Alexis Bell: the world of a woman investigator Part I

Alexis Bell (office)

There are many movies about private investigators who resolve any kind of crime, putting their lives in danger, using weapons or just their intelligence to find out who is guilty.

But this is not a movie. This is the real life, with real people. Alexis Bell is a private and a fraud investigator, who is working in FINCA International, developing the first program of its kind within the Microfinance industry.

She enjoys interviewing people to get some information or confession and she believes that integrity is one of the most important thing at her job.

In this first part from the conversation with The Outsider Argentina, Alexis spoke about her beginnings as a private investigator, what she does in her job and obstacles of being a female in a manly environment.

Alexis you are a Private Investigator, how did you start in this activity?  What was the attraction that you find in it in the first place?

What seems like a lifetime ago, I was in corporate accounting.  As a controller of an international textile company, “regular” accounting by its very nature was not very exciting to me. However, there was one day where I discovered a small fraud of around $72,000 involving our inventory.  It was when I first learned that trusted and beloved employees can steal from the company too.  It was a challenge solving that puzzle. I found that forensic accounting can be extremely fun and, at times, incredibly exciting. Since I made the transition from corporate accounting to fraud investigation, I’ve never looked back. I absolutely love my work and can’t imagine doing anything else.

I am primarily a forensic accountant. As a Certified Fraud Examiner, I investigate fraud internationally. I began my forensic career in New York where I interned in the Fraud Unit of the Syracuse Police Department. From there, I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina where I worked on cases across the country in the Forensic Accounting and Investigative Services group of the public accounting firm Grant Thornton LLP. That eventually led me to Delhaize Group where I was responsible for the development and implementation of the global anti-fraud program for a large public company.  Now I am at FINCA International where I am again responsible for the development and implementation of their global anti-fraud program.

The Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) designation allows me the credential necessary to investigate financial crimes globally.  The Private Investigator (PI) license is geographically limited to my state of North Carolina within the United States, however it affords me the opportunity to investigate criminal acts beyond just economic crimes. Additionally, those involved in investigating with digital forensics were being required to hold a PI license in North Carolina.  Since a component of fraud investigations involves digital forensics, it seemed prudent to ensure compliance with local regulations even if they had not yet been applied to forensic accounting.  Therefore, I went through the process of obtaining my full license. Technically, I have a PI agency and can have other investigators working for me; however my current work schedule keeps me far too busy for that at the moment.

What is exactly what a private investigator does?

Private Investigators do many things. They can investigate allegations of criminal acts.  They can conduct covert surveillance.  They can provide litigation support to either the prosecutor or the defense.  They can provide consulting services.  They can perform business intelligence, due dilligence and background screenings.  Those with the proper training can even provide executive protection services while others are trained in digital forensics such as for computers, flash drives and cell phones just to name a few.  My focus though is based on my past experience as a fraud investigator.  I spend my time in the space of anti-fraud.  For example, I’m responsible for the global antifraud program at FINCA International.  The objective of the program is to manage the risk of fraud to the organization.  The goals are prevention, detection, and deterrence of fraud.  The five components of the program involve: (1) governance, (2) fraud awareness training, (3) fraud risk assessment, (4) investigations, and (5) continuous monitoring.

Alexis Bell (Shooting)

Of course, my favorite component is the fraud investigation.  I get energized during the investigative process.  I love the challenge of solving the problem.  I also really enjoy the complex data analysis that is incorporated into the continuous monitoring aspect of the program.  As a scientist at heart, I like the notion that math can help detect fraud.  I believe that all of the information you need to solve the crime is right there.  You have an ocean of data in front of you.  The trick is to understand that data and how to filter out the pieces that will be meaningful to your investigation or monitoring function.  When I first started in my field, we examined hard copy documents, spreadsheets and interviewed people.  Now, I rely heavily on the efficiencies created by analyzing data.  Before, we had to recognize patterns in our head while looking at page after page of printouts.  I was always afraid we would miss something important.  With the ability to truly understand data relative to the investigation, we can now examine millions of lines of data in far more complex and meaningful ways in a fraction of the time.  As our understanding of each fraud scheme grows, our field has matured in ways we could not have imagined even just a decade ago.

Another aspect that I enjoy a lot is interviewing.  In general, there are two types of interviews: information seeking and confession seeking.  The interview process is much more scientific than most people realize.  The order of the interviews is calculated.  You always interview the Target last and begin with the people furthest from the Target to gather information.  Then the order of the questions you ask in each interview is very important.  You calculate their responses by Statement Validity Analysis (SVA).  You ask questions you already know the answer to.  You watch for deviations in baseline behavior with body language indicators, microfacial movements (small movements in the facial muscles), and eye accessing cues (where a person looks) all in context to the answer given.  You can spend an hour setting the stage to ask the one question you really need the answer to.  The interview process is where the investigation takes on the form of art.  There is a certain finesse to it that takes years to learn.  As a matter of fact, I still learn something new with each interview.  It’s definitely an iterative process.

Which were your motivations to do it? It was only to make a career or maybe it was a deep sense of Justice?

Most importantly, I believe that integrity is at the heart of what we do. I like that integrity is a daily part of the process.  I would not fit in well in an environment where integrity was merely a suggestion or a reference to a sign on the wall.  To me, integrity is the thread of the tapestry of life; without it all else falls apart.  A solid investigation requires integrity at every step; everything from ensuring employee’s rights are intact when interviewing to pristine documentation that will stand up in court to the most stringent of defense attorneys.  The entire process is built on integrity.  I like that.  It makes me feel comfortable knowing I can feel good at the end of the day about what I had done.  My integrity is intact and this is extremely important.

