Follow TV Tropes


Conveniently Unverifiable Cover Story

Go To

Modesty: In four years nobody has suspected that you're not the real Father Marasin?
"Marasin": Why should they? I run La Retraite to the entire satisfaction of my clerical superiors... and before I killed Marasin I knew his face was virtually unknown outside that monastery in Algeria — of which he was the sole survivor.

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 be neither verified nor disproved, by claiming to come from a place or period with no personal records or witnesses. Commonly, it's a burned down orphanage, 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. It can be a very convenient option for supernatural beings or people from other worlds trying to establish an identity in human society.

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 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.

This trope is why the Overt Operative is more Truth in Television than one might expect — competent spies and moles will usually lie as little as possible about their true identity and background, generally only trying to hide the fact that they are in fact moles or spies — in other words, their cover story is more convincing the more true it is. The only exceptions are usually when their own lives or those of their friends or family might be in danger in some way during or after the fact, or if the mole has a reputation that precedes them that makes their normal identity inconvenient or less trustworthy for some other reason.

When this trope fails, you may have a I Am One of Those, Too situation on your hands. Compare Appeal to Obscurity, which is similarly about a story which has the property that, even given the truth of the story, we'd still be unsurprised that there is little evidence of it.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • In Attack on Titan, having a Doomed Hometown is quite common and many became refugees due to Titan attacks. Reiner, Bertolt, and Annie infiltrate Wall Rose simply by claiming to be refugees from an isolated mountain village that was wiped out by Titans. Because many such villages were in fact destroyed during the fall of Wall Maria, no one questions their claims or pressures them for more information. It's only after Annie is exposed as the Female Titan that the story begins to unravel, as claiming to be from the same region provides a link between all three of them. In a twist, it turns out that their story was borrowed from the Sole Survivor of one such village, a place so small and isolated no one could remember its name after the man killed himself.
    • Used by Eren after the four-year Time Skip when he infiltrates Marley. He claims to be a Returning War Vet named Kruger so traumatized by his PTSD that he can only remember his name (or alias in this case). The hospital he is staying at is full of PTSD-suffering War Vets who have not had any family to come and claim them, so his story is accepted rather easily.
  • Zora Ideale from Black Clover manages to pass off as Xerx Lugner at the Royal Knights Examination because the real one has been stationed at the border since joining, with not even his squadmates knowing what he looks like.
  • Durarara!!: Kazutano, an illegal immigrant living in Japan, once claimed that his birth certificate was burned during the World War II firebombings. He's too young for that story to be at all credible, though.
  • In Noir, when Mireille backtracks the history of the surprisingly lethal schoolgirl calling herself Kirika Yumura, she finds that the girl is the only child of two people who do not exist anywhere beyond a few photographs and Kirika's school enrollment documents, to the point where Kirika herself has never met them.
  • Tenchi Muyo!:
    • 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 Tenchi Muyo: War on Geminar, after Tenchi's half-brother Kenshi is sent to another world and adopted as the servant of the young queen he had originally been enlisted to assassinate, the queen and her staff realize that even though summoning otherworlders is commonplace, all of them are potential mecha pilots, which would destroy Kenshi's cover and the queen's plans. Instead, they decide to have him pretend to be from the highlands that are above the Background Magic Field that the setting's Magitek depends on, which is conveniently socially isolated enough to explain Kenshi's ignorance.
  • In The World God Only Knows, Elsie uses her supposed status as the 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.

    Audio Plays 
  • Case 63: Dr Knight is a psychiatrist working with Peter, a patient who claims to be a time traveler from 40 years in the future. She doesn't believe him, thinking he's instead lying or delusional. In their very first session together, Dr Knight suggests that, if true, Peter's story could be verified by doing a DNA match with his currently-living mother. She expects his story to be conveniently unverifiable, assumes Peter will say no, they can't intervene in his parents' lives because that could stop them getting together, creating a Grandfather Paradox. But to Dr Knight's surprise, it's a Subverted Trope—Peter encourages her to go talk to his parents, explaining that their origin story as a couple is actually a Stable Time Loop that hinges on Dr Knight's interference.
    Dr Knight: But if I contacted your parents, that would alter the future in some way, right?
    Peter: True.
    Dr Knight: They wouldn't get to know each other and you wouldn't be born, we wouldn't be—
    Peter: —we wouldn't be having this conversation.
    Dr Knight: Correct.
    Peter: In four weeks—not sure of the exact date—but precisely because of the fact that you will believe me, you will contact my parents. And this story of an American psychiatrist who called my parents talking about their time-traveling son who hasn't been born will seem so funny that my dad will go looking for my mom. They'll go out for some beers and they'll start to date. They'll become boyfriend and girlfriend, and I'll be born. All thanks to you, Doctor. I'll grow up listening to this story—the story of the American psychiatrist who brought my parents together.

