Baltar: ...So, uh, tell me, are you from Aerilon? Slight trace of an accent there... Boomer: What? Uh, no — Troy. Baltar: Troy... tell me, why is that familiar? Boomer: The mining settlement? The accident. Baltar: The explosion, right. That was tragic. Your family, uh... Boomer: They died with the rest.
Designing a good cover story is one of the most difficult and crucial parts of going undercover for The Mole. Lack of research into the details and customs of the identity they're assuming can be a dead giveaway in casual dealings, and even the best falsified documents backed up with hacked databases and bribed records keepers can eventually be cracked with enough research and cross referencing. What a lot of moles end up doing is sacrificing authenticity for security by creating a conveniently unverifiable cover story. This cover story creates or assumes an identity whose background can't be verified or disproved, by claiming to come from a place or period with no personal records or witnesses. Commonly, it's a burned downorphanage, though being the "lone survivor" of an accident, or coming from a place that suffered a natural disaster or been in a civil war are also common. Potentially non-tragic unverifiable cover stories are coming from communities that shun modern things like hospitals and birth certificates, or where the hall of records has been destroyed.
The catch of course is that they also can't positively prove they are who they say they are. Usually the mole will play patriotic and use the benefit of the doubt, or "innocent until proven guilty" to get their mission accomplished. One especially evil twist is for the mole to claim to come from a village his Big Bad boss personally razed explicitly to create this cover, and uses it to earn the sympathy and acceptance of the heroes by claiming to want revenge. It helps if the heroes are Genre Blind characters or horrible judges of character.
A determined investigator will usually try to find someone who can prove if the mole is who they say they are. Like a family member, another survivor, records, or the corpse of the person they're impersonating. The odds of finding these records vary, but usually come just too late. This trope may be paired with Laser-Guided Amnesia, Fake Memories, and an implanted Split Personality to create a persona wholesale to sell the role, though these tactics have a high risk of agent meltdown and conversion.
When this trope fails, you may have a I Am One of Those Too situation on your hands.
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Durarara!!: Kazutano, an illegal immigrant living in Japan, once claimed his birth certificate was burned during the World War II firebombings. He's too young for that story to be at all credible, though.
Averted in Tenchi in Tokyo. Sakuya Kumashiro is a "shadow" created by Yugi, and inserted into Tenchi's class — all of her classmates are given Fake Memories of her being the most popular girl in school, but she herself has no memories at all of any period before she met Tenchi. However, she doesn't realize this until Tenchi starts inquiring into her background late in the series.
In The World God Only Knows, Elsie uses her supposed status as illegitimate daughter of Keima's father to convince his mother to let her live with them. Since his father is pretty much never home, there was no way to really confirm the story, though the fact that he couldn't prove it false outright does raise some interesting questions.
In Sentou Yousei Yukikaze, the JAM have seeded the Faery Air Force copies of FAF personnel, most of whom were pilots who were shot down and ejected, and thus spent several hours out of contact until they were picked up by SAR crews.
In Attack on Titan, having a Doomed Hometown is quite common and many became refugees due to Titan attacks. Reiner and Bertolt claim to be from an isolated mountain village. Their story is only exposed as a lie when The Mole is uncovered and a connection is discovered.
Subverted in the Symphony of the Sword subseries of Undocumented Features: Utena Tenjou and those of her friends from Cephiro who make it to Midgard are given elaborately detailed and otherwise genuine identities by Gryphon and MegaZone, who are for all practical purposes the legitimate government of Zeta Cygni.
Inverted in the Mass Effect self-insert Mass Vexations. Author Avatar Art arrives in the ME universe, and knows that nobody will believe him if he tells them he literally teleported into the Citadel from an alternate dimension where everything that Art now sees around him was part of a video game. Thus, he makes up a cover story about having taken a ton of stims before smuggling himself onto a ship headed to the Citadel to avoid suspicion. He's not actually a mole for anyone, fortunately.
Not to mention, it doesn't entirely work — he ends up making both Kaidan and Jacob suspicious of him. Neither works it out, but they don't stop suspecting him, either.
Ganondorf accidentally gives himself one in Tangled In Time. Link, who sees him as his father after being kidnapped as a infant, is trying to search for him after being separated for seven years. Link only knew Ganondorf by his alias Siegfried Dragmire so when he hears that Ganondorf has captured all the men surrounding Castle Town he assumes that his father is among the kidnapped men.
Reservoir Dogs has this with Mr Orange. The made-up cover incident in question is referred to as "the commode story".
