How Undercover Agents Operate

Undercover agents must be able to work effectively as part of a team. They must communicate regularly with their supervisors, keeping them aware of any developments that could put the operation in jeopardy.


Infiltrating criminal groups can be difficult and stressful. Agents often identify with the people they’re spying on, and some who have worked undercover against organized crime end up suffering severe psychological problems.

The Greylord Case

In some cases, criminal justice officials may find themselves in the midst of a thorny ethical dilemma. For example, when an FBI agent poses as a corrupt lawyer and presents made-up cases in court, the agent is engaging in perjury. However, if this activity serves to expose corrupt judges and lawyers, it is a necessary part of the investigation.

In such cases, a judge should ensure that the judicial system is not being “sold” to the highest bidder. In the case of Greylord, investigators enticed judges, lawyers and clerks to accept campaign contributions in exchange for favoring one defendant over another. Several of these public officials ended up being prosecuted.

Although the FBI has a long history of using undercover agents to gain intelligence on mobs, this is generally done on an intermittent basis. Undercover agents often work for lengthy periods of time and can face a number of hazards, including the danger of discovery by criminals and other law enforcement officials.

Additionally, the use of undercover agents to infiltrate groups perceived as subversive has led to a number of complaints. Civil rights, religious and community organizations have all been the targets of domestic counterintelligence operations. These activities have been criticized for their intrusiveness and lack of transparency. The risks of undercover operations must be carefully weighed against their benefits and costs to officers and affected third parties.

Truck Hijackings

Aside from drug deals, there are few other crimes that have more of an impact on trucking than hijackings. In fact, according to Empire Security Solutions, a company that provides security for truck drivers, hijackings are becoming increasingly commonplace on the country’s highways. The gangs that carry out the attacks typically work in small groups of four to six men. One of the most common tactics is for one member of the gang to impersonate police or emergency services and pull the truck over on spurious grounds. The other members then steal the cargo while the truck driver is distracted.

Another popular method involves thieves climbing aboard a moving truck and throwing the goods overboard to be picked up by a confederate driving a car following behind. This kind of theft is relatively easy to carry out, and while each loss may be less than the loss of a full load, it can add up to substantial losses over time.

Some undercover officers will even go as far as to form romantic relationships with women they are investigating to help them get closer to the criminals they’re attempting to catch. However, such moves have become controversial given that the women involved often find themselves in direct danger. The most controversial of these cases involves an officer who dated an animal rights activist as part of his cover story and ended up having a child with her.

Drug Busts

Cops use a number of tactics to bust drug traffickers, but undercover work is one of the most effective. It allows them to infiltrate organizations and gather evidence against everyone involved, not just low-level dealers. In many cases, undercover officers will even get their hands dirty by using drugs themselves or selling them to customers – a controversial practice known as participation entrapment. Other methods include body wires that secretly record conversations or bugging vehicles and stash houses to monitor activity.

A successful drug bust requires a lot of coordination between state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as federal agents working with foreign agencies to track money laundering. Then there are the sting operations, where undercover officers will pose as buyers or sellers to bust suspects.

Often, these stings result in huge seizures that catch drug dealers with enough cash to blow their operation. But the dollar amounts police cite in these headlines are based on questionable calculations that blur the difference between wholesale and retail prices. Criminologist Peter Reuter of RAND writes that the street value figure “obscures what happens to illicit drugs after they leave the dealer’s control.” The numbers also fail to account for how much time and risk goes into a sting, or how it may negatively impact third parties. For example, a police officer who facilitates an entrapment scheme might face allegations of assault or robbery after the case is over.

Organized Crime

Undercover agents are employed in investigations of organized crime. These syndicates victimize businesses with extortion schemes, hijacking cargo trucks or ships, or stealing goods for resale. They also steal money or inventory through embezzlement, bankruptcy fraud, stock fraud (“pump and dump” scams), or by robbing banks. They can also rob homes or businesses and smuggle or manufacture illegal products such as drugs, guns and other weapons, jewelry, gems and precious metals.

The traditional Mob may be on life support, but organized crime still thrives worldwide. The criminal activities of contemporary crime syndicates often cross geographic and even digital boundaries. They smuggle endangered species, traffic in illegal drugs, and run multi-billion dollar money laundering and cyber-scams.

Many undercover officers work undercover for a long time, infiltrating and spying on organized crime groups. These long-term operations can be very difficult to manage, both in terms of maintaining the cover and reintegrating back into normal police duties. The long-term lifestyle embraced by undercover agents can lead to problems such as discipline issues, neurotic responses or an inability to adjust to normal law enforcement roles (Beare, 1996:180). It is not easy to objectively evaluate the effectiveness of undercover work against its cost, in terms of time invested, risks to officers and financial costs to the agency, as well as on affected third parties.