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The Blame Game and How to Play It

In his early 1970s television show, comedian Flip Wilson had a running sketch in which he took the alter ego of a feisty woman named Geraldine. When Geraldine was caught doing something wrong, she invariably protested, “The devil made me do it.”

Geraldine’s rationalization was, of course, a gag, but it is instructive to investigators aiming to get a suspect to admit to a crime or wrongdoing. It is human nature to shift blame to someone or something else and to justify one’s poor behavior. Investigators can take advantage of this tendency during interrogations, using legally admissible techniques to help suspects morally shift blame away from themselves in ways that may make them more willing to admit what happened.

Although an admission-seeking interview is not a part of every investigation, the investigator should approach each case with the assumption that one could be conducted. Every investigation yields information that could prove valuable during an admission-seeking interview.

Three elements. When conducting internal theft and property crime investigations, it is helpful to consider the classic criminology theory of the Fraud Triangle, developed in the 1940s by Dr. Donald R. Cressey, but still relevant today. According to the Fraud Triangle, in almost every case of asset misappropriation, there exist three elements: the opportunity to commit the crime, a pressure that motivates the criminals, and a means by which the criminals rationalize their actions to themselves.

Identifying each of the elements will greatly assist the investigator in conducting the admission-seeking interview. An investigator can use the specific elements in a given crime to suggest that the moral responsibility for the crime lies elsewhere, making it easier for the suspect to open up.

For example, thieves often rationalize that if the victim really needed the money, he or she would not have left it unsecured. Employees who consider themselves underpaid often rationalize theft as compensation that they deserve from management. Pride, peer pressure, and the fear of being viewed as a failure may all be motivators that lead to crime. Investigators can empathize with these feelings.

In other cases, investigators might get an admission by blaming managers for failing to establish or enforce internal controls and procedures to prevent employee theft. This strategy places blame on others who did not perform their jobs properly.

Consider, for example, the case of a convenience store cashier who we will call Jane. She was working the day shift along with her manager. The manager was busy most of the morning in the office counting the previous shift’s receipts and making up the deposits. At one point the manager left the store to run a personal errand and left the cashier working alone.

While walking to the stock room to retrieve an item, Jane noticed that the manager had left the office door partly open. As she reached to close the door, she looked inside and noticed the manager had also left the safe open with the deposits visible. The cashier then entered the office and took $100 in cash from the open safe. When the cashier was identified as a suspect in the case, an admission-seeking interview was conducted.

Early in the interview the cashier repeatedly denied taking the money. When asked what she thought had happened to the money, she said that she believed either a customer had stolen it or that the manager had miscounted. At this point, the investigator began shifting the blame to the manager by asserting that the manager’s careless act of leaving the safe and office unlocked had created the temptation that ultimately led to the cashier “acting out of character.” It was suggested to the employee that without that temptation, she would never have committed the crime. By shifting the blame to the manager, the investigator allowed the cashier to rationalize her actions to herself. The employee then came clean, saying that she only went to the office door to close it and that when she saw all the money unsecured, she just wanted to teach the manager a lesson.

The right approach. A critical caveat is that the investigator is only morally shifting the blame, not legally justifying the crime. Also, as with any other legally admissible technique, the investigator must avoid using any approach that might cause an innocent person to confess to a crime he or she did not commit. Thus, there are right and wrong ways to implement this tool.

The following dialogue illustrates how an interrogator can legally empathize with a suspect to encourage a confession without crossing any legal lines.

“Jane, one of the things that I have learned over the years is that, although our investigation can show us exactly what happened in a case like this, it cannot tell me what made the person do what they did. That’s one reason I wanted to talk with you today. I think the why is just as important as the how.

“I deal with a lot of different people in my investigations and I know that sometimes people do things on the spur of the moment that they normally wouldn’t do. I myself have done things that I later wished I hadn’t, and had I not been in a particular situation, I probably would not have acted the way I did.

