A Private Investigator’s Tricks of the Trade, from Surveillance Prep to Gear and Reports
Surveillance is one of the oldest and most common practices in investigative services. But whether you’re gathering protective intelligence on a subject or investigating an insurance fraud case, real-time direct observation remains a useful tool to keep greased in your toolbox .
Although experience is the best way to improve your surveillance skills, you can also hone your technique by studying the tactics of seasoned operatives. Below, we’ve compiled the most effective surveillance techniques we’ve learned over the years, for use in private investigations and protective intelligence assignments.
How your presence is perceived in your target environment is key to the success of your surveillance. Creating the illusion that you belong often works better than hiding.
Don’t give up your face directly to the subject. Avoid eye contact — your eyes will tell the target more than you would ever care to. Remember, even if someone looks directly at you, that doesn’t mean they see you. Even if you think they might be on to you, don’t react; just carry on “normally.” And you should try to avoid driving (or walking) by the target’s residence more than once per day unless absolutely necessary.
Inhabit your role.
Prepare a simple story explaining why you’re in the area. Have props on hand that back up your story and your character (such as a car seat/toys, laundry basket, dog leash, etc.). Do not leave anything in view that will give away your real purpose. Having a camera, binoculars, or a notebook on the dashboard are dead giveaways.
Drive a boring vehicle.
You do not need a “Chester the Molester” or “Free Candy” van to work covert surveillance cases. A van like that will cause every parent in the neighborhood to eye you with suspicion.
In most environments, renting a common vehicle like a Toyota Camry or a Honda Civic will cause you to disappear. Check the area ahead of time, or even check Google Earth imagery, to see what kinds of vehicles are ubiquitous in the area, and rent that. A business account with a big-name renter usually means a standard car for $20-$30 a day, which is worth it.
Memorize the map.
Familiarize yourself with the area. Check Google Earth imagery for all possible routes to and from the location. This will help you choose the best possible staging area — hopefully, a spot that will allow you to see your subject leaving, regardless of what route he takes. If your initial site recon reveals that there’s no way to cover all the ways in and out, this lets you know that you’ll need more than one vehicle to do the job.
Plan a stealth arrival.
It may help to arrive at the surveillance point during the early morning hours, to avoid being seen parking the car (and not getting out). You could also consider having someone drop you off, or asking them to park the vehicle for you and and then walk away (leaving you there in a car that everyone assumes is empty).
Remember, it is typically not the presence of the investigator that attracts attention – it is movement.
Don’t flash your gear.
No one uses a camera anymore, so shooting photos or video with one will draw attention. Instead, consider using your smart phone. On some phones (namely iPhones), you can use the volume button to activate the shutter. This lets you shoot while you hold the device to your ear, as if you were talking on the phone – which works very well. Additionally, there are free apps that will time/date/GPS stamp the photo or video.
Don’t be creepy.
Be careful when working cases near places like playgrounds, schools, or anywhere families and children gather — you might find yourself surrounded by some very suspicious and emotional parents. Consider the legality of who is in your photos and video as well.
Background check your subject.
Conduct a pre-surveillance investigation and/or read all prior reports on the case. Make a list of the places your target frequents. If you lose contact, head to the closest location on that list, and one that makes the most sense for the time of day and situation.
Make the target vehicle easy to see.
Find a peculiar characteristic (sticker, damage, etc.) of the vehicle you are following. You can also place an identifier, such as a sticker, in the center of the tail light. If in a high-traffic area at night, an IR chem-light affixed under the vehicle with an IR Viewer in hand works like a charm.
Work as a team.
If you can work as a male/female team, you’re much less likely to be noticed. Nobody looks at couples, especially if they are holding hands and flirting. As a couple, taking pictures of the target by pretending to take pictures of each other is the easiest thing in the world.
Imagine what will happen next.
Be especially proactive on mobile surveillances. Anticipate turns, stops, and traffic interferences, and consider your lane position carefully. The best way to learn this skill is through experience or by a ride along with a seasoned practitioner who verbalizes their tactics as they work.
Don’t break focus.
When static, avoid things that will distract you from the target, such as Facebook, smartphone games, crosswords, etc. If you must look at a screen or page, bring the item to eye level in order to keep the target in your peripheral vision.
Preflight your vehicle.
Start the day with a full tank of gas. Clean all windows and mirrors on your vehicle. Clean glass lets you use your mirrors to shoot video, which reduces movement and frontal exposure. If you do shoot a photo through a mirror, be sure you note that in your report.
Have a high-quality camera.
You’ll need a camera that can take clear digital video and still photos from 100 yards – ideally, date and time stamped with GPS stamp. Also consider a covert camera, such as a pen or button camera. These come in handy in small areas, such as a restaurant.
Binoculars or a monocular are useful in reducing the use of your camera.
A voice recorder and notepad are also essential to keep chronological notes. Smart phones usually have voