Developing a cover story

When trying to obtain information from companies using undercover methods, the nature of the cover story must be decided on a case-by-case basis, depending (among other things) upon the nature of the company and what key pieces of information are being sought. The most obvious would be to pose as a prospective buyer, but another option might be to pose as an academic researcher. The clear advantage of the former is that companies are more likely to give up their time if they sense a potential sale. The disadvantage is that it is easy to be caught out – more likely as a timewaster, than as an investigator – if the details and language of the trade are not right. By contrast, companies (particularly the least legitimate) may be unlikely to give up their time to a researcher. But if they do so, there is no need to pretend to be knowledgeable about the trade. Obvious, even direct, questions can be asked, even about legality and corruption. It is also less likely that the interviewee will exaggerate or lie, in the way they might in an attempt to impress a prospective buyer.

Once the appropriate cover story is decided, the investigators should carry out research to ensure they can back it up. If they are posing as buyers, for example, they will need to have a close understanding of the type of products customers might buy, and the questions they may reasonably ask without arousing suspicion. Often an investigator posing as a buyer will be seeking information not normally requested – such as details of the origin of wood used in a product (including copies of paperwork), or identities of other customers – for which particular false justifications need to be developed as part of the cover story.

They may also need to flesh-out their front identity so they can explain who they are to the companies they are approaching. This may include obtaining an email address specific to the purpose and potentially even establishing a fake company website. Depending on how the target was actually identified, investigators may also need to have a cover story ready for how they came to know of the company and obtained the contact details used.