    Comic Books 
  • In Dallas Barr, Harper claims to be the only survivor of a village hit by a chemical leak.
  • In Runaways, this gets Xavin into trouble during Secret Invasion (2008). Since they are a Skrull and their homeworld was destroyed in a war with Majesdane, the other Runaways can't verify any of their claims about their past or motives, and thus when the Skrulls suddenly invade and swarm on the Runaways' location, Nico and Victor naturally assume that Xavin must have been some sort of deep-cover operative.
  • In Preacher, Jesse is in a small Texas town and meets Gunther Hahn, who nonchalantly claims to have come to America as a Nazi spy. He relates that in 1943, the death of his pilot brother made him realize the war was lost so conned his way to come to America as a "spy" to hide out. He and Jesse hit it off as friends with Gunther talking about loving America. But at the story's end, Jesse coldly confronts Gunther with a book on German pilots revealing the real Gunther Hahn was killed in combat. He also discovered that "Mark van der Pol" entered the U.S. in 1946, three years after he claimed he did. "Gunther" is really Siegfried Vechtel, a former member of the vicious Nazi police battalions. He managed to escape being arrested for his crimes and fled to America. He explains he used the Hahn name in a book to make his story sound more legitimate as surely no one would have ever found out...unless the lawyer for the local businessman was a Nazi herself who had a book all about German fighter pilots. He claims he's truly changed and loved America but Jesse gives him a "choice" of suicide or exposing him to the town. Vechtel chooses the former.

    Comic Strips 
  • The villain of the first Modesty Blaise story arc is posing as a priest, supposedly the only survivor of a monastery that was wiped out during a conflict in Algeria.