As a child, I was always in the role of a protector.  Whenever I saw another kid that was being picked on or treated unfairly, I stuck up for them.  If I saw someone that was not capable of standing up for themselves, I felt the need to step in and help them.  It just seemed natural for me to protect people.  I’ve been that way as long as I can remember.  I see my work with antifraud as a way to protect the company and the stakeholders from the fraudsters.  I take that role very seriously.  For instance, at FINCA International we give small loans to entrepreneurs who live in some of the most impoverished conditions in the world.  I’ve been in some of the client’s place of business and even their homes in countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Georgia, Uganda, and Afghanistan.  It is common for clients to have dirt floors in their homes where they cook over fire pits in the yard; not all, but certainly many that I have spent time with.  When someone steals from my company, these are the people they are stealing from.  My job is to protect the clients from that occurring or at the very least shut it down when it does happen.

At FINCA International, I have an opportunity to develop the first program of its kind within the Microfinance industry.  This will be the first time a global anti-fraud program of this kind has been implemented in this industry.  When I had accomplished this task at another institution it was for a very large company with operations in developed countries.  FINCA operates in 22 countries which are primarily developing countries.  That poses a unique set of challenges that the program must address.  I love being a pioneer and solving problems.  If I can add value to my field, then I feel that I’ve made a difference.  I like the challenge of creating a program in a completely new way.  I have had to rethink how I investigate under conditions such as being in a war torn country.  There are restrictions to certain sections of the city that have been overtaken by the gangs.  The interview process has an added challenge when there is a lag time due to waiting on the interpreter to explain the answers to my questions.  These and many other considerations affect how you implement the anti-fraud program.  The challenge is big, but the reward is even greater.  It’s an exciting time.

Alexis Bell (Afghanistan)

When you were a child did you imagine yourself in this line of activity?

Actually, no.  When I was a child, I wanted to be an artist for Disney World in Orlando, FL USA.  I grew up near there.  I have always drawn pictures.  In my teenage years, I began to paint oil on canvas.  My goal was always to be an artist.  When I was a senior in high school, there was an art contest.  The winner received a four-year scholarship to a prestigious art school.  I came in second place.  My dear friend John won.  He went on to be a successful artist.  However, for me in that moment, I decided that I was not good enough to make a living at painting.  I thought perhaps I needed something “more substantial” to support myself.  I looked around at other things I just had a natural talent for and accounting seemed like the logical choice.  I wasn’t passionate about it, but it was a good, safe choice.  That was when my path shifted from art to accounting.  I still paint, time permitting.  I have even sold a few paintings and had some featured in a museum, but it’s merely a hobby.  In retrospect, I’m grateful because it led me to where I am today.  I am most definitely passionate about fraud investigation.  It’s the perfect fit for me.  I believe that it is my creative side that gives me a unique perspective in how to solve the puzzle of the case.  I attribute that to a lifetime of painting and a deep understanding of perspective.

As a woman, did you find any limitation, restriction or segregation when you face an investigation?

I faced challenges by being a woman more in the workplace than I did during an investigation.  One group I joined (which shall remain nameless to protect the guilty) had never had a woman on the team.  In 35 years, they had never had a woman in the group.  The first year and a half was pretty miserable in the office.  Nothing was ever overt.  Everything was subtle, but it might as well have been shouted from the top of the building.  They did not want me there.  For a long time I didn’t understand.  Then one day an executive assistant took me to lunch and explained.  She said that when they interviewed me, they only hired me out of pressure to hire a woman.  Their plan was to make me quit and with a quickness.  Apparently, they didn’t know what they had signed up for because I am stubborn.  I do not quit easily.  Giving up is a foreign concept to me.  She laughed and said they never expected me to last that long.  Now that I stayed, they saw that I actually did a really good job.  It confused them.  It had always been a “boys club” and they liked it that way.  However, I made them look good.  I had the most chargeable hours of anyone in our group across the country month after month.  I solved cases no one else could.  I volunteered for all the projects no one else wanted.  I published research.  I did everything they ever asked of me.  In the end, they decided they were better off with me than without me.  I never played the politics game.  I think I just wore them down eventually.  Basically, I think I was more stubborn than they were.

There was really only one project where my gender affected how I ran it.  I was in Afghanistan for a month.  As part of the security protocol, I dressed in the local clothing.  As a matter of respect for the culture there, I chose an even more conservative look than was required by the local custom.  In general, people were very receptive to me.  They appreciated that I was trying.  I found that women were respected there.  I also found that the respect did not always translate into the business environment.  There were a few times that I had to select a man to be a figurehead for what I wanted to achieve.  I had to let others believe he was the one in charge even though he was acting out my instructions.  This kind of dynamic was completely new to me.  I had never encountered something like that before.  I had to find harmony between my desire to be the normal warrior woman I usually show up as and achieving the desired outcome.  Ultimately, I decided my ego had to be put on the shelf in order for the project to be successful.  It was a great learning for me.

Aside from the above mentioned obstacles, being a female has in some ways been a benefit during investigations.  In general, I do not look all that intimidating.  If I am nice, people tend to open up to me more than they would to my male counterparts.  When they feel comfortable, they talk more.  This gives me access to information that can be critical to the case.  However, if need be I can turn on the stone face and not show any emotion at all.  The poker face alone has frightened more than one executive over the years.  I believe it is the combination of being female and not showing what I was thinking that throws them off.  Woman are naturally expressive creatures.  When you shut that off, it confuses them.  Once they are off center, they are yours.  So, in some respects it is an added benefit.

To be continued…

Samantha Schuster