I love to live vicariously. Writing about special agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows me to do that. It’s not as if I don’t do enough exciting things in my own life. But, let’s face it. What are the chances that I’ll ever get to drive an undercover vehicle, have a secret bank account and credit cards under an assumed name? Okay, it’s possible—although I’d probably wind up in jail.
So, what does it take to be an undercover agent? Turns out there are a definite set of rules.
1. You have to like people and people have to like you. Yep, it helps to have a good set of social skills.
2. An ironclad memory also comes in handy. You don’t want your target to ask you the same question over the course of a few weeks only to respond with totally different answers. The jig is up if there’s any hint that something isn’t quite kosher.
3. Become the person you’re portraying. Learn everything you can about your role and, for God’s sake, remember the details! Agents have juggled as many as ten different identities over the course of their career and never gotten them mixed up or confused. If you’re playing a realtor, you’d better know about real estate. One FWS agent posed as an installer repairman with the phone company for a simple reason—his friend worked for Pacific Bell. He was able to get a company jacket and key chains embellished with Pacific Bell’s logo. Hey, it helps.
4. Figure your opponent’s no dummy. In fact, assume they’re probably going to try to find out who you really are. That way you’ll stay on your toes and won’t make mistakes. Just hearing agents tell their stories makes me want to swig a case of Mylanta. A former agent set up a retail reptile business as his cover in time for one of his targets to unexpectedly show up and check the place out. “The first thing he did was open a file drawer and start flipping through to see who else I was dealing with. Then the guy rifled through my desk,” the agent recalled. Fortunately, he was prepared for such an event. A pager, fax and phone number were already listed under the name Silver State Exotics, as well as a framed business certificate on the wall. In addition, he’d arranged for his “business” to accept Visa and MasterCard sales. Apparently, smugglers are impressed if you accept plastic. Oh, and metal desks are a definite no-no. They’re not only viewed as tacky, but a sign that you’re with the government.
5. It pays to be paranoid. Play the “what if” game and you’ll have a better chance of success. What if an adversary wants to see my driver’s license? What if he asks to check out my cell phone? Good thinking. That’s why agents keep wallets complete with a license, registration, AAA and credit cards in their undercover names. Some agents go so far as to use their alias even when it comes to filling prescriptions.
6. Learn everything you can about your target before the first meeting. That way you’ll know what buttons to push. Yes, doing your homework actually does pay off.
7. Finally, have plenty of patience. Remember, you’re working on bad guy time. You want your opponent to trust you, right? That may take 12, 24 or even 48 months. These guys are good at what they do. Otherwise, they’d have already been caught.
Working undercover is a lot like playing chess. It doesn’t allow for mistakes. One wrong move and the game is over.