Interviewing pitfalls

How novices can avoid obstacles

By Don Rabon, CFE; Edited by George R. Young, Ph.D., CFE, CPA
don-rabon-80x80   george-young-80x70   Fraud Edge: A forum for fraud-fighting faculty in higher ed

What’s the most important part of a fraud examiner’s toolkit? Interviewing. Higher-education fraud examination students can learn about interviewing from textbooks. But before they begin to practice this craft, they need to know some common pitfalls so they can increase their chances of successfully achieving their interviewing objectives. 

I’ll discuss some of the more common snares I’ve observed in practice (along with antidotes):
  • Failure to plan.
  • Confirmation bias. 
  • Settling into the interviewing comfort zone. 
  • Rapidly diminishing capability to pay attention. 
  • Personalizing the interview. 
Finally, I provide some extra advice for budding fraud fighters in the Millennial Generation (and the upcoming Generation Z). 


Without a doubt, this is the primary error interviewers make. It seems that the more experience an interviewer has, the less he or she prepares. Whether because of busyness or overconfidence, this pitfall spells disaster. Not only does efficiency suffer because the interviewer might have to schedule another interview, but effectiveness suffers because the interviewer might never discover needed information.

Fraudsters often take time before interviews to prepare answers to anticipated questions. When I debriefed career criminals on their tactics, thoughts and behaviors about interviews, they would typically respond, “I had my routines that I was going to run down on them” and “I had my story made up.” 

The antidote 
The interviewer must consider the interviewee’s role in the fraud and relationship to the fraudster (if that person isn’t the fraudster), available information, desired outcomes from the interview and primary interview strategy plus alternate, viable strategies. The success or failure of the interview is determined prior to the time the interviewer walks into the room. As I’ve often said, “Either you have your own plan or you are part of someone else’s plan.” You — not the interviewee — has to control the interview.


An interviewer whose mind is made up before an interview spells danger. Confirmation bias (also known as confirmatory bias or myside bias) greatly decreases the likelihood that an interviewer dismisses, ignores or filters any contradictory information during an interview, whether the interviewee expresses it verbally or non-verbally. Thus, interviewers might not even be aware that they’re missing important information that can increase the examination’s effectiveness. 

Before many of my past interviews, colleagues would tell me that they believed the interviewees were guilty as sin. However, we later discovered they actually were innocent. If I hadn’t been aware that my colleagues could have caused me to have confirmation bias, I might have dismissed contradictory interviewee behaviors during interviews as minor aberrations. 

The antidote 
It’s imperative that the interviewer wants to maintain an open mind, which isn’t so much a skill set as an attitude. The effective interviewer gives the interviewee a chance by looking at all the data, listening to others and theorizing a hypothesis without precluding anything. Also, if the interviewer maintains an open mind, the interviewee will perceive it and be more cooperative. 


If we repeat familiar patterns of behavior, we create routines. Our routines become desirable because they define our comfort zones. Interviewers might have only one or two interviewing approaches. Unfortunately, these one-size-fits-all routines don’t always work. Interviewers’ comfort zones might serve them well until they face challenging interviews, which require different approaches that fall outside their comfort zones. 

The limited interviewer may then experience diminishing results, and a supervisor motivates the interviewer to improve. Or, ideally, the interviewer recognizes that he or she can learn so much more about human behavior and will acquire new skills that will enhance the interview process. 

The antidote 
Be proactive. Don’t wait until something (or someone) forces you to change. Your only limit is yourself. If you’re willing to keep learning, practicing and improving, your interviews will yield effective and efficient evidence. On the other hand, if you rest in your comfort zone and think you’re good enough, victims won’t find justice and innocent people will be wrongly accused.


The attention span of the average adult is believed to have fallen from 12 minutes in 1998 to five minutes in 2008, according to “Stress of modern life cuts attention spans to five minutes,” by Matthew Moore in the Nov. 26, 2008, issue of The Telegraph. (Undoubtedly, attention spans have shortened even more in the ensuing six years.)

If interviewees’ attentive capacities are just five minutes, or less, then after that point interviews provide diminishing returns. 

Also, many distractions — such as cellphones and other technologies — can divert interviewees so they can’t provide valuable information. A 2010 global study, “the world UNPLUGGED: Going 24 Hours Without Media,” reported that students’ “addiction” to media is similar to drug cravings. The study indicated that technology, including cellphones, has a dark side. (See this study, conducted by the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda in partnership with the Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change, at 

Our attention deficits probably result from a lack of self-discipline and the delusional belief that we can cognitively multi-task. We can’t do anything about our natural limitations, but we can discipline ourselves to pay attention. 

The antidote 
Plan and conduct an interview with few distractions. Require that all participants turn off their cellphones. When possible, ask questions in an unpredictable order. 


For full access to story, members may sign in here.

Not a member? Click here to Join Now. Or Click here to sign up for a FREE TRIAL.