“I think that is what has happened here. If the manager had done his job and locked the office door, you would never have been faced with the temptation of finding the money left unattended. Given your situation with your bills and your husband not being able to work, I think that temptation was too strong for you to overcome. It’s not like you went looking for money to steal. If the manager had done his job properly, you would never have taken the money.

“If I am right about that, I think it is important that you have a chance to tell your side of things. It’s one thing to go looking for money to steal and another to find yourself in a situation created by someone’s carelessness that causes you to act out of character and make a mistake. I think it is important for your supervisors to know what really happened so that they can make a fair decision on what needs to happen next.”

Never does the interviewer promise any sort of legal resolution or make any direct accusations. He takes care to speak in broad terms, such as the supervisors needing to know “what really happened so that they can make a fair decision on what needs to happen next.”

The investigator may have to repeat this type of monologue several times and may have to shift the blame to other people or influences to find the rationalization with which the suspect is comfortable or the one that the suspect believes people will understand. Once the investigator recognizes that the suspect is accepting the rationalization and is ready to tell the truth, the investigator can assist the process by presenting the suspect with a question that makes it easy for him or her to give the admission.

An example of how this question would be phrased is, “Jane, I am right about you, aren’t I? If the manager had not left the money unattended, you would have never taken any of it, would you?” Once this first admission is obtained, it becomes much easier to get a complete confession, including the details needed to close the case.

Motivations will vary, of course. It is up to the investigator to find the one that resonates with that suspect. In the example just given, the investigator notes the suspect’s bills and that the suspect’s husband was out of work, then blames the manager for creating an irresistible opportunity.

In cases where the opportunity or a person are less an issue, the investigator can focus more on the motivating pressure. One example is a single mother who has stolen money to buy something nice for her child. The investigator can empathize with this “Robin Hood” motive, perhaps contrasting it with a theft driven by the need to buy drugs, showing that he does not think the woman is a terrible person. In so doing, the investigator is not legally justifying or excusing the crime, but he is making it easier for the mother to rationalize, and admit to, her actions.

Another example of shifting the blame to the pressure faced by the suspect can be found in the case of the clerk who admitted to stealing $500 to help pay her mother’s bills. The clerk had been employed in the same position for more than eight years and by all accounts was a model employee. Her mother became ill and was not able to work for a long time. The employee became desperate when the mother began receiving “shut off” notices for her utilities. Although there were other options for assistance, some of which were provided by her employer, the employee decided to steal $500 from her checkout station.

While conducting the investigation, the investigator learned of the mother’s hardships and financial problems. During the interview, the investigator be­gan shifting the blame to the employee’s mother’s hardship, being careful not to blame the mother. The investigator suggested to the employee that had her mother not become ill and unable to work, the employee would not have been forced to act in such a desperate manner. The employee confessed, and in a statement wrote that she “let her pride get in the way of her good judgment.”

The investigator eased the woman into her admission by mentioning another case in which an employee acted in a similar way under the same conditions. In doing this, the investigator allowed the employee to believe that others would understand her actions and that others had made the same mistake that she had. 

Sometimes blame can be foisted on a company or even on society at large. A poor economy and high cost of living could be blamed for causing someone to steal to help support a family. It does not always matter whether the reason or rationalization used is actually the cause or motivation behind the crime. The goal of this technique is to assist the suspect in self-rationalizing his or her actions at the time it is being discussed.

There are many other techniques that can be used, depending on the situation and the circumstances surrounding the crime. With any technique, the investigator must be flexible and able to adjust. What works with some suspects might not work on others. It might be necessary to try shifting the blame in more than one direction to find the one in which the suspect feels comfortable.

The key is to be prepared and to have alternative themes and strategies. The technique of shifting the blame can be used in almost any type of investigation. By using these skills carefully, investigators can greatly improve the chances that guilt-ridden suspects will own up to their actions.

Robert “Jerry” DeFatta, PCI, CFE (Certified Fraud Examiner), CRT (Certified in the Reid Technique) is the owner of DeFatta & Associates Investigative Services, located in Shreveport, Louisiana. He offers presentations and conducts training on fraud prevention. He is a member of ASIS International.