Hossam El Shaffei, founder and managing director of Oversight Consulting and Training, started off his ACFE Fraud Conference Middle East session with a question that’s been on many fraud examiners’ minds throughout the past year: How do we efficiently and effectively conduct fraud investigations remotely?
While the pandemic has introduced a lot of new norms and skills to the industry, El Shaffei noted that fraud examiners have also had to navigate new challenges associated with malpractice.
“A lot of businesses closed down, and a lot of businesses moved to digital platforms for a direct customer relationship, so what can fraud examiners do to stay relevant and provide their expertise in this digitized world?” he asked. “Those who are willing to transform will be able to bring great value to their organizations.”
For El Shaffei, this type of transformation entails embracing digitization as a strategy in order for business to continue. “Those [fraud examiners] that were able to shift and adapt and invest in digitization and upskilling the staff stayed relevant to their stakeholders,” he emphasized. These digital interfaces — contactless pay, telehealth, virtual collaboration and online learning — are necessary in the current global situation, but they also open up a range of fraud tactics and rule violations that fraud examiners must be aware of and equipped to handle.
Risks and challenges of digital transformation
To begin this digital transformation, El Shaffei recommended working closely with legal, accounting and IT departments to brainstorm and experiment as guidelines continue to change for remote working. By involving different sectors of the organization, more people are aware of techniques to mitigate fraud.
El Shaffei then outlined some potential challenges and risks involved in shifting to digital interfaces:
You may not be aware of challenges immediately after they occur due to difficulties in getting in touch with personnel across different departments and different time zones.
When conducting online interviews, signs of body language and nonverbal communication are more difficult to detect, and you may have to work harder to gain the trust of witnesses.
Exchanging private and confidential documents is more risky over email and file sharing platforms. Relying on these documents poses the risk that they may have been digitally altered.
Executing forensic collection of laptops and phones can pose difficulties if people are working across different geographies.
To try to combat some of these risks, El Shaffei highlighted the importance of coming up with new company policies as the digital landscape continues to change. “Employees don’t want to get the idea that you’re more concerned about compliance than you are about responding to complaints, so they need to know how they are going to be protected while they’re working remotely. [...] We want people to be comfortable, protected and safe to come forward when they spot something unacceptable,” he told attendees. It may be more challenging now to keep an ethical culture in place, but it is still vital. Since compliance depends largely on educating workers and training them in how to detect and report unacceptable behavior, all employees should read new policies, be given the opportunity to ask questions and then sign agreements of understanding.
Techniques for effective virtual interviews and investigations
In virtual investigative interviews, it’s crucial that witnesses are made to feel as comfortable as possible. El Shaffei provided some techniques for this:
Ensure that the witness is provided with a laptop, a headset and a quiet place with no distractions and no other people in the room.
Let the witness know where you are. Show them that there is no one else in the room, or, if a second person is present, introduce that person and explain that person’s role in the investigation.
Set the guidelines of the interview from the beginning. Decide on whether or not to allow recording or screenshots, and remind the witness not to consult with anyone else throughout the interview.
Read the organizations’ confidentiality policy to the witness at the beginning of the meeting.
Send clear instructions prior to the interview in order to troubleshoot any potential tech issues, and make sure your technology is up to date.
If possible, have a trusted contact who is working in the same city as the witness be safely in the same room during the interview in order to monitor and to collect copies of any evidence the witness may provide.
As always, typical examination interview etiquette should be followed in order to keep the witness feeling comfortable and make the interview effective. Just like in an in-person interview, this includes not asking accusatory questions. For example, El Shaffei said, “If the interviewee crosses their arms during a question, don’t say, ‘I think you’re lying.’ Instead, say, ‘I noticed you crossed your arms when I asked that question. Why did that question make you uncomfortable?’” If the tone is conversational, the witness will be more comfortable to give information.
At the end and beginning of the interview, be sure to thank the witness for making the time to meet. Showing this appreciation assists in building rapport and helps the interviewee relax.
After imparting this wisdom and these helpful tips, El Shaffei closed out his session with a crucial reminder in these trying times: “It is still important to preserve investigative integrity, confidentiality and independence through this challenging time. You need to stay relevant, and you need to stay trusted.”