    Fan Works 
  • In The AFR Universe, Morgana eventually becomes human with the body of a boy. To pass him off in human society, Haru took him in as a ward with the cover story that Morgana is her late father's illegitimate son.
  • In Becoming the Mask (Trollhunters), after Blinky and AAARRRGGHH!!! introduced themselves to Jim, Jim is quick to come up with a cover story to explain any absences he may have; he has been secretly dating a girl from Arcadia Oaks Academy (Arcadia Oaks High School's rival school), hence why he has not been telling anyone. He later changes it to claiming he was pulling a prank and was nearly caught, and so had to bail while still setting it up.
  • In Coming Back, Broken, Toby, Barbara and the Nunez's come up with a cover story for Jim and Claire to use when being reintroduced into the world; they were both captured to be used as contestants in an L.A. fighting ring before eventually escaping and making their way back.
  • 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.
  • The Petriculture Cycle: This is the driving plot point of the first story of the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fanfic series, Petriculture, because no one knows what "rock farming" is.
  • In Recoil, Phir Sē sends Taylor to the past and dumps her in the ocean right next to a pair of yachts that collided and sank with no survivors. Taylor is pulled from the water and, with a quick claim of amnesia, is assumed to be the sole survivor.
  • In order to explain why he wanted to get close to Naruto and his Strong Family Resemblance in Reverse, Kurama says that Naruto's mother Kushina was his half-sister. Which no one can deny nor verify since Kushina's home village Uzu was destroyed and Kushina was tight-lipped about her family when alive.
  • 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.
  • In 3 Slytherin Marauders Snape and Lucius drop hints that the young Tom Riddle that came out of the Horcrux diary is Voldemort's son. It's such a good lie that they've even got Voldemort believing it.
  • 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.
  • The Warcrafter: After being dropped into Earth Bet, Adrian needs to concoct a cover story explaining why there are no records of him anywhere. Fortunately for him, a little covert research turns up Memento, a villainous chemicals Tinker who dosed down a number of small Midwestern towns with amnesia gas before eventually being caught.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Averted in The Adventures of Tartu. Terence’s Tartu cover story is shaky at best since anyone who decides to call the German official whose signature is forged might very well find out he’s an imposter. Although it almost happens when he enters Czechoslovakia, his friends tap into the telephone line and stop him from being discovered. However, he’s not quite so lucky when Otto catches on.
  • In Big Nothing, Charlie tries to lie to a local deputy by saying that the reverend's home is his own home and by saying that his name is Stephen. When the deputy notices some blood on the floor, Charlie then takes knife and slices himself and tells the policeman that he cut himself on a vase. The deputy could notice the holes of Charlie's cover-up story, but since he is rather oblivious, he easily dismisses it.
  • Garde à vue: When Gallien finds holes in one of Martinaud's alibis, the latter says he was in fact with a prostitute who can't be tracked down because the affair went down in her car.
  • In A History of Violence the main character claims to be an orphan from Portland, Oregon, conveniently far from small-town Indiana, where he is living a cover story.
  • In Inglourious Basterds
    • 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 is not enough to ward off Major Hellstrom's suspicions, finally tricking Hicox into betraying himself by making him order three glasses of whiskey, which he does 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 hilariously 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 the movie Mumford, all of the people who Dr. Mumford claims he studied under to become a psychologist are dead, which makes Dr. Sheeler suspicious.
  • In Peter Rabbit 2 The Runaway, Barnabas claims to have been friends with Peter Rabbit's father and had many adventures together stealing stuff. In fact, Barnabas never actually knew Peter's father and made up the story to con Peter into helping him after reading about Peter and his friends in Beatrix Potter's books.
  • Reservoir Dogs has this with Mr Orange. The made-up cover incident in question is referred to as "the commode story". Played with in that the story wasn't exactly crucial to his ruse so much as it was flavor to give it a hint of authenticity and help him connect with the other members of the crew who have their own similar stories.
  • In Running on Empty, the family is on the run, living the life of this trope. It's repeatedly discussed by the family, and several times other characters (unknowingly) bring up holes in their stories.
  • 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.
  • In The Scarlet Coat, Odell in particular is suspicious of Bolton for this. He claims that he was the source for Moody, the spy who was killed—-but Moody's dead. (Killed by Bolton.). He claims that his two British partners were ambushed on their mission to sabotage the boom in the river—-but his partners both disappeared. (One killed by Bolton, one killed by a Patriot civilian.)
  • Total Recall (1990) has a double-example of this. Hauser initially infiltrated the Martian resistance, convincing them to trust him and believe that he was betraying Cohaagen. Cohaagen 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 Hauser, now Douglas Quaid, infiltrate deeper into the resistance, since they are then convinced he really had a major secret to reveal. Also La Résistance was led by Kuato, a psychic who might have detected any normal infiltrator.