In Salt, a Russian operative claims that Evelyn Salt was a deep cover agent who was planted in America at the age of 12. They faked a car crash to kill an American family living in Russia and replaced the daughter's corpse with their agent. Because her supposed family is dead (and her other relatives haven't seen her in years) there's no one to dispute her identity.
Total Recall (1990) has a double-example of this. Arnold's character initially infiltrated the Martian resistance, convincing them to trust him and believe that he was betraying the Big Bad. The Big Bad then captured him and erased his memory to stop him from revealing all of his secrets to the resistance. It later turns out that this was just an elaborate ruse to help him infiltrate deeper into the resistance, since they are then convinced he really had a major secret to reveal.
Lt. Archie Hicox, British spy undercover in Nazi Germany, is forced to pretend his strange accent while speaking German is because he's from a remote village. To make it seem more convincing, he and Bridget von Hammersmark, the actress he's sitting with (who's also a spy) claim he was in a movie as a child that was filmed at his village. The story works at the moment, but doesn't ward off Major Hellstrom's suspicions, finally tricking Hicox into betraying himself by making him order three glasses of whiskey (with the wrong finger gesture).
Later that same actress-spy, Bridget von Hammersmark, has to wear a leg-cast to cover up recent bullet wounds, and claims she broke her leg mountain climbing the previous day. While the excuse was plausible enough, Col. Landa had discovered an incriminating piece of evidence she had forgotten at the scene in the excitement; coupled with the horrendously bad Italian "accents" that her Basterd escorts were using as a cover, Landa is forced to excuse himself just to have a private laugh at the situation.
In Friday, the protagonist and many other "artificial persons" need cover stories. Her "birthplace" is Seattle (destroyed in an earthquake) and Friday cynically comments that the recent destruction of Acapulco in a corporate war means that a lot of artificial persons will end up being "born" there as well.
In The Rolling Stones, when her grandsons need an attorney on Mars, Hazel Stone claims to be entitled to practice law — something her family had never heard before. When had she been admitted to the bar?
Hazel: Years and years ago, back in Idaho — before you were born. I just never got around to mentioning it. Roger: Hazel, it occurs to me that the records in Idaho are conveniently far away. Hazel: None of your sass, boy. Anyway, the courthouse burned down. Roger: I thought as much.
In Lois McMaster Bujold's Brothers in Arms, Elli Quinn spots the bad guy partly because his cover identity is from a planet wrecked by a tectonic disaster. Indeed, it's implied that only amateurs use that planet for a cover identity any longer, as every professional intelligence agency in the Nexus considers 'survivor of Frost IV' an automatic red flag requiring double-checking.
In SS-GB by Len Deighton the hero finds a fake ID on a member of La Résistance. The town listed as his birthplace had its records office destroyed in the war. The hero notes that lots of fake IDs use that town.
Trent, the offspring of the sorcerer Vade in Ursula Vernon's Black Dogs purportedly escaped from an evil magic user AKA his father. In the time this character was in captivity, he/she claimed to have his/her innocence destroyed by all the cruelly calculated murder and remains inconsolably guilty for things that were not really his/her fault. This character pretty much becomes The Woobie to some of the other characters for these reasons. However, it is later revealed that this person's kind and compassionate persona is just a suppressed and memory-wiped part of his/her personality as part of his father's plan, later on it's revealed that his new, crueler personality is also a fabrication of his father, and this character's True Self is somewhere between these two extremes.
Lensman. When Kinnison infiltrates the Boskone hierarchy, the Arisians (unknown to him) adapt his cover even to the extent of correctly aging the ink on all the documents, knowing that he'll actually be up against their own evil counterparts, the Eddorians.
Star Trek: Voyager novel: it's explained that Tuvok is able to infiltrate the Maquis by making a false cover story of how his family was killed by Cardassians on a border planet. He further endears himself to them by giving up a Starfleet Intelligence operative and putting a big hole in the Hood (but not killing anyone) when all was said and done.
In The Original Series novel Time Trap, the Klingons do this repeatedly to surgically-altered agents, giving them false memories to match. Spock figures out the plot when he notices a suspicious number of people in critical positions who are from disaster areas.
One Captain Future novel featured the Captain trying to pass off as a pirate from a ship which was destroyed. There is a minor problem when he meets with a guy who really served on that ship, but he manages to convince those around him that it's because the real pirate was a gunner — and he was a mechanic, so they had no interaction.
