Investigations into fraud have had to be conducted remotely since lockdown. Steve Holt explains how we have managed this and how might it change investigations in the future.
Being involved in an investigation is difficult at the best of times. Without careful planning and structure, investigations can easily distract or divert key senior resources away from the day-to-day navigation of a business through turbulent markets. In times of economic and social distress, as we find ourselves in with the current circumstances, pressure and focus on investigations - and as a result, the senior management of a business - becomes more acute.
Similarly, working without open access to people, resources and documents adds barriers to the core investigative purpose of understanding issues of concern and communicating findings and demonstrating appropriate governance with stakeholders. But investigations must continue for exactly this purpose.
History suggests that times of uncertainty and economic stress lead to an increase in investigations and regulatory enforcement activity. Communicating and effectively managing investigations can be the difference between a swift resolution of issues and undergoing many years of scrutiny.
Speak to any seasoned investigator, and they will regale you with tales of the travel, people and places that traditionally punctuate investigation work. It is almost always assumed that a large element of any investigation would involve field work, speaking to people face-to-face, obtaining copies of relevant records and being a visible presence to deter those considering fraud.
The advent and adoption of improved remote-working technology means that it is still possible to access a good amount of data without having to set foot on site. But this is entirely reliant upon infrastructure in place in the entity under review.
However, large elements of mission-critical data, important hard-copy documents or even personnel (in the event of furlough or other temporary personnel-restructuring arrangements) may be inaccessible and it becomes incumbent upon investigators to employ lateral thinking in understanding how to best address concerns without access to such information.
Further, investigators must be mindful that the immediacy of data and information requests, and the level of priority that you expect to be afforded to such requests could be easily lost in remote or indirect correspondence with those supplying the data.
Communication for forensic investigations
Communication is always key during any investigative process. This is amplified during remote investigations, both from a team and a client perspective, to ensure that project milestones and timings are met, difficulties and problems are resolved and focus remains on the purpose of the investigation.
From a client standpoint, it is much easier to operate at cross-purposes when not in constant dialogue or when expectations are not appropriately managed. A remote investigation can also impede the development of rapport between the investigation team and investigation sponsor, which is vital to encouraging the progress of an efficient investigation.
The use of video conferencing technology assists to some extent in this regard, providing all involved 'buy-in' and allowing them to actively participate. However, this does not replace the 'feel' of face-to-face reporting. From the perspective of the investigation team, the inability to work physically closely together is a key drawback.
Investigations tend to be intense, complicated and challenging mental exercises that require creativity and tenacity that is derived through close team collaboration and the sharing of diverse experiences and skillsets. Frequent group video calls can assist in engendering collaboration, but cannot replicate the effect of sitting in the same room as a person. To that end, finding alternative ways to share information or ideas in real-time becomes invaluable.
Interviews and fact-gathering
Interviews, whether fact-finding or confrontational, are a core tool in an investigator’s arsenal and often provide useful intelligence that can unlock a complex issue. There are several schools of thought guiding how investigators tend to approach interviews, which invariably consider a number of physical factors such as the layout of the interview room, the body language adopted by participants and physical indicators from which some investigators infer reliability of evidence.
Much of this goes out of the window in a remote interview, where one is unable to meticulously plan and control the process. Rather, the interviewer faces other challenges, including technical mishaps, the inability to assess whether the interviewee is alone during the meeting and uncertainty over whether the interviewee is avoiding camera contact, in place of eye contact.
The interviewer must also be mindful that they are effectively thrown into the interviewee’s personal space. Where once a physical barrier de-marked office life and home life, the two are now one, meaning that a video call can throw you into the middle of a conversation in someone’s bedroom, rather than an office environment.
In some cases, this acts to the benefit of the investigator, as the change of location allows the interviewee to speak more freely, in others it can make the interviewee uncomfortable and restricts dialogue, perhaps reflecting the focus on work issues in a non-work environment. Investigators need to be attuned to the personality and responses of interviewees to assess how to best address these circumstances.
The new normal for investigations
Recent experience has shown that complex, challenging investigations can be conducted entirely remotely. While remote investigations will not replace the need for 'boots on the ground' in most circumstances, at least in the near to mid-future, there are many learning points that will serve to inform strategies on how to effectively resolve complex problems of the future. Much of this will involve the need for a reduced team on the ground or obtaining remote access to data.
It also brings to the fore the core importance of communication during any consulting or advisory work. Clear and concise communication in investigations helps address problems before they arrive, quickly respond to unexpected developments and ensure stakeholders are aware of material information in the appropriate format at the appropriate point.