  • Ascendance of a Bookworm: When the plot requires as many people as possible to genuinely believe the commoner protagonist was actually born into a noble family, her noble identity includes being the Sent Into Hiding daughter of a deceased noblewoman. The noblewoman's widower, meanwhile, is among those actively and knowingly participating in the cover-up.
  • 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 Ursula Vernon's Black Dogs, Trent, the offspring of the sorcerer Vade supposedly escaped from his father. He claimed to have his innocence destroyed by all the cruelly calculated murder and remains inconsolably guilty for things that were not really his fault. This character pretty much becomes The Woobie to some of the other characters for these reasons. Turns out his kind and compassionate persona is just a suppressed and memory-wiped part of his personality as part of his father's plan. Later on we learn his new, crueler personality is also a fabrication of his father, and this character's True Self is somewhere between these two extremes.
  • The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons. Alexander escapes from a train on its way to The Gulag, and ends up in a village that's infected by typhus. The Soviet authorities burn down the village to prevent the infection spreading, and Alexander tells them he's the youngest son of the family he was staying with. Everyone else is dead from typhus and all the documents were sent up in smoke, so there's no-one to say otherwise.
  • Anthony Price's spy thriller Colonel Butler's Wolf revolves around a Russian deep cover agent who is using the identity of a real person whose relatives are all dead or conveniently distant.
  • Divergent: According to Allegiant, Natalie Prior was not born Dauntless; she was born in freaking Wisconsin, asked to join the community in Chicago by the Bureau partially because of her "undamaged genes", and partially to serve as The Mole. How did no one find this out? The Bureau wiped the memories of everyone in Dauntless to make them believe she had always been there.
  • In the early Discworld novels, it's mentioned that all one really needs to do to create a totally new identity for one's self was travel a hundred miles and make up a new name and backstory. If you can look and act the part, people will believe it - in a fantasy world depicting an era where virtually everyone lived their entire lives within fifty miles of the place where they were born, nobody will be able to verify anything, and you're unlikely to run into anyone who knew you previously to contradict you. This is how Lily Weatherwax became Lady Lilith de Tempiscire in Witches Abroad and Henry Sluggs became Enrico Basilica in Maskerade. This starts falling apart in the later novels when the Clacks (a primitive telegram service) makes it possible for someone to send a message inquiring about someone's alleged past to the distant place where it ostensibly happened and get a reply the next day.
  • 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.
  • Fairy Tale: After Charlie is captured. Hamey, The Old Convict, realizes that Charlie is from some land that no one has heard of and that the villains will be interested in. As Charlie is being taken for questioning, Hamey advises Charlie to tell them that he comes from a region that committed mass suicide after the villainous reign of terror began. Charlie only knows two short sentences worth of information about the place but does a passable but ultimately unsuccessful job of bluffing about his background when The Dragon questions him.
  • The Fourth Protocol. The Head of the KGB Illegals Directorate is fuming because men working for the General Secretary of the Soviet Union have stripped his top 'legends' (cover identities carefully assembled over many years) for a top secret project. He brings up a previous incident when he was forced to hand over all the legends prepared for missions into Iran, so they could evacuate the Iranian Communist Party after the Iranian Revolution. It was All for Nothing as the Communist Party was still banned in Iran and now the KGB couldn't run any spy missions there without legends for their agents. The agent being sent into Britain is using the identity of a British citizen who actually died during the Rhodesian War.
  • 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.
  • Genocidal Organ: A terrorist sets off a backpack nuke that destroys Sarajevo. This proves useful for an underground movement dedicated to resisting the all-pervasive surveillance that has grown up as a result.
    "We cultivated our ID database carefully and over a long period of time. Babies who died shortly after birth, before they were fully registered. Travelers who went missing abroad. Civilian contractors and PMCs who went MIA in war zones. And, most of all, Sarajevo."
  • InCryptid: When Antimony goes undercover in the Covenant as "Timpani Brown", her fake backstory is that she's the only survivor of an Apraxis wasp attack on a traveling carnival. This gives her a believable explanation for her already-impressive combat and gymnastics skills, and a motivation for hating cryptids. It ends up not being enough to fool them, but they keep it a secret that they know.
  • 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.
  • The Legend of Sun Knight: The Hell Knight is a mysterious figure who is supposed to go on undercover missions for the Holy Temple; not even the other Twelve Holy Knights have met him. When Sun Knight needs a legal identity for his friend Roland, he discovers that the Hell Knight wants to retire, so he declares that Roland was the Hell Knight all along. The Holy Temple has no public record of undercover activities, so nobody can look into this.
  • 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.
  • Isaac Asimov's Living Space: The Housing Bureau lies to Clarence Rimbro about the other parallel universe Earth colonists, calling them a geological instability that has been fixed. Since they were outside the forcefield, Rimbro won't try to verify the story.
  • In Making History, an SS doctor's wife uses this to get herself and her son to the United States. She and her son assume the identities of a mother and son murdered at Auschwitz and make their way from Germany to the US, to a brother-in-law of the dead woman, who had never met his real sister-in-law or nephew, so had no reason to think they weren't who they claimed to be. Thus, Marthe and Axel Bauer become Hannah and Leo Zuckerman.
