A properly conducted forensic interview turns a potentially reluctant subject into an information-providing source. Whether the purpose of the interview is to gather background information or probe into an alleged fraudster’s conduct, the interviewer’s role is to develop a full understanding of the facts. Here are suggestions from forensic experts on how to conduct a successful interview:
Evaluate the nature of the allegation. The need for legal advice usually means that attorneys will be involved. In some investigations, the attorney may lead while accountants offer support. But if the CPA has a good relationship with a client or the client’s attorney, the CPA may run the investigation with counsel. The structure of the investigation and the interview plans can be co-developed with the client and the attorney.
Prepare for the interview. Some interviews are one-shot opportunities, so accountants must be well-prepared. They need to ensure that relevant documents—electronic and physical—are secure. Interviews with people closest to the suspected culprit should be conducted near the end of the investigation so more information can be gathered in advance. Because the process of gathering that information could tip off a suspected wrongdoer, it may be necessary to interview a subject before all the information is collected.
Understand how to build a line of questioning. Initial interview questions are general background questions that are easy for interviewees to answer. For example, ask, “Do you know why you’re here?” This helps the interviewer establish a baseline. As questions become more focused, the interviewer should observe whether the subject’s behavior changes. Deviations from the baseline could signal deception. If the interviewer thinks the subject is being deceptive, he or she needs to figure out what triggered it. This will give an idea of what questions to ask next. Interviewers must be cautious, however, to avoid tipping off the subject to information they know.
Assess the interviewee’s verbal responses and visual cues. Forensic interviews usually include two interviewers: One person asks most of the questions, while the second takes notes. Interviewers need to listen to answers and assess if the person is providing truthful information, evading answers by adding information not asked for, delaying answers by restating the question, or answering with another question. Interviewers should listen for rehearsed answers or information that is clearly false. Interviewers also need to formulate follow-up questions. The interviewer asking questions should observe the subject and watch for visual cues. The interviewee is sizing up the CPA as well. If the accountant is stressed or unprepared, it shows.
Take a holistic approach to interpreting observations. Interviewers should examine the whole picture, including evidence, documents, and statements. Being aware of cues can help interviewers maintain their skepticism and stay alert for deception. Visual cues can be helpful, but interviewers should try not to rely on them because some people are better at lying than the interviewers are at detecting lies. Some subjects do intend to deceive. To counteract that, the interviewer must be ready to ask penetrating questions. Direct confrontation with an interviewee changes interview dynamics though, decreasing the likelihood of extracting useful information.
Editor’s note: This checklist is adapted from “Tips for a Successful Forensic Interview,” FVS News, Aug. 20, 2014.
—By Frank Vinluan, a freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C.