Staring into the Mind of the Fraudster: can an understanding of the anatomy and function of the brain help combat fraud?

Reading the mind of a fraudster might seem out of reach for most fraud investigators, however it may be possible for us to observe the inner thoughts of the fraudster by having an understanding of how the human brain functions.


This article provokes thoughts and opens the discussion around the function of the brain and how our unconscious

thoughts may present observable behaviour. It also sheds light on the question types that fraud investigators could use

to reveal fraudsters’ falsehoods during the interview process.



Science has made huge strides in understanding the human brain and how it functions. For example, we know that the

frontal lobes are the centre of rational thinking and of self-control. In his research, Paul Maclean developed the theory of

brain development in the 1960’s. Maclean argued that we have three brains: (1) reptilian, (2) limbic, and (3) neocortex. Each

of these brains has its own function supporting our everyday survival, they work as a cohesive cooperative operating as

one brain, much of which we have no conscious awareness off.



The reptilian brain was the first brain, developed 500 million years ago first seen in fish, moving to reptiles 250 million

years ago, then integral to the development of human beings. It is located at the top of the spinal column at the top of the spinal cord, it controls key functions including the heart, breathing and the temperature of the body. 



The so called second brain, the limbic brain is said to have appeared in small mammals about 150 million years ago; in humans it is wrapped around the reptilian brain and records memories driven by experiences. It is responsible for our emotions, likes and dislikes; it is here where unconscious judgements can be made.



The so called third brain is the neocortex, this is the largest part of the brain with two large cerebral hemispheres. This gives humans the unique ability of developed language skills, the ability to think, to imagine and consciousness.



It is useful for the fraud professional to understand the functions of each of these structures, as this knowledge can inform the response we may get when undertaking an investigation; in particular when undertaking an interview with the fraud criminal and the responses made to our questions.



When interviewing fraud criminals, it is the brain that we are interrogating. We know that falsehoods are created in areas of the brain that differ from the recall of truth. For instance, when a fraud criminal lies, this requires their brain to work hard and its processors are fully engaged to create the false information, located deep in the neocortex. Something called the prefrontal cortex is believed to play a part in deception; interestingly when we pretend not to know something it’s another area of the brain that comes to life.


Companies are now controversially developing Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) which measures the brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow, they can detect which part of the brain is active when responding to questions and stimuli.



Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘no one has a good enough memory to be a successful liar’. Similarly, fraudsters might find it difficult to cope with stress when lying and therefore, they will lose the ability to remember the sequence of events or stories they made up. In that case, effective questioning is required to expose the fraudsters’ lies. The use of open questions such as ‘Tell me, Explain to me, Describe to me, or Show me’ can be the interviewer’s best friend. To make it easy to remember, I suggest using the acronym TEDS (Tell, Explain, Describe, and Show).



Another area that is problematic for the liar is the response emanating out of the reptilian brain, the eyes have a direct connection to this area as do other facial and body features. Though care needs to be taken, the involuntary movement connected to fight or flight can show when the liar is uncomfortable; the sensory inputs are visual first then thinking, the eyes flickering, the involuntary sniff – the reptilian brain showing signs of stress when lies are told.

Tom Robbins, once said: ‘You may tell the greatest lies and wear a brilliant disguise, but you can't escape the eyes of the one who sees right through you.’

Let’s remember that memory is organic and not to be recalled from a digital device, the brain works tirelessly when asked to recall an event. This could give fraud investigators a great opportunity to focus on questions that would reveal the fraudsters’ falsehoods.

By Mike Betts, Head of Learning and Counter Fraud Studies, Cifas

Mike Betts

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