Every year there are a dozen or so incidents involving fabricated crimes that make national headlines because the motive behind the reported crime fascinates the general public. Recently a woman in Vancouver, Washington reported that she was the victim of an acid attack, where a black woman threw acid onto her face. After an extensive investigation which first focused on trying to find the perpetrator and then explored the possibility that the claim was falsified, the woman was eventually confronted and confessed to staging the attack herself. Her reported motive for doing so was because she was unhappy with her appearance.
There are a number of possible motives for making a false claim of being a crime victim. The most common is to conceal another crime such as a homicide, theft, or infidelity. However, when the "victim" receives psychological gain as a result of reporting the crime, it falls into the category of an attention-motivated crime.
While all reported crimes must be initially approached as legitimate, many false reports are considered suspicious at the start. Perhaps something does not make sense within the victim's account, or physical evidence does not support the description of the crime. In the previously mentioned case, for example, it was considered suspicious that there were chemical burns only on the woman's face, and none on her clothing. In addition, the woman's eyes were supposedly protected by sunglasses which were miraculously purchases shortly before the attack, even though the woman was not in the habit of wearing sunglasses.
In these investigations it can be very beneficial to have the victim initially write out a detailed account of everything that happened to them relative to the crime. This written statement can be initially analyzed to assess the person's credibility and identify investigative leads. If the crime appears to have been falsely reported, the statement can be used as a powerful visual prop during an interrogation to point out inconsistencies in the suspect's statements over time, or with respect to physical evidence that does not support the claim.
It is common for these alleged victims to stage aspects of the offense such as ripping their own clothing, cutting, scratching or burning themselves. The staging of the crime is often the red flag that casts doubt on the veracity of the report. As an example, crisscross scratch marks are an indication that the scratches were self-inflicted. Oftentimes, a person inflicting their own injuries may initially scratch themselves and, because it takes a while for scratches to be visible, they do not see any immediate evidence of the scratch so they re-scratch themselve. The second set of scratch marks may be at a slightly different angle causing the tell-tale cross marks. There are unique forensic phenomenon with many self-inflicted injuries and all injuries should be photographed and examined from both the perspective of identifying the perpetrator and the possibility that the injury was staged.
Individuals who falsely report crimes for attention often are going through a stressful period in their life. Perhaps they experienced an emotional breakup of a relationship, are doing poorly in school, were recently diagnosed with a medical illness, had a parent die or have an upcoming stressful event such as a wedding, surgery or court trial. The prevalence of an emotional precipitator has such a high correlation in these cases that the investigator should always pursue the victim's personal life during the investigation. In the Vancouver case, one wonders if this woman experienced some form of rejection or insult, perhaps based on her appearance, that precipitated the false report.
The reason these false reports are considered as attention-motivated is that the "victim" experiences a strong need for comfort, support or pity from others. Indeed, after making the report, many of these "victims" do feel better for a short period of time and relish their notoriety by welcoming friends and relatives and openly speaking with the media. Eventually, however, the psychological gain wears off and the individual simply wants to go on with their life. They become less cooperative with the police, start shying away from further publicity (e.g., cancelling the Oprah Winfrey appearance) and become disinterested in catching the perpetrator. This gradual apathy toward the investigation is another indication of a false report.
The Interview / Interrogation
Once a report is considered suspicious, the victim should be approached in an effort to set up an interview. A reasonable pretense for the interview is that further clarification is required to assist the investigation. The interview should be conducted in a private setting away from family members or other individuals who may increase the subject's embarrassment or shame. The structured format of the Behavior Analysis Interview is ideal to gain further investigative information from the subject as well as behavioral information that will be instrumental in making a determination of the subject's credibility.
During the interview it is not recommended that the investigator directly address inconsistencies or suspicious circumstantial evidence that casts doubt on the claim. Rather, the interview should focus on eliciting the subject's descriptions and explanations surrounding the alleged crime. Regardless of the subject's apparent deception, the investigator should maintain an objective, non-accusatory tone. If the results of the interview continue to support the likelihood that the claim was falsified, the investigator should conduct an interrogation.
The confrontation at the outset of the interrogation should directly accuse the suspect of making up the story. To use a softer statement such as, "Our investigation indicates that you have not been completely truthful with us about what happened" allows the suspect to make small corrections in the original account but, because the accusation is ambiguous, it is unlikely that the suspect will ultimately acknowledge that the account was falsified. To learn the truth from these individuals requires that the investigator express high confidence in the fact that the story was made up.
Individuals who fabricate crimes for attention are certainly aware of the underlying factors that precipitated the false report and the investigator should introduce a theme that addresses the stresses the suspect has experienced and attribute the false report on the need for attention. Other themes to consider include (1) the report was the result of being over questioned by authorities; (2) the report was initially the result of affected judgment (alcohol, drugs, medications); (3) the report started as a joke or prank and got out of control.
There are a number of possible alternative questions to consider during these interrogations. The investigator could ask, "Did you make this up simply for attention, or are you vindictive and planned to put an innocent person in jail?" or, "Did you wake up that morning planning to make up this wild account, or did it happen in small parts, where the more questions they asked the more you had to add to your story?" As a final consideration,"Did this thing start because you told a little white lie when you were drinking and you didn't know how to fix it so you kept adding to your original story or, do you get your kicks out of manipulating other people and you feel powerful and important because you were able to get four police departments involved in this investigation?"
If the suspect acknowledges that the story was made up, the investigator must corroborate the suspect's confession. Falsified claim investigations are unique in that there is no dependent corroboration (information concealed from the suspect). Consequently, the investigator must develop independent corroboration of the suspect's offense. This is information not known until the confession which is then independently verified as true.
For example, a number of years ago a college student claimed that she was abducted from her apartment and held captive in a nearby swamp. Her hands were bound with duct tape and there was a bottle of cough syrup next to her body, which the student claimed she was forced to drink. After the police became suspicious of her story they brought her in for an interview, which led to an interrogation. When obtaining the confession the investigator did a very good job at developing independent corroboration of the woman's guilt. The investigator asked the woman where she obtained the duct tape and bottle of cough syrup used to stage the abduction. She stated that she purchased them with her credit card that morning at a neighborhood store near her apartment. The investigator then went to that store and was able to recover the credit card receipt, which confirmed the purchases of the duct tape and cough syrup.
In conclusion, there are a number of possible motives for a person to falsely claim to be a victim of a crime. If the victim received psychological gain from reporting the crime, it is considered to be attention-motivated. Once physical or circumstantial evidence suggests that a crime was possibly falsified, the victim should be scheduled for a structured interview during which behavior symptoms of truth or deception should be actively elicited. If the interview results support probable deception, the victim should be interrogated in an effort to learn the truth behind the falsified claim. Finally, the investigator should corroborate the victim's confession by learning something about the false report that was not previously known, and verifying it.