  • 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 the 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 of a large battle in WWII. The identity he assumes was that of an orphan with no close friends, who by sheer coincidence happened to have a name that was remarkably close to his real one (Graf Hugo von der Drache).
  • In Moth Girls by Anne Cassidy, Petra is believed to have been murdered by a serial killer years ago. She is actually still alive and doesn't want anyone to know this, so she assumes the identity of a friend's sister, who died as a child – in Poland, where no one in her home country (the UK) will check.
  • Invoked as Stardard Operating Procedure by the Federacy's Survey Service in Noninterference. They simply (when the natives of a world under observation are humanoid enough) drop a couple of observers off within walking distance of a settlement with things like synthetic gemstones and have them claim to be merchants/traders from some inconvinient distance off the local maps to explain the odd clothes and skin-tones. This works quete well unless A) somebody has reason to remember the last strangely colored sorts with that story (such as the guy who alliviated a woman's grave illness) and B) they are in a position to have similar sorts with a similar story brought in for questioning the next time Survey swings by that world (not expected after fifteen centuries).
  • The Odessa File. When journalist Peter Miller infiltrates Odessa, he's given a forged letter of recommendation from a member of Odessa who's just gone on a long holiday cruise. No-one bothers informing Miller that when that man returns from his holiday, Miller's life expectancy will become rather tenuous.
  • 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.
  • In The Rolling Stones (1952), 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 Sentou Yousei Yukikaze, the JAM have infiltrated the Faery Air Force with copies of FAF personnel, many 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 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.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire
    • In the third book Jaime Lannister meets Ser Osmund Kettleblack, a former sellsword who has been promoted to the Kingsguard despite there not being much evidence of his fighting ability. While questioning Osmund and trying to get a sense for the man, Jaime asks who knighted him and the name that Kettleblack 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 from the mountainous Vale of Arryn, and Robert is a common name (even more so lately since it's the name of the king and war hero Robert Baratheon, and thus was a very 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. Just to add onto things, Kettleblack adds that "Ser Robert" has since died, making the story even more impossible to either verify or disprove. In his Inner Monologue Jaime muses that Kettleblack could have put the name together just by thinking of the King and looking at the stone walls of the room they were standing in.
    • And there's "Ser Robert Strong", whom everyone suspects of being a Not Quite Dead Gregor Clegane. Although it's not mentioned at the time, House Strong is a noble family that was effectively destroyed many years before, making it impossible to verify where this mysterious knight comes from.
    • When Sansa Stark is undercover and disguised as Littlefinger's bastard daughter "Alayne Stone," her cover story is that her mother was a Braavosi noblewoman who died giving birth to her and entrusted her to the Faith of the Seven (a religious order), and that she was raised by septas. Her "father" gives her some religious books to read and to quote from, commenting, "Nothing discourages unwanted questions as much as a flow of pious bleating."
    • Prince Aegon VI Targaryen is thought to have been murdered as a baby, but he turns up alive and it turns out he was switched with a peasant baby to save his life — at least, that's what his guardians told him growing up. His distinctive Targaryen silver hair is dyed blue to hide his identity, with his explanation being that his late mother was from Tyrosh (a Free City famous for its cultural tradition of brightly colored hair dye) and he dyes his hair in remembrance of her.
    • 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 hedge knight master Ser Arlan when Ser Arlan was on his deathbed may have been a lie; Dunk tends to get evasive with his wording and defensive when the story comes up or people question him about it, and Duncan was the only witness to the occasion.
  • 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.
  • In the Expanded Universe of Star Trek:
    • Star Trek: Voyager novel: it's explained that Tuvok was 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 endeared 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 Star Trek: 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.
  • The Captain Future novel Outlaw World featured the Captain trying to pass off as a Space 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.
  • Star Wars Legends:
    • Luke’s onetime Love-Interest Traitor, Shira Brie (later known as Lumiya), claimed to be from the planet Shalyvane, which was recently devastated by the Imperials. She supposedly joined up with the Rebellion to get revenge, but her real purpose was to kill or discredit Luke. As a bonus, Shira could occasionally visit Shalyvane under the guise of paying respects to the dead (for example, during one Loyalty Mission issue of the Star Wars (Marvel 1977) comic), but in reality was giving reports to her handlers.
    • Gara Petethol took on the guise of Lara Notsil, a farm girl from a remote planet bombarded by her former superior Admiral Trigit. There really was a Lara Notsil who died in the attack, but records were so spotty that Gara easily modified them with her own information, and claimed that Trigit had taken her prisoner as a sex slave. However, as time goes on she runs into the downsides of the trope, as the lack of real information leads others to suspect her real identity even as she starts Becoming the Mask. The Lara Notsil identity was supposed to be a mere short-term deception which only needed to stand up to casual scrutiny; trying to embrace it long-term leads others to wonder why her behavior doesn't match her backstory. There’s also a complication when it turns out the real Lara’s brother is alive, but fortunately for Gara he’s greedy enough to cooperate with her Imperial contacts to continue the ruse.
