Alexis Bell: the world of a woman investigator Part II
In the second part from the interview with The Outsider Argentina, Alexis spoke about the good and the bad things from her job, the violence which she has faced at work and other projects that she has been doing, like the three books that she has written.
Which works are the hardest to do? Why?
I love the work that I do. The only two situations that cause me concern are when I have to investigate someone on my own team and when politics attempt to interfere with the investigation. I once had to investigate people on my own team. It was by far the most difficult thing I had ever had to do. On an investigative team, you become very close. You work weeks or months together on projects year after year. You work side by side these people. You know all about their families, their hopes and dreams. You hear all of their jokes over and over again until you can recite them from heart. You support each other. You celebrate successes and cry together over losses. You go to each others’ weddings and funerals. They essentially become family to you. Having to investigate your own team is like investigating your family. It is gut wrenching and horrible. However, the investigation is a search for the truth. If the truth is that your team member (even your boss) has become a fraudster, they are now in the other category and must be treated just like any other Target. Evidence is evidence. Period. It knows no family or friends. It just is. Investigations are like that. I did it and found evidence against my own people. During the day on the job I was my normal self, but at home at night it was a very stressful time for me. The integrity of the process required I treat them like anyone else. Even though I was able to do that, it was extremely difficult and created an internal struggle. Frankly, I do not ever want to have to investigate my own people again. Should the situation require it, of course I will rise to the occasion, but I will not like it; not one bit.
The other difficult scenario is when I have to investigate someone very high up in an organization. This is typically when you see people’s personal agendas crop up. All of their previous talk about honor and integrity goes right out the window the moment their sanctuary is threatened. Truth be told it is a normal human response. It takes a great deal of internal fortitude to stand up and face the person at the top of the food chain. I have no emotional attachment to it. To me it is an investigation just like any other. However, there is several extra miles of red tape that must be maneuvered and a lot of time wasted (in my opinion) discussing politics and the ramifications of even suggesting such an investigation. It is this kind of thinking that keeps the really big frauds hidden, when there is fear to even begin an investigation. I wish they would understand that the higher up a person is, the more damage they can do if they commit fraud against the company. People can only manipulate what they can access. The more assets a person can access, the greater the exposure. Clearing a person by being able to show evidence that refutes an allegation of fraud is just as impactful. A shift in perspective from the personal agenda towards the greater good would transform their fear into fuel to do what is right for the company. I have hope that one day organizations will evolve to that point. Until then, this will be a constant struggle for investigators.
Do you have to handle weapons for your activity?
Handling weapons is not required. I worked for many years without one at all. However, as an armed Private Investigator I can carry my duty weapon while on the job when I work in the state of North Carolina. The license does not give me permission to carry my firearm to other countries though I can carry it in some states within the United States that have a reciprocal agreement with North Carolina. The ability to shoot well under stress is a diminishing skill. You must practice often. I go to the shooting range as often as I can (which is not as often as I would like based on my travel schedule) and train in various scenarios.
That said, a firearm is not the only weapon option. I am also certified in Yawara which is a Japanese weapon used in various martial arts. The Yawara can be used against pressure points and to initiate bone breaks among other maneuvers. Best of all it is small enough to fit in your purse. What I like about the Yawara is that once you understand how to use it, you can use any object with a similar shape such as a jumbo pencil or a small flashlight. The skill stays with you and you have the option to use everyday objects from your environment. I also train in a Russian martial art called Systema. While I am relatively new to Systema having previously trained in Kyokushin Karate (a Japanese combat style), I believe I could train for an entire lifetime learning something new about the subtleties each and every day. In Systema we learn how to use regular objects found in the environment as weapons. In the end, the greatest weapon we have is a well trained nervous system. It’s faster than mere thought or muscle memory. I started training to learn how to protect myself and those around me. Now I understand that the impact is far greater than that. Through the training process, I am able to apply lessons learned on the ground to other seemingly unrelated areas. It’s been a life changing experience.
How do you deal with violence? Have you ever being in a risky situation where your life was at risk?
Investigating crime can be risky. In some countries, people will kill someone merely for their shoes. When you shut down a multi-million dollar organized crime effort by investigating it, your life can be in jeopardy. I once investigated a case where the main Target was the son of the head of a European Mafia. The stakes were very high on that case. We received multiple death threats. Because of who we were investigating, we took those threats very seriously. I had to sit the team down and one by one ask them if they wanted to continue or not. One person actually left the team because he decided it was not worth it for him to risk his life for the case. It is a very personal decision and we all supported his position.
Another case I had involved a fraud for hundreds of millions of Euros. I was told on multiple occasions that if I continued down the path of investigating that case that I would wind up dead. At the point we were actually shot at and bullets hit the tires, we all had to stop and re-evaluate what we were doing. I took some time to talk with former people who had started to investigate this case, but who either left the organization or were forced out. One by one, I saw they were afraid and they decided to just take the large severance package rather than risk their lives. Then I saw members of my own team make the same decision. At one point, I was the only one left. Ultimately, I decided to keep pushing forward because of that same reason. I felt that as long as no one was willing to stand up to the fraudsters, they would continue to get away with it. I had long discussions with my two daughters about my decision. As a single mother I had to decide what was best for my family. In the end, it was better to teach my girls to stand up for what you believe in even when it’s extraordinarily difficult. I got my affairs in order and emotionally prepared them for the possibility that I may not return from work one day. I realize most people would find that decision irresponsible; especially as a single mother. However, I arrived at that place after a great deal of soul searching. I stand by my decision and would make the same one again given similar circumstances.
