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Literary Classics Offer a Guide to Interrogating Fraudsters

July 11, 2013

It isn’t often that accountants are advised to put aside their copies of the Master Tax Guide and U.S. GAAP manual and turn to “Hamlet” and “Great Expectations” for guidance. But when it comes to unmasking potential fraudsters and embezzlers, the classics can offer some pointers.

Don Rabon, president of the consulting firm Successful Interviewing Techniques in Hendersonville, N.C., talked about how to apply lessons from the classics when interviewing suspected scammers during a workshop at last month’s Association of Certified Fraud Examiners global fraud conference in Las Vegas.

“You can question people like Socrates, you can detect deception like Diogenes, but if you can’t influence people like Aristotle talked to us about, then we’re going to have to be packing up and moving on,” he said.

Don Rabon

As a former deputy director of the North Carolina Department of Justice's North Carolina Justice Aacdemy, Rabon noted that over the course of his career, he has given depositions in federal trials, testified in state courts, and stood before boards of directors when people’s jobs were on the line. For many investigators, the difficulty is not so much with their ability to ask questions or even evaluate the subject’s veracity.

“It’s always been about the persuasion process,” said Rabon. “Interviewing is a serious business, particularly for those of us that have had to get people to tell us things that are going to be detrimental to either them or somebody else. What I want to do is to show you ways that you can persuade that person without it becoming problematic for you down the road.”

By studying classic literature, he suggested, fraud examiners can gain insights into the interview process. “Read the classics,” Rabon advised. “The classics are nothing more than psychology books with no Cliff Notes. If you want to gain that quick understanding of human motivation and human dynamics, particularly as it applies to fraud, then read the classics.”

Lessons from Dickens
He cited Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” and the passages where the ghost of Jacob Marley questions his former counting-house partner Ebenezer Scrooge, who is later confronted by the spirits of Christmas past, present and future. “In our interviewing responsibilities, we have to bring the individual’s past behavior and past actions into the interview,” Rabon pointed out. “We have to have the individual in the interview look at the situation that they find themselves in at the present. And then, as Ebenezer Scrooge said to the Ghost of Christmas Future, ‘I fear you the most.’ Our job is to have the individual address the consequences of the future and try to make our presentation of the dour consequences of the future as powerful as possible.”

Another Dickens classic, “Great Expectations,” provides a different approach to interviewing suspected fraudsters that Rabon has discussed in previous workshops. “We looked at all the different places where Dickens addressed the micro-expressions of the interviewee,” he said. He compared it to psychologist Paul Ekman’s modern-day book, “Emotions Revealed,” which describes his study of “micro-expressions” of the face and body and what they reveal about emotions.

“Dickens was talking over 150 years ago about exactly what we have come to understand,” said Rabon. “With that ability to evaluate veracity, we look to the meaning of people’s actions and we look for motives.”

Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes
Rabon also turned to Shakespeare, whose tragedy “Hamlet” featured what he called Shakespeare’s “most enigmatic character.”

“Was he crazy, or was he just pretending to be crazy?” he asked. Rabon is a particular fan of Hamlet and publishes a free monthly newsletter on interviewing called “Hamlet’s Mind,” which is available at

“Go back and reread ‘Hamlet,’ because that whole thing is about interviewing people and asking people questions and evaluating their answers,” Rabon advised.

Inspiration also comes from another of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, Othello, who kills his wife Desdemona out of jealousy provoked by his envious friend Iago.

“With the actions of Othello, we were able to attach what he did—and how he justified what he did—to the rationalization aspect of the fraud triangle,” said Rabon. “We also looked at how Iago got Othello to come to believe that his wife Desdemona was running around with Cassio when that wasn’t the case. We looked at how Iago used his persuasive techniques to influence Othello’s behavior.”

Even Shakespeare’s Sonnets can inspire fraud examiners. “Sonnet 138 describes the relationship between an older man and a younger woman and how they use deception to make that relationship work,” said Rabon. “It starts off with, ‘When my love swears that she is made of truth, I do believe her though I know she lies.’ We explored the whole concept of deception and went deeply into the dynamics of deception.”

Off to See the Wizard
From Shakespeare, Rabon moved on to discussing L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz” at his workshops.

“Then we went to the Land of Oz,” he recalled. “Some of you went with me and some of you never came back.”