  • In the Vorkosigan Saga novel 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.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Subverted on The Americans. Philip and Elizabeth Jenning are Russian sleeper agents and as such much of their fictional pasts are 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", Elizabeth has an "aunt" living not far from them. The "aunt" is actually another Russian agent whose job is to provide their backstories 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.
  • Battlestar Galactica (2003) had Sharon "Boomer" Valerii, whose "family" perished in a notorious mining accident on Troy (which was originally this trope's name). She believed it, and even kept pictures of it post tomato for a while.
    • 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. They met years later when both were serving on a freighter after being mustered out of military service.
  • 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.
  • Averted on an episode of CSI: Cyber when they stumble on a hacker who has spent years creating and maintaining false identities that he then sells to people needing one so they have a pre-made background.
  • Dark Angel: When Alec poses as Simon Lehane, he claims to have been tragically orphaned.
  • In Ghosts (UK), Lucy claims to be Allison's half-sister with a photograph of their father to prove it. She's really a con artist using a faked photo, figuring Lucy won't notice the World War II fortification in the background is faked. It's a good plan and nearly works...if not for the fact Allison is able to speak to the ghost of a British colonel who was stationed at that very fortification and can relate it's in the wrong spot, unraveling Lucy's scam.
  • In a storyline of Hollyoaks, the Loveday family's daughter Lisa was abducted at the age of five, and no one's heard of her since. When she shows up fourteen years later, claiming that she lived with a series of foster families (whom she was too young to remember) and has spent her teens as a homeless runaway, it's difficult for anyone to investigate her story. It turns out she's an impostor who met Lisa and decided to assume her identity. However, for obvious reasons, she doesn't want anyone to be able to find the real Lisa.
  • House of the Dragon: Viserys upholds his decree that his daughter Rhaenyra is heir until his death. However, his wife Alicent, the only one in his chambers before he died, misinterprets his last words to think he means to put their son Aegon on the throne. When the movement to put that in action begins the next day, lords who were loyal to Viserys and/or Rhaenyra express disbelief that they're supposed to overturn something Viserys had clung to so steadfastly and go along with it based on a claim only Alicent can verify.
  • In the fifth season of iZombie, Blaine is arrested for killing people to run a criminal enterprise for both brains and a zombie cure. When his house catches on fire, the D.A. accuses Blaine of doing it to hide any evidence. Blaine points out how he's "the most hated man in Seattle" and thus anyone could have torched his place.
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power: Sauron absolutely plays the evil twist version. At some point after the War of Wrath, he takes the identity of Halbrand and tries to atone for all of his wrongdoings. He tells Galadriel that he is from the Southlands, having fled after his homeland got destroyed by the orcs. They both arrive in Numenor where Galadriel learns that Halbrand might be the descendant of a royal line based on a pouch with a bird symbol he owned. She confronts him over it and Sauron does tell her that he found the pouch with the bird on a dead body. On his defense, Sauron really just wanted to have a peaceful life as a blacksmith in Numenor and warned Galadriel he is not the hero she seeks. He gives in Galadriel's insistence and just roll with her believing he is a king, reenacting his lust for "order". When Galadriel learns of his true identity, she is understandably heartbroken.
  • In the JAG episode 'Persian Gulf', international terrorist Sadik Fahd (Bernard White) comes to America and takes advantage of the hospitality of Fardad (Anil Kumar). Supposedly Sadik Fahd was a friend of Fardad's family in Iran around the time Ayatollah Khomeini took over. It could be the truth. Or it could be that Fahd took the identity of an actual friend of Fardad's family who might be living somewhere else in the world or might even be dead. Or it could even be that there is no such family friend but it's easier to believe than if Fahd had taken on the identity of an actual relative of Fardad's. There's really no way for Fardad to verify, other than his gut feeling. And unfortunately for the young man, he falls in love with the terrorist, who hates homosexuals enough to kill them as soon as they outlive their usefulness to him.
  • 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 Fake Memories because an agent for a Corrupt Corporate Executive finds her first.
  • A situation-specific example occurs in one episode of NUMB3RS, when Colby is posing as an arms buyer to sting a dealer. When he's asked how he got the dealer's name, he claims to have been referred by an associate of the dealers who had recently died, preventing the dealer from being able to verify (or, in this case, disprove) his story. It actually works. Unfortunately, the dealer catches on another way.
  • 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, after its capital city), her birth parents had died while traveling (see Stereo Fibbing), and she was raised in a convent before being brought to the United States.
  • Star Trek: Voyager: Seska explains her Alien Blood as coming from a bone-marrow transplant from a sympathetic Cardassian after she caught a disease in a Bajoran refugee camp. As they're stranded on the other side of the galaxy, Chakotay has no means of verifying this. However, the Doctor has the entire knowledge of the disease in his program, and he can verify that this explanation doesn't explain her Bizarre Alien Biology. Seska turns out to be a Cardassian Deep Cover Agent subjected to surgery to make her look Bajoran, at least on the outside.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In You (2018), Cadence claims her name is "Amy Adam," which sounds like it could be a real name, but is, as Joe notes, completely impossible to look up.
    Forty: Was "Britney Spear" already taken?

