That money management client sitting on the other side of the desk may not be who he says he is.

He just might be there to help your competitor.

Only U.S. Datatron knows for sure. The Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., research company sends people posing as wealthy customers into banks to draw out information on a variety of topics, including quality of service and fee structures.

The company retains 115 moonlighting professionals - mostly lawyers and accountants - to get the inside scoop on private banking and investment management activities.

"It looks and feels real," says Gary R. Cohn, president of U.S. Datatron. "When you meet with trust officers, you've got to talk the talk."

Datatron's main clients are banks that want customized reports on their competitors. The research firm, founded 10 years ago, snared Chase Manhattan Corp. as its first client.

Today, the firm has about 600 bank clients, including 88 of the top 100 banking companies.

While several firms engage in this kind of work, U.S. Datatron has carved out a niche in the high-end money management and private banking market.

"A lot of research companies do more consumer-oriented surveys, but this is a little more esoteric," said Nancy L. Brown, an assistant vice president for First Chicago NBD Corp.'s investment management arm.

Ms. Brown, a trust marketer, said she's impressed by U.S. Datatron's savvy and engaged the firm to check out her competitors.

"They are quick to catch onto the nuances of what we are trying to get at," Ms. Brown said.

Mr. Cohn acknowledges that his business has its challenges. "There was one instance up in New York where the banker said: 'I don't want to give you information because I think you're doing a survey.'"

But he maintains that banks are reluctant to challenge the authenticity of the person sitting across the desk.

"The banks cannot afford to call a person's bluff, because if they're wrong they are losing a customer," Mr. Cohn said.

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