Blackmail, death threats, stalking: How voice profilers work

Extortionate letters made from scraps of newspaper are a myth, experts say.

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When you think of ransom letters, you often have the image of cut-out newspaper snippets in mind. But in reality, this type of writing has almost never existed. These handicrafts are an invention of television – the speech profiler team at the Institute for Forensic Text Analysis knows that. Anonymous letters in the form of e-mails, text messages or letters end up on their table. Because at least since the invention of the typewriter, it is easier than ever to write threatening letters anonymously.

With sophisticated methods and a lot of experience, the team of experts led by Leo Martin and Patrick Rottler succeeds in narrowing down the author’s profile based on his language, finding out personality traits and finally convicting him. The two are always there when someone is attacked, threatened or blackmailed anonymously. For example, they helped a law firm convict a hacker and investigated the case of the anonymous allegations against the Mainz city council shortly before the 2019 mayoral election.

Clients are companies, security authorities and private individuals

“Our clients are predominantly companies. We are often confronted with false claims that are supposed to bring the company or individual employees into disrepute or to publish company secrets anonymously, ”explains Leo Martin, who studied forensic science and worked for the German domestic secret service for ten years. Occasionally one receives inquiries from security authorities or from private persons, for example when it comes to extreme stalking cases or forged wills. But Martin and Rottler also deal regularly with death threats. Your crime scene is always the text, the language the weapon. The only indications are the choice of words, expression and linguistic form.

It doesn’t sound like much to convict a criminal at first, but it is a helpful tool for professionals. Because a trained eye recognizes that the way we express ourselves in writing acts like a fingerprint. Everyone reveals more about their language than they know – and provides language profilers with important information about their own personality. “Language always contains traces of the past. And we can trace them back, ”explains Leo Martin.

“Our experts analyze how the anonymous perpetrator deals with language. Every text is broken down into its smallest units. It starts with the simple choice of words, continues through the grammar of main and subordinate clauses, and goes deep into language psychology, ”adds Patrick Rottler, responsible for cybercrime and data analysis. For example, if the perpetrator uses a lot of filler words, this indicates uncertainty. The expression also reveals a lot about the level of education. Accumulations of “I / me / mine” reveal something about the perpetrator’s perspective. Sometimes dialects and colloquial language can also be recognized that reveal its origin.

Details and striking patterns provide clues

An example: You go to the butcher from Munich via Stuttgart up to Cologne. From Erfurt to Rostock to the butcher, from Hanover to via Hamburg to the butcher. Everyone uses these terms according to their habits and does not think about every single word. Language profilers can also use certain grammatical constructions to identify the region from which a writer comes.

Based on the findings of the analyzes, which are usually very time-consuming, the language profilers create a profile of the perpetrator, which helps the investigation. If possible, they also use the method of text comparison. This means that the perpetrator’s text is compared with various writing samples from suspicious people. If there are many inconsistencies in the use of language, the perpetrator has been convicted.

This knowledge of language can also be transferred to private or professional communication. It is true that science disagrees as to the extent to which it is actually possible to recognize deceptions and lies in texts. However, there are a few pitfalls.

For example, anyone who receives e-mails from a friend who normally communicates briefly and succinctly, but suddenly provides more information than necessary, could be an indication that something is wrong. The language profilers call this “overinformation.” Or someone who changes from the personal “you” or “we” to an impersonal “you” might have something to hide or want to distance himself from something and therefore express himself vaguely. Another indication are rhetorical softeners such as “actually”, “possibly” or “a little”. In these cases it is important to be critical.

But those who are well versed in language can also communicate better and convince. Leo Martin, for example, has learned to hold conversations in such a way that problems can be solved and no new ones arise. And Patrick Rottler uses his knowledge to convince. This can be achieved, for example, by paying particular attention to the wording and key words of the other person. If he uses some of them regularly, they seem to mean something to him.

If you accept this, trust can be created. “So when our client schedules a call, I also speak of a call. Not from a conference call, not from a telco, not from a briefing. When he speaks of a case, I am also speaking of a case, not a case or an order. So he always feels well understood. “

However, according to Leo Martin, there is no such thing as an occupational disease, precisely analyzing every text message from friends and relatives. Nobody is under general suspicion with him. Despite the abysses, he and his team have not lost faith in the good in people, says Martin. “Profiling is not like a curse that haunts you so that you cannot switch off at night – it is an ability that you consciously switch on when you need it”.


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