  • In Embers in the Dusk, when dealing with infiltration attempts, Jane complains at one point how on a Deathworld like Avernus, "no surviving relatives" is a status unlikely to raise any eyebrows.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Delta Green, The Program recruits agents from all over the US government, ranging from FBI, ATF, CIA, CDC, US Military, among others. The agents are then designated into mundane counter-terrorist task-forces with open-ended tasks, the only people that have clearance files of these task-forces are inside The Program, this makes possible to group a bunch of agents, give them cover and resources, and make sure that when people ask questions they can just say "It's classified".
  • Eberron: Subverted with changeling Personas. Common wisdom among non-changelings is that changelings do this sort of thing all the time; it's also common practice for people to adopt some quirk or interesting article of clothing as a poor-man's identity protection. But the truth is that most changeling Personas are constructed whole cloth and shared among the community. Brom the human warrior with rage problems is well known in the region because there's almost always a changeling playing him. His past is real because the Persona has existed for decades.

    Video Games 
  • Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War has Pops, the squadron mechanic, whom Captain Bartlett had vouched for as a member of his squadron in the Belkan War when he was recovered after being shot down in the biggest air battle of the war. Thing is, that squadron's headquarters had been destroyed in a bombing raid and Pops was actually a defecting Belkan ace pilot.
  • 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.
  • A little bit of how The Mole wormed his way into La Résistance in Freedom Fighters (2003): 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.
  • In Long Live the Queen, Lucille claimed to be from the extinct Merva ducal family and requested the title to Merva, but had no way to prove that she was telling the truth. The queen compromised by granting the title to her brother Laurent, Lucille's husband.
  • There are two cases in the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney trilogy. Fittingly, the two prosecutors that attempted to pass these stories as the truth are teacher and student:
    • In "Turnabout Goodbyes", the elderly man that owns the boat rent shack supposedly forgot his name due to a bad case of amnesia, and lost his fingerprints in a chemical incident, so no fingerprint comparison could be done. This was planned by Manfred von Karma to cover the fact he's Yanni Yogi, the defendant in the DL-6 incident, who had a good motive to kill Robert Hammond.
    • In "Turnabout Beginnings", 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.
  • 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.
  • In the Telltale's ''Game of Thrones'' series, Mira's fellow handmaiden Sera claims to be a member of a house that has allegedly been extinct for almost two hundred years in order to hide the fact that she's actually the illegitimate daughter of one of Lady Olenna's former handmaidens. Tarwick, the lord that she ends up betrothed to, will question Mira about Sera's parentage, and the player gets the choice of backing up Sera's lie in order to secure her marriage and future or revealing the truth to Tarwick and driving him to break off their engagement.

