How to Be a Successful Undercover Agent

A successful undercover agent must be confident, able to remain calm and have the ability to develop strong relationships with their targets. They also need to be adept at disguising themselves.


To initiate a Group II undercover operation, an SAC must delegate that authority to designated Assistant Special Agents in Charge. This delegation must be in writing.

How they work

Undercover police officers infiltrate criminal organizations to gather evidence about their activities and sometimes participate in their arrest. This kind of work can be very dangerous, and undercover agents must often be prepared to face dangers such as physical injury or death. The risk is especially high for those tasked with dealing in illegal drugs or engaging in narcotics-related financial activity.

Many of these operations require sophisticated undercover work, such as establishing storefront money laundering operations or observing suspected organized crime figures handling illicit proceeds of crime. These operations can be extremely expensive and take a long time to produce convictions. Undercover officers in these types of investigations must also be able to resist temptation and not accept bribes or other rewards. They must be able to tolerate the tumultuous morale in the criminal organization, and they should not develop sympathies for or become co-opted by targets (Albanese, 1996:181).

In other cases, investigators may enlist an undercover officer to infiltrate their target, but will only allow him or her to make limited contacts with the suspect. For example, a narcotics investigator might ask an undercover officer to perform weekly “home visit buys” of drugs from the dealer. These buys can quickly grow in scope as the undercover officer tries to impress the dealer by making larger and more frequent purchases.

What they wear

While officers in uniform may wear a specific outfit, undercover agents are expected to blend in with the people they meet. That means a lot of time and effort goes into the costume, hair, and makeup to make sure they can play their role convincingly.

Depending on their assignment, undercover officers might wear the uniform of the group they’re impersonating or something more casual. They also use a variety of accessories to help them blend in, including hats, sunglasses, and jewelry. They might even use a fake accent to sound like the people they’re working with.

For example, if an undercover agent is infiltrating a gang, they might grow long hair and a beard to look more authentic. However, if they’re impersonating a drug dealer, they might just use more of the standard vice squad wardrobe.

If you’re unsure whether someone is an undercover officer, keep an eye out for any clues. They might have a large, bulky jacket or cargo pants with lots of pockets. The clothing might be brand-new and the labels might read Mossimo, Merona, or And1.

You should also look for a badge hidden somewhere on their person. If they’re carrying a gun, they might hide it in their cargo pants or jacket, and they might wear a holster under their shirt. They might also have a pager and pager codes or predetermined signals that are used to communicate with the rest of their cover team.

What they do

Working undercover is a dangerous and risky job. Agents leave behind the normal protections of their badge and often go into dangerous, illegal organizations or subcultures without any way to easily communicate with or call for backup. The glamour of undercover work is part of the reason why stories about it appeal to us — it’s an opportunity to imagine what we would do if we were given full permission, and official blessing, to totally reinvent ourselves.

For example, the famous “Donnie Brasco” infiltration of the Bonanno crime family in New York resulted in more than 100 convictions and was the first time that the FBI used undercover agents to infiltrate organized crime. Similarly, undercover agents in NYPD narcotics units conduct undercover buy-and-bust operations to build a case against drug traffickers. In such cases, the undercover officer may be required to use drugs and assume a false identity for a longer period of time. These extended undercover assignments can cause problems, including morale issues in the target group and concerns that other members of the mob might recognize the undercover officers (Jacobs and Gouldin, 1999:165).

Surveyed Coordinators cited several issues concerning undercover work, including an over-reliance on agents and a failure to provide adequate training for such investigations. They also reported a need for increased coordination with Division Counsel and the Undercover Guidelines Unit. In addition, they said informal reviews of undercover cases in the field are needed.

How they are chosen

A successful undercover investigation requires more than a badge and a uniform. It’s a dangerous job where officers risk their lives to infiltrate a criminal organization or subculture. It’s not uncommon for undercover agents to become a part of the group they are investigating, dressing and acting the part. This is known as working deep cover and can last weeks, months, or years. The more immersed they are in the culture, the greater the risks.

To minimize the risk of injury to UC operators, all undercover operations are reviewed by FBI Headquarters on a continuous basis. On-site reviews provide a mechanism for reviewing the conduct of the undercover operation, which in turn can assist in identifying and correcting violations of the Undercover Guidelines.

The Undercover Review Committee, consisting of a designated FBI employee and attorneys from the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division, is responsible for reviewing undercover operations and ensuring that they comply with the guidelines. The committee also determines whether an undercover operation should be terminated, extended, or renewed and provides a written record of its recommendation to the approving officer. The records and summary are made available to the Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division.