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Detecting Deception: Common Myths

by | Jun 12, 2018

Financial fraud investigations

Written in collaboration with Janine Driver, author of You Can’t Lie to Me


Bernie Madoff infamously stole $65 billion reflecting 4,900 client accounts in a Ponzi scheme. All told, his investors lost approximately $20 billion of real principal.

How was he able to look hundreds of people in the eye without arousing suspicion, all the while knowing he was robbing them blind? This man was able to stuff his pockets and walk away whistling, without ever seeming to feel the first twinge of guilt.


This brings me to a hard truth that must be acknowledged: we all lie. Our deceptive ways begin as early as infancy and escalate as we age. Sometimes we lie to spare feelings. Sometimes we lie solely to protect ourselves. When we lie for the second reason, we don’t feel very good about it. In turn, our feelings give us away. As for Madoff and other high-powered liars, they don’t feel bad like the rest of us – which explains why Madoff was so good at it.

Another reality is that most of us aren’t skilled in detecting deception. We tend to rely on a false sense of what we believe are obvious signs of deception – unfortunately those “obvious” signs may not be signs at all.


Myth 1:  The eyes are the window to deception

Many believe the eyes are a dead giveaway to deception. Let’s say you notice your daughter avoiding eye contact when you ask her a rather pointed question about her sleepover with her best friend last night. As she avoids your gaze when you ask her about her evening, you’re sure you’ve caught her in a lie.

Not so fast. There is little evidence to support your eye contact theory. The critical behavior to look for in a person’s eye movement is a deviation from normal behavior. Be sure to consider your daughter’s natural tendencies before you ground her.

Myth 2:  The itchy nose theory

Often thought to be a foolproof sign of deception, the itchy nose may reflect nothing more than a “fight or flight” reaction to stress.

In a threatening situation – like the way an employee feels when you unexpectedly ask them to step into your office – their blood will rush to their extremities, giving their arms and legs the needed energy to run or fight. When they do neither and instead take a seat in your office, the blood will rush to their head and make their nose itch like crazy.

Myth 3:  Liars wiggle and jiggle

We all know someone who is in constant motion – bouncing their foot, biting their fingernails or flipping their hair. For them, it’s completely normal. Take note, however, if these actions are a deviation from their norm, or if the wiggles suddenly appear after you ask a probing question.  You might just be on to something.

Myth 4:  Liars use absolutes

This is where gathering baseline information becomes crucial. If a particular phrase isn’t part of the person’s normal vernacular, pay attention when it comes out of their mouth during times of stress. Liars often use absolute statements (e.g., “I swear to God!”) to try and convince you of their innocence, while an honest person does not need to work so hard to convey their message.

Myth 5:  Liars drop words

If your colleague is typically tight-lipped or a person of few words, there may be nothing unusual when he drops words or pronouns when describing how a business process is supposed to work. Liars, on the other hand, will drop pronouns as a mechanism to distance themselves from the fib they are telling.

However, if your colleague is usually enthusiastic and full of details, then you may have an issue. Just the same, tread lightly here – in today’s world of text messaging and online chat, incomplete sentences and missing words have become commonplace.


Determining truth from deception is far from straightforward. These myths cloud our judgment and prevent us from finding the truth. When we can see through the errors in our judgment, we strengthen our ability to detect deception. In our fraud examination work at FSS, we do this every day.

To learn more about detecting actual signs of deception, be sure to read more on our blog.

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