Going undercover, and threat levels
Threat levels when going undercover are directly related to three variables:
Purpose, type of contact, and time.
Purpose has to do with what you, the undercover person, are going to do with the information you obtain. Is this information going to be used to put an organized crime figure in jail (high threat), used for competitive intelligence, or just a pretext to get someone’s address for service of process (low threat)? The threat level behind the purpose is what will happen to you if you are uncovered.
Type of contact is the method in which you contact the person you are going undercover to meet. A high threat level would be meeting in a private room, one-on-one, in a city or country away from home. A low threat level would be meeting a person in a busy restaurant for a meal, or over the telephone. Time is a threat factor because the longer you are in contact with the target, whether this is in public, in person, or over the telephone, the greater your chance of being uncovered.
Basic preparation for the undercover work requires that you become the person you intend to be. Some people can take on different roles as easily as others change a hat. Most of us, however, are bad at assuming roles. Experience has taught that people with a good stage presence and acting ability are good at undercover work — who woulda figured?
People who are detailed oriented are usually bad at undercover work. At a recent undercover operation this editor practiced my new name for hours: Dan Stouts, Dan Stouts, Dan Stouts. And when a smiling face said “Good morning my name is Nancy,” I responded “Hi, my name is Bob”. She looked at me very puzzled and said “What?” I quickly responded “My full name is Robert Daniel Stouts. Dan to my friends, usually Bob for meetings.” Her response was “Oh! OK.” The rest of the operation went fine and we got the information we needed. My partner even said “Good recovery, I only had time for one “Oh s@#$” under my breath before you recovered.” This was not a high-threat operation it was a medium- to low-threat encounter. If it had been a high-threat encounter….Well, now you know why I don’t do much undercover work.
For low-threat work we have memorized a set of telephone undercover aliases (pretexts) that we have been practicing for years. We have been working these aliases without any slip ups or problems. When we take these aliases “to the street” it is only for short encounters, and we have complete wallet setups with ID’s and business cards, etc.
For higher threat levels, significantly increased practice and preparation is a must if you want to survive the experience.