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.


  1. Jessica, I was watching National Geographic’s Great Migrations (On Demand) last night and thought of you as they shared the amazing story of the Monarch Butterflies. Absolutely miraculous! And what a shame after conquering all the other odds against their survival they were to fall victim to human predators.

  2. Jessica,
    I must admit to a weak stomach for a couple of your last posts. That being said, I really enjoyed your post today about what agents who go under cover have to do. I never in my wildest dreams thought F & W guys ever went to that extreme -but I’m glad they do. Holy crap, how can a person live their life like that? It’s impressive, but wow, there has to be a major cost.

  3. Wow, now wonder why the criminals are doing so well. It must take a superhuman effort to catch criminals. It must take months of data collecting before a case can be built. The way things are going, what are the chances that higher-level criminals are caught? Is it getting easier for the criminals to survive? I mean, it is obvious that criminals do not work alone. They need a network of contacts to buy/sell/get information, etc. These people do not require training, only experience. The more experience a criminal has, the more successful the criminal is. The unseccessful are caught. They are easliy replaced by the next wannabe. Talk about a wildlife food chain. On the other hand, agents must train and train for long periods of time. This has to be frustrating, especially if a criminal case fails in court. Also, it must be cost inefficient for the government. The stress must be unbearable the closer an agent gets to the bust. Imagine getting close to an arrest after months of undercover work only to miss out on the prime candidate! To me the real problem is that it takes more than one agent to take down one criminal, and that is not efficient. If it is not effiecient, the the odds favor the bad guys. It is not a pretty picture.


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