In The Merchant Princes Series by Charles Stross, Miriam Beckstein manages to become the Widow Fletcher, returning from the New British Empire with her "deceased husband's fortune." The corrupt lawyer who affirms her identity lists her hometown as Shreveport, which was completely destroyed in the last World War. She lampshades just how weak her identity is, and how basic SEC due diligence checks would completely shred it, but nobody in New Britain bats an eye at it.
In James Bond novel Moonraker, Hugo Drax is really a Nazi officer who adopted the identity of one of the countless British servicemen missing in action in the aftermath a large battle in World War II. The identity he assumes was that of an orphan with no close friends.
In the fourth book, Jaime Lannister thinks to ask Osney Kettleblack, for the first time, who knighted him (since knighthood isn't valid unless it's conferred by a lord or another knight, and Kettleblack really doesn't seem competent enough for anyone to want to knight him), and the name that he comes up with is "Ser Robert Stone". Technically, it could be a real name, but since it's ridiculously common — 'Stone' is a bastard surname given to any illegitimate child of a nobleman anywhere in the region, and Robert is the name of the king and war hero Robert Baratheon and was a ridiculously popular baby name in the years following his victory and coronation — it's totally impossible to tell whether he's telling the truth or not. Jaime also muses that Kettleblack could have been looking at the castle wall at the time.
In the Tales of Dunk and Egg prequel short stories, it's implied that the titular Ser Duncan the Tall's story of being Knighted by his now deceased Hedge Knight Master on his deathbed may have been a lie; with Duncan as the only witness to his death, and all.
In the Dragonlance novel Murder in Tarsis, the heroes act as private investigators (despite never having done this kind of thing before), and all of their former clients are from nearby towns, but not too nearby, so no one can verify their backstories before the crisis hits. (They never had any previous clients, of course.) Their employer calls them on this but is too desperate to not use their services.
In Seicho Matsumoto's detective novel Inspector Imanishi Investigates, the murderer uses the destruction wrought by Allied bombing of Japan as one of these, in order to hide his actual lower class background, creating a false identity as the son of a couple who died in Osaka during the war. The man he killed had helped him as a child, and was the only person who knew his actual background.
In Admit to Murder by Margaret Yorke, a woman has been living for many years under the identity of someone whose official documents she stole. She avoids scrutiny about her background by pretending to be an orphan whose long since deceased aunt raised her in rural Australia (the story is set in England.)
In Shame On You by Clara Salaman, the protagonist escapes from a cult at age 15, and needs to evade the police because she thinks she killed someone. As an adult, she's living under the identity of an American tourist whose passport she stole when she ran away, and this makes it easy for her to evade the authorities by claiming that she grew up in America.
In Restoree, by Anne McCaffrey, the heroine, Sara, is given one of these when she's abducted from Earth to an alien world. Her parents supposedly died in a mining accident and a plague on that planet, which would make it tough to check on her identity.
If you haven't seen the season three finale yet, don't highlight: Tory, Anders, Ellen, Tigh, and the Chief all have their own Fake Memories, though none have mentioned Troy-like accidents. It's likely they've all had their parents "die young" in order to explain their absence. Although strange in the case of Sam Anders. Even orphans have to grow up somewhere and sports stars' old acquaintances are frequently interviewed in the real world.
It's also likely that something unfortunate happened to everyone Tigh was supposed to have served with in the first war. Before you say it, he didn't serve with Adama in the first war. That's a common misconception. In (alleged) truth he was a deckhand on a ship that was massacred by the Cylons before being pressed into piloting a Viper towards the end of the war.
Dark Angel: When Alec poses as Simon Lehane, he claims to have been tragically orphaned.
In Kyle XY, Kyle is given a plausible backstory for his lack of memories, intelligence and absence of a navel. His female counterpart, Jessi, however, is given false memories because an agent for a Corrupt Corporate Executive finds her first.
In the short-lived series Runaway, the mother of a fugitive family manages to pass off their lack of legal documents as having been lost in Hurricane Katrina. Cynical, but effective.
In the "Vicki's Adoption" episode of Small Wonder, Ted and Joan had Vicki write two letters, in different styles of handwriting, claiming that Vicki was born in the Seychelles (hence her being named Victoria), her birth parents had died while traveling (see Stereo Fibbing), and she was raised in a convent before being brought to the United States.
Wiseguy. Averted, as the main character uses his own identity, including an 18-month prison sentence to establish his credentials as a criminal. Unfortunately this alienates him from his own mother, who doesn't know he's a federal agent.
