephone interviewing provides an attractive alternative to the traditional face-to-face method, benefiting companies and their employees.

In order to travel long distances, investigators often cost their companies significant sums of money in terms of airfare, hotel accommodations, rental cars, and meal reimbursements, as well as substantial time and energy that the investigator could better use in the pursuit of investigative research and the development of additional cases.

Phone-based loss prevention interviews are a time-efficient, cost-effective way to interview with substantial benefits to the department, its employees, and the company. We now measure reaction time to internal theft callouts, such as hotline calls and management tips, in minutes and hours rather than days and weeks. This helps to minimize the amount of time we leave a dishonest employee unattended, thus reducing our exposure to further losses.

We saved our company several millions of dollars over the years with the increased productivity and reduced travel expenditures that telephone interviewing offers. Furthermore, we reduced the pressure of constant travel on the investigators that can contribute to loss of productivity, increased stress, and burnout.

The bottom line is our use of phone interviews resulted in less loss to the company in terms of higher investigator productivity, lower operating costs, and a better quality of life for our investigators.

This article was originally published in 2008 and was updated January 3, 2019.

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