    Web Original 
  • The American Dream: An American Officer ISOTed to the Revolutionary War Samuel Kim claims his parents were slaves in Joseon who fled their homeland shortly after he was born, never staying in one place for very long due to them being paranoid about slave catchers. They eventually died on the family's journey to America, and when their son arrived, he spent nearly ten years traveling the frontier alone. Of course this is all faked, since Kim cannot tell the general public of the late 1700s colonial America that he is actually a Korean-American from the modern century sent back in time.
  • Pirates SMP: While pretending to be a pirate in the name of journalism, Eloise's cover story is that she used to be part of a crew named "the Taking 'L's" after herself, but all of the crew had died after they took too many 'L's in battle. She also claims at one point to be born into piracy — which in itself is this too, since Parental Abandonment runs rife in the dangerous world of piracy and it's rare for anyone born into such a perilous business to know both parents growing up.

    Western Animation 
  • Dragons: Riders of Berk: Upon being found washed up on Berk's shore, Heather claims to have been attacked by pirates and lost her memory. Combine it with her looks, and all the boys fall for it hook, line, and sinker. Astrid is the only one to be suspicious of her from the beginning, and gets more justified when Heather starts asking the boys about the strengths and weaknesses of their dragons. Sure enough, she turns out to be a spy for Alvin the Treacherous.
  • On Frisky Dingo, it's implied this is how Wendall got his job at the Department of Labor. He told them he was a CIA agent "on loan" to the Labor Department, but since the CIA's such a secretive organization, when someone tries to find out if Wendall ever actually worked for them, all they'll say is that they can neither confirm nor deny any involvement with him.
  • 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.
    • In yet another episode, Martian Manhunter, the team telepath, has to help fight off the nightmares the Villain of the Week is causing in his teammates. Each team member is connected to each other by a doorway, allowing them to help out psychically; for some reason, he never can enter Hawkgirl's mind because the door is blocked by Some Kind Of Forcefield. This keeps it consistent with the later revelation that she's immune to telepathy, but the hint is hidden as it's placed at the climax of the villain's fight with Batman AND because Hawkgirl's nightmare has been allowed to persist for so long that she cannot focus on waking up, allowing the viewer to believe the problem isn't Hawkgirl being immune to telepathy, but the situation becoming so critical at this point, Martian Manhunter is struggling to get through to her.
  • The Owl House: Lilith thinks King is making up his entire story about having once been "the king of demons," especially since he claims to have partial amnesia with fuzzy memories of his former life. As she points out, having incomplete or missing memories is a very convenient excuse for the various holes in his story. The truth turns out to be somewhere in the middle. The story didn't happen the way King says, but he honestly believes what he's saying. He conflated Eda's tales of royalty and armies with what very little of his pre-Eda life he could remember in his mind (he remembers eating flies as a grand feast, wandering alone in an abandoned castle as being the ruler of it, etc.), and he began to believe it was all literally true, not helped by the fact that she'd compared him to a king earlier. Eda didn't want to break his heart and had no clue how to handle the situation so she just kind of went with it for the next eight years.
  • W.I.T.C.H.: The sob story Miranda gives to Elyon of being adopted by Phobos after her parents' death.

    Real Life 
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 was used by numerous Chinese immigrants to get into the USA despite the Chinese Exclusion Act. And not only by Chinese.
  • 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 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.
  • In Jutland during World War II, there were seven villages with the same name, so the Danish resistance would use them for false papers, knowing the Germans would seldom be bothered checking through the files of seven different village records.
  • Syrian (and to a lesser extent, Iraqi) passports have been known to fetch a high price in the black markets due to wars in these countries causing near-apocalyptic levels of destruction. It doesn't help that many foreigners can't tell the difference between Levantine/Syrian dialects of Arabic from, say, Yemeni, Egyptian or Tunisian, not to mention their looks. Consequently, a number of former government, rebel or ISIS fighters have also used the chaos of the war to hide their involvement in atrocities and make a new life for themselves in other countries. Unfortunately, the revelation of such individuals as well as the involvement of some in horrific terrorist attacks in Europe ended up creating a backlash against legitimate refugees who are trying to escape the war.
  • During World War II, in France, it was a common tactic for Resistance fighters to use false identification using places whose civil records ended up destroyed on 1940 during fighting.
  • During Denazification, in Occupied Germany, some Nazis claimed to come from Breslau or other places east of the Oder-Neisse line, whose records were unavailable.
  • According to Frederik Pohl, when Lester del Rey used to claim that his real name was Ramón Felipe Alvarez-del Rey (or sometimes Ramón Felipe San Juan Mario Silvio Enrico Smith Heartcourt-Brace Sierra y Alvarez-del Rey y de los Verdes), he would insist that the reason he had documentation in the name of Leonard Knapp was that his actual birth documents were "destroyed in the little known great Nebraska forest fire, or the devastating Minnesota earthquake, or whatever it was".

Alternative Title(s): Mining Accident On Troy, Conveniently Unverifiable Backstory