There was a more recent case in Guatemala where we were investigating a complex fraud involving many fraudsters and the schemes affected hundreds of individuals. As part of the fieldwork for the case we spent a month in Guatemala. Part of that time was spent in the local villages interviewing people who had knowledge about the case. There was one particular day that we witnessed a gang member extort money from a woman right when we were talking with her. We spoke with many people that day in the village. Just a few hours after we had left that area, thirty men with rifles stormed a home and open fired. Seven members of the family were killed including a small child and an infant. Two of the people killed were witnesses to our investigation. Only two small children escaped; everyone else in the home was killed. The massacre made national news in Guatemala. After that, people stopped talking to us about our investigation.
The most recent project that involved an element of danger was in Afghanistan. We spent a month there in a country actively at war. I visited one region where an employee’s father had just been kidnapped by the Taliban the day before. I was there for an entire month and as of the date of my departure, he had not been returned. I met one man that had been kidnapped by the Taliban several times because of who his father was. There were multiple times suicide bombers were shot and killed only one or two streets away from where we were that day. Other times, the bombs exploded close enough for us to hear them and see the fire and smoke in the building just across the street. We had close protection and a follow car for security. I felt safe because we followed a very strict security protocol. However, it was never far from our minds that the local people walked the street without security and were subject to the conditions of war for years at a time while we were only there for one month.
What part of the job do you enjoy the most?
Regarding investigations, I love solving the problem. I love finding that smoking gun evidence that solves the case. Sometimes you can search for months without finding anything substantial at all. Then in an instant the tide can change when that all important piece of evidence is unearthed. It is a cause for celebration. Sometimes cases can take years to come to final resolution in court. I really like being involved in a successful prosecution of a fraudster. It feels really good knowing the work that you did helps to protect not only the initial organization, but now the general public has an opportunity to learn from the situation.
I also enjoy teaching about fraud. A lot of what I have learned over the years was due to trial and error. In the beginning there was very little structure to how we performed investigations. Now there is a clearly defined methodology that is a culmination of years of learning what worked and what didn’t. Structure affords reproducible results and adds efficiency to the process. I learned a long time ago that I cannot investigate every case alone. I believe it is important to share knowledge about the methodology for investigating fraud. This way an entire army can be deployed against the fraudsters. Every properly trained investigator is one extra set of eyes looking after and protecting organizations from fraud.
How been an investigator changed your life?
I get to work at a job that I am very passionate about. I love what I do and just happen to get paid for it. My grandfather said that success is finding out what you love and then figuring out how to get someone to pay you for doing it. By that definition, I am wildly successful.
Unique to FINCA, I really enjoy going out into the field and spending time with the clients. The first morning I spent in Afghanistan, I observed shop owners throwing trash onto the street. At first I had an emotional reaction to the effect on the environment. Then, after a few minutes had passed, I was shocked to see people running towards the trash — to find something to eat. Instantly, my heart sank. These are some of the people I met with in the field. These people who have almost nothing to eat will be the same people who invite you into their home to give you half of everything they have. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the people. They were genuine and kind. I have found that people who live inside of abject poverty are remarkably similar whether you are in Africa, Latin America, Eurasia, or even the Greater Middle East. I like visiting with them to hear their remarkable stories. I like observing their indelible spirit. I am thankful each and every time I have an opportunity to learn from them. They teach me how to be a better human being. I will be forever grateful for my experiences with them.
Which message would you send to women?
Don’t be afraid to fail because that is how we learn. Instead, be afraid of never trying at all.
Do you work on any projects besides investigations?
Yes. I have written two technical books on fraud: (1) Data Analysis for Corporate Fraud Risk: Ratio Red Flags for Fraud, and (2) Mortgage Fraud and the Illegal Property Flipping Scheme: A Case Study of United States v. Quintero-Lopez. I have just finished my third book, which has nothing to do with fraud or investigations. I began writing this book as a way for me to personally understand relationships. It wasn’t really intended for anyone else to read. However, as I started developing a structure for what worked, a friend suggested that other people would benefit from what I had learned. Before I knew it, I was writing a book about relationships. I’m actually pretty excited about it. The entire human experience is about how we relate to each other. I believe that the book will make a difference in people’s lives. I’m hopeful that there will be a butterfly effect of positive change. One can hope. The title is: A Framework for Extraordinary Relationships Without Guilt, Shame or Fear.
My greatest accomplishment though is by far my two daughters. They have always been the driving force behind everything that I do. One of my most touching moments was when my youngest made an announcement a few months ago. I had just returned from an investigation where I had been out of the country for a month. When we returned to the house after being picked up at the airport she said, “You know, Mom, when you die you are going to have to figure out a way to come back so that you and I can keep having these conversations. They are really important to me.” As tough as I am during investigations, tears found their way down my face.
Alexis’ latest book: http://www.amazon.com/Framework-Extraordinary-Relationships-Without-ebook/dp/B00CPNCL98/ref=sr_1_cc_1?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1368202106&sr=1-1-catcorr&keywords=a+framework+for+extraordinary+relationships
Alexis’ website: http://fraud-doctor.com/
Alexis’ email: email@example.com