A good interviewer, like the Tin Man, needs to have a heart, with the capacity to understand, Rabon pointed out. Like the Scarecrow, he also needs to have a brain with the capacity to adjust to the changing environment of the interview. And like the Cowardly Lion, he needs to have courage with the will to succeed. “In that, we place an emphasis on the ability to persevere,” Rabon added. “In some cases, particularly where we’re talking about persuasion, it’s going to take perhaps a bit longer to get somebody to tell you something they don’t want to tell you, particularly if the downstream consequences of what they’re going to tell you are going to be adverse to that individual.”

Dr. Jekyll and Sherlock Holmes
Next up in the literary canon of fraudster interviewing classics is Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

“We related that whole dynamic to the fraud triangle, because in his suicide note, Dr. Jekyll wrote this: ‘That which I drank did not turn me into a monster,’ he said. ‘That which I drank released the monster that was in me all along.’ We attach that to the suppression rationalization. It may very well be that an individual comes into contact with a situation in life. This individual up to this point can be as honest as the day is long, but in that situation it could release the fraudster that was in that individual all along. This is why those of us that investigate fraud can never preclude anybody because we can’t look to that person’s past to predict that individual’s future. It may just be that the individual has never experienced this circumstance. Just because the circumstance that this individual is experiencing would not motivate us to fraud doesn’t necessarily mean it wouldn’t motivate that individual to fraud.”

From Dr. Jekyll, Rabon moved on in his next workshop to another fictitious resident of Victorian-era London, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. “We looked at 12 different elicitation techniques that we can use to get information from people without having to ask them questions, and we paid particular attention to Holmes’s ‘The Sign of the Four.’ We took part of that particular story and we looked at all the different elicitation techniques. We looked at some video clips of it and then read some of it.”

Poe and Looney Tunes
From there, he moved on to a schoolboy described in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Purloined Letter,” who wins all the marbles because of his proficiency at guessing whether his schoolmates have an odd or even number of marbles concealed in their hands.

“From that we deal with this whole dynamic of mirrored neurons,” said Rabon. “We talked about this whole concept of rapport, heightened attention leading to increased suggestibility, and how the ability to affect and mirror neurons in the brain of the interviewee is most conducive, and how it took scientists 150 years to figure out what Poe was talking about.’”

Last year, though, Rabon admitted that his workshop “plumbed the depths of literary acumen,” by probing Foghorn Leghorn, the Southern-accented rooster of the Looney Tunes cartoons. “One thing about Foghorn Leghorn was that he was always trying to get people to pay attention,” said Rabon. “He’d say, ‘Pay attention to me, son, I’m talkin’ to you.’ With that, we stressed the importance of paying attention during the conduct of the interview. The average adult attention span is only 12 minutes.”

Rabon cited a recent study of “digital dementia,” stemming from the overuse of cell phones, tablets and computers as opposed to interacting with people. “It is beginning to produce dementia in people that is the same as if the individual had suffered a severe brain injury,” he said. “I am very concerned about the diminishing capacity of people to pay attention, not just the interviewer, but the interviewee.”

The Spider and the Fly
For this year’s workshop at the ACFE conference, Rabon said he decided to focus on Mary Howitt’s 1829 poem, “The Spider and the Fly.”

“Think about this: what was the spider’s goal?” Rabon asked. “What did the spider want to happen? He wanted the fly to come into his parlor. He wanted to influence the behavior of the fly. It took a very long poem for that to come out. Here’s the first line: ‘Will you walk into my parlor?’ said the Spider to the Fly.”

Howitt could have been describing in her poem a psychological technique that someone who interviews a suspected fraudster might use in their interrogation. “What is the interviewer’s goal when operating as a persuader?” Rabon asked. “Sometimes an interviewer has to get people to talk to him, sometimes an interviewer has to evaluate veracity and sometimes an interviewer has to influence people’s behavior. I’ve got to get somebody to do something they didn’t want to do. I’ve got to get them to do it in a way that’s acceptable. The fly and us, while our motives may be somewhat different, nevertheless we’re trying to bring about a change in behavior on the part of this particular individual.

“As an interviewer, here’s what I want,” he added. “I don’t want people responding to me because I have some kind of power over them. Simply having power over people may not necessarily carry the flag. For us, power is the ability to elicit response. ‘Won’t you walk into my parlor?’ Won’t you move from the unwilling chair to the willing chair? The thing to keep in mind is: everybody whose behavior we want to influence is not necessarily the doer of the wrongful deed. Sometimes in interviewing people, it may be a neutral third party that has some information or suspicion, but doesn’t want to share that with me. I have to get them to do something they didn’t intend to do. The first step is to get them to sit down and talk. They could be a possible co-conspirator and obviously I would expect the target of the inquiry to be less than willing to share that with me readily right off the bat as we begin our communication process.”

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