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The Military-Grade Interrogators Stores Use to Discourage Employee Theft

It's rarely just a "friendly conversation."

Jeffrey Lee was fired from J.Crew almost exactly three months ago. He had been working as a sales associate at the retailer for about four years—off and on, because of school—and had just received a raise at his yearly review a month earlier. On May 26th, he had less than two hours left on his shift when the regional manager asked him to go to the back office. He complied, figuring that he was going to have to sign some papers.


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Inside the office, two people were waiting for him: Linda Toomey, a regional HR manager, and Vince Briguglio, a regional loss prevention manager for J.Crew. Lee had never met either of them before. Thirty minutes later, after being submitted to a police-grade interrogation that left him, as he put it, "mindfucked," he was fired for excessively using his employee discount on items for his family. The techniques Lee was subjected to were not at all unusual.

Briguglio has been employed as a regional loss prevention manager for J.Crew for almost a decade. Before that, he held the same position at L Brands (Victoria's Secret's parent company). In September 2005, he was named a Certified Forensic Investigator (CFI) by the International Association of Interviewers, which is supported by Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates, a consulting company formed to help teach interrogation tactics to loss prevention employees at many large American retailers, as well as law enforcement agencies and military units.

The company also offers intensive training seminars like the annual "Elite Training Day," or the more extensive annual cruise called "The Lie Boat." Next year, they're going to Bermuda.

Certified Forensic Investigators are self-described as an "exclusive fraternity" of interviewers that are considered to be the best of the best in the field of interrogation tactics. Wicklander-Zulawski acts as a support system for the community, uploading tons of training and teaching materials to help loss prevention professionals hone their craft through vast resources of blogs, newsletters, and video training sessions. The company also offers intensive training seminars like the annual "Elite Training Day," or the more extensive annual cruise called "The Lie Boat." Next year, they're going to Bermuda.

Joe Tyrrell, a district loss prevention investigator at T.J. Maxx, detailed how he prepared for a typical retail employee interrogation in a guest blog post for the International Association for Interviewers. The night before, he made sure to get two more hours of sleep than normal. He had a breakfast of Cheerios, fruit, yogurt, toast, and orange juice. He even listed which snacks he brought with him to the store, for "the extra bit of energy to keep countering denials and dealing with what was clearly the more savvy interviewee."

Once he got to the store, he came in contact with the employee who he was about to interrogate while they were still out on the sales floor. "As the employee looked me square in the eye and greeted me as we passed each other, I saw that the employee looked so exhausted and defeated that I couldn’t imagine the effort it took for them to roll out of bed that morning," Tyrrell wrote. "I knew right then and there my preparation was going to help me be successful in this interview... and it sure paid off."

He even listed which snacks he brought with him to the store, for "the extra bit of energy to keep countering denials and dealing with what was clearly the more savvy interviewee."

Wayne Hoover, a senior partner at Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates, makes frequent appearances in IAI's weekly training videos. In one video, he describes how he approaches dressing for interrogations to add another layer of authority to the interaction. "We’ll actually have extra sets of clothes so that when someone shows up to be interviewed, the front office personnel will tell us what the individual is wearing so we can change to dress that one level above," Hoover explains.

Briguglio himself has made several appearances in the quarterly CFI newsletter, where investigators discuss things like the correlation between investigating retail employees for theft and interrogating murder suspects. In a 2010 newsletter, Briguglio wrote an article titled "Gen-Y Nonverbal Clues" in which he noted how his department has started tracking employees on social media to develop potential internal theft cases. In that same issue, under the recommended reading section, there's a link to an article found on PoliceTraining.net called "The Use of Trickery & Deceit During Interrogation." It gives tips on how to successfully lie to a suspect about false evidence in order to prompt a confession.

In the initial phases of the interview, interrogators are taught to establish common ground with the suspect employee. In Lee's case, Briguglio insinuated that he was going to help J.Crew in its loss prevention efforts. "At first it was very innocent," Lee explains. "I thought I was going to be helping the company because I had been working there for about four years, and I’ve seen a lot."

"At first it was very innocent," Lee explains. "I thought I was going to be helping the company because I had been working there for about four years, and I’ve seen a lot."

Slowly, the conversation narrows in on the suspect's actions. Briguglio told Lee that he had interrogated everyone in the store about stealing, which Lee later found to be false. To Lee's knowledge, only two other people were interrogated and all were minorities—Lee is Asian and the two other J.Crew associates brought in for questioning were African-American and Hispanic men. Then, Briguglio started to dig for information on when Lee specifically caused the company to lose money.

"The first thing that came to mind was like a time when I accidently rung up the wrong promotion for a customer," Lee says. "I was like, "Yeah, I didn’t realize until after the fact that they left, and I felt bad about it.’ And I could tell from his face that that wasn’t what he wanted to hear."