Averted on White Collar where a forger avoids this trope and instead spent decades cultivating a set of near-perfect fake identities. He regularly broke into public databases to plant records of the various things his identities supposedly did throughout their 'lives'. Anyone trying to verify the identities would find school, employment and tax records that should convince most people that the identity was genuine. Someone would have to dig very deeply to discover that the records could not actually be corroborated by any living person.
Subverted on The Americans. Philip and Elisabeth are Russian sleeper agents and as such much of their fictional past is composed of these types of events. However, the Russians are savvy enough to add elements that can be verified. While 'Philip' has no living relatives, 'Elisabeth' has an aunt living not far from them. The aunt is actually another Russian agent whose job is to provide their back stories with verification should anyone check up on them. She pretends to be slightly senile so people do not try to ask too many questions.
Also subverted in the finale of season two: it turns out that the children of sleeper agents are being used to infiltrate American government positions as they would be full American citizens and have genuine histories that could be verified to give them security clearance.
In Breaking Bad, Gus Fring is supposedly a Chilean national, and he has the accent, but there are no records of him before his emigration to Mexico. He claims that the records were lost during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. He might even be telling the truth.
In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Melissa Foster claims that she has no identity papers because she recently fled an unnamed country that had exploded into civil war. Of course by now you already know she's Dahlia Hawthorne so the lie is revealed quickly.
Deus Ex has the Denton brothers, whose parents were killed in some sort of vague accident or terrorist attack. Turns out their parents were either actors employed by the Ancient Conspiracy or they were artificially aged clones with fake memories, depending on how the player interprets certain dialog and messages.
Interesting variation in Tales of Phantasia. Early in the game, the party meets a girl named Ria, who wants them to help her get revenge on a guy named Demitel for killing her family. When the party finally meets Demitel, he reveals that he killed the entire family, including Ria. After you beat Demitel, the whole truth comes out — Ria was borrowing the body of her friend Arche, whose name was dropped earlier, to avenge her family, after which she passes on and Arche becomes the party's Black Magician Girl.
A little bit of how The Mole wormed his way into La Résistance in Freedom Fighters: Colonel Bulba was able to disguise himself as Mr. Jones by claiming to have previously worked on Wall Street before the Soviets came in, and the financial offices of Lower Manhattan would logically be under some of the tightest security by the occupying Soviet forces.
W.I.T.C.H.: the sob story that Miranda gives Elyon.
In Justice League, the backstory that Hawkgirl originally gave was that she was a Thanagarian police detective, and that she had been accidentally teleported to Earth by a stray Zeta Beam. And that Thanagar was too remote for her to find her way back (it's so remote that they hadn't even heard of the Green Lantern Corps) — and too remote for her teammates to check her story and find out why she's really on Earth.
In the episode "Twilight" has a subtle hint of Foreshadowing on this; when the League infiltrates Brainiac's base, Martian Manhunter suggests that Brainiac's database may have information on Thanagar, including its location. In retrospect, you realise how desperate Shayera was to direct J'onn away from that line of thinking.
The non-fiction book KGB: The Hidden Hand mentions how a KGB agent in the United States was ordered to get details on an orphanage that had just burnt down (thus destroying all records), presumably so it could be used to create fake 'legends' for later spies.
During the onset of World War II, the Red Army had units claiming to be Polish so as to avoid the fact that they really wanted to take over Poland. The Russians pretending to be Polish would claim to be from Polish villages that had been wiped out by the Germans.
While not exactly following the example, at least in jokes Rokossovsky, an ethnic Pole heavily assimilated into Russian culture, was not considered Polish. Like "during nomination on Polish Minister of National Defence foreign journalist asks "How is it possible that person taking such office speaks Polish so badly?" "I'm surprised he speaks Polish"".
A related, somewhat ironic inversion: many Belorussians conscripted by the German occupation after 1941 were captured in the West by the Allies (they were notoriously unreliable even in the SS), but since the United States did not practically recognize 'Belorussian' as a distinct ethnic group (as opposed to 'French', 'German', 'Russian', etc.) they were typically classified 'Polish' for convenience, due to cultural similarities. This became a problem when some learned the Polish government-in-exile would have them imprisoned as liabilities or rebels against the pre-war government of Polish-annexed West Belarus.
Today, many U.S. government agencies that require documentation will make allowances for anyone from New Orleans or Haiti. So, y'know, if you needed a fake background...
This trope is the reason that those who are applying for Top Secret security clearance in the US not only have to provide documentation but also a large number of of references, including every past employer and all former teachers. Simply having a history on paper is not enough, there must be someone who can verify it.