Good Phone Usage: Investigative Interview Techniques and Tips for Investigators

Although some situations call for an in-person interview, there are many instances in which an investigator must interview witnesses by phone. In those situations, establishing rapport up front dramatically increases the probability of a successful interview.

The Process

Once a witness is identified, it is necessary to do an extensive pre- screening to determine whether she/he meets legal and ethical guidelines, and to decide if their knowledge or experience is of relevance to the investigation. Then telephone.

It is never easy or ideal to cold-call a potential witness as that first call may be awkward. The subject might be breached at an inopportune time, or the witness may initially be hesitant to speak openly about sensitive information with a stranger, especially after identification of oneself as an “investigator”. However thankfully from experience, most people involved with a fraud investigation are intelligent, well-spoken, and (often) eager to speak freely about what they know.

Given the nature of fraud cases, most witnesses are more comfortable speaking from the comfort of their home or office. Even though the people called may never have met the investigator and may not be aware of the investigation, most are willing to help and share their observations or sentiments freely.

Remember, witness interviews are not interrogations. Generally speaking, the witnesses contacted are not under suspicion.

Here are a few pointers to assist with the process of cold-calling and interviewing potential witnesses:

1. Prepare.

Before picking up the phone, know the facts of the case, the players involved, and the pertinent questions that are needed to be answered. It’s also critical to properly vet a potential witness before dialing, to estimate when may be the best time to reach that person and through what channel (i.e., home, work, mobile).

Of course, there’s no way to know whether the subject is tied up in unexpected meetings or visiting a sick relative. The key is to be patient, sympathetic, and respectful of witnesses’ time, throughout the process. These are likely busy people with families and responsibilities, and a good investigator needs to be flexible enough to work around the witness’s schedules.

2. Build rapport.

Don’t be surprised if a witness that has just been cold-called is initially hesitant or wary. After all, they have just been caught off guard by a stranger calling and identifying themselves as a (fraud) investigator seeking information.

When identifying yourself be as open natural and forthright as possible. Explain the reason for why you’re calling and share any information held that prompted that call. Experience, has shown that the more comfortable and informed witness subjects are the more they will trust the investigator and in return the more forthright their responses will most likely be.


3. Be normal.

No matter the focus of the investigation, remember that quite simply you’re having a conversation with another person, asking for their help, and trying to learn something that wasn’t known or needed to be corroborated prior to picking up the telephone. Reciting a prepared script or reading from pages of direct questions will only distance the investigator from the person called and likely distract from listening to the answers or responses.

If the investigator sounds formal and tetchy then the witness may begin to feel as if standing in the witness box at court. Keep the questions brief and the delivery natural. Make the call a conversation, not an interrogation.

Use and ask open-ended questions that prompt the witness to tell a story, rather than asking or demanding lists of facts and figures. (e.g., “So, why don’t you tell me more about your former position with XYZ Company….how did things begin to change before you left?”)


4. Listen!

Studies have shown that most humans don’t listen as well as they think they do. Fatigue, multi-tasking, and mental drifting can affect cognitive ability to fully listen to responses which will ultimately see the conversation break down.

If an investigator doesn’t listen carefully, they are not really digesting the information being shared, and therefore not fully participating in the conversation. It’s a possibility to miss a contradiction in the witness’ answers, and also to miss those important details that might help develop potential and effective follow-up questions.

Even if answers might seem off-topic it’s important to let the person respond fully and further develop their rapport with the investigator. Remember, the more time initially spent on the telephone with the subject the more likely that person will agree to follow-up interviews later or even to give a written statement.

If time is limited on either side or the witness appears to be discussing something that’s not relevant to the case, gently interrupt and “nudge” the person back on track.

Careful listening during telephone interviews can be more challenging than in-person conversations—there are no advantages of visual contact and/or the possibility of watching for physical changes that might indicate deceptive responses. That’s why audible attention is doubly important during telephone interviews. Listen carefully—to what is said, and also to what isn’t. Not only a witness’ responses, but also any pauses, and changes in the tone of voice may lend a hand in detecting deceptive responses…and confer important information.

Frank Nesbitt. MA MEWI