At this point, interrogators can bring out an arsenal of rationalizations, which are essentially a list of possible reasons why someone would steal from their workplace. IAI members have access to an entire "Rationalization Matrix" that sorts out 82 different scenarios that could be used as reasons to steal, from gang initiation to having "a big taste on a beer budget."

When Briguglio reaches this point with Lee, he started suggesting scenarios for how Lee may have stolen from J.Crew. "He was like, Oh, I’ll give you an example, like have you ever taken an item out of the store accidently?" Lee says. "I was like, 'No."

The "Rationalization Matrix" sorts out 82 different scenarios that could be used as reasons to steal, from gang initiation to having "a big taste on a beer budget."

"Have you ever snuck in an item into your friend’s shopping bag when you were checking them out?"

"No."

"Have you ever given them a bigger discount when you were checking them out?"

"No."

"Have you ever not had a tie for dress code and taken a tie off the table, and you didn’t give it back?"

"Have you ever not had a tie for dress code and taken a tie off the table, and you didn’t give it back?"

"No."

The questions kept coming, and Lee kept answering no, repeatedly. Briguglio said that he had video footage of Lee stealing, which Lee denied. Eventually, Briguglio prodded Lee to confess to excessive use of his employee discount on his cousin and his brother. (J.Crew mandates that employees can only use the discount with their own money, either to buy items for themselves or for items designated as gifts for family members.) Briguglio asked Lee to estimate how much he had bought for his cousin and brother using the employee discount. Lee guessed at between $500 to $1,000 over the course of his employment.

At that point, Briguglio began to hammer it home. "He goes, 'Okay, so you understand that you just committed theft from J.Crew by purchasing these items for your family?'" Lee tells Racked. "Even though I didn’t believe it was wrong, he made it seem as if I did so I agreed. I said, 'Yeah, I definitely did do something wrong.'"

In an article titled "7 Danger Signs of a False Confession," Angela Nino, a seminar instructor with Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates, says that she watches out for interrogators who believe false confessions are impossible, who brag about a "100% confession rate," or who use the threat of false evidence in their interrogations. "A false confession is my greatest concern as an interviewer," Nino writes. "I can’t think of anything more devastating than ruining someone’s life."

"A false confession is my greatest concern as an interviewer," Nino writes. "I can’t think of anything more devastating than ruining someone’s life."

In a video posted last February detailing the strategies that suspects employ during an interrogation, Hoover explained that a dishonest person may "deny quickly and often, staking themselves to a position and then defending that no matter what." One month later, in another video in the same series, Nino classifies the same behavior as indicitive of a truthful denial. "Typically, truthful subject denials are direct and spontaneous," Nino says. "Usually, these types of denials increase in frequency and intensity."

All of these tactics fall under what Wicklander-Zulawaski calls non-confrontational interview techniques. The direct accusation method—walking into an interrogation room and accusing the suspect of wrongdoing right off the bat, is more prevalent in law enforcement, according to Dave Thompson, a CFI who works as a consultant and speaker for Wicklander-Zulawaski. Briguglio hasn't been an active CFI member since 2012, which Thompson notes is part of the problem that skews the company's image. "It's these people that have gone through some type of training class years ago and then they come up with their own product down the road," Thompson tells Racked. "When they stick to the training and the method, it works."

Thompson says that typically, the interrogation horror stories come from people who aren't properly trained. "A local retailer up here in Chicago, they had an employee that they suspected of stealing and nobody in the company had gone through any training," Thompson tells Racked. "They ended up putting the employee in a cardboard box, almost like torture, until the employee would admit to theft. It's crazy."

Not surprisingly, the methods employed by loss prevention employees have prompted more than a few lawsuits. The New York Times reported last year on at least 10 different lawsuits filed against AutoZone by employees that were allegedly forced into false confessions. In one instance, former employee Chris Polston was fired for not paying for candy and a soda on his lunch break, an admission that was wrangled out after two hours of interrogation. Polston sued AutoZone and his interrogator, Conrad Costillo, over the incident, but ultimately lost in the trial.

Another former retail employee, who spoke with Racked on the condition of anonymity, said that she underwent a similar interrogation as a teenager working at a local branch of a national retailer. The employee admitted to letting a manager buy clothes while it was just the two of them in the store (as per company policy, another manager should be present when employee transactions are taking place).

"They were screaming at me in the back room... I had never done anything wrong and always made my goals. It was really dehumanizing."

"[The interrogation] put me in tears because it was so intense," the employee says, who was 16 at the time. "They were screaming at me in the back room. Meanwhile, I was one of the best employees at that store. I had never done anything wrong and always made my goals. It was really dehumanizing. It definitely gave the feeling that they were trying to find someone to point fingers at because they had so much trouble dealing with loss prevention issues." She wasn't fired that day, but she quit the job within the following six months.

"I was contemplating going back and really asking like, What just happened?" Lee says, remembering how he stood near the exit of the mall on the day he was fired, trying to process what had just happened. "My head was running with all these thoughts. I didn’t even know what to think. Should I go back? What am I gonna do? I can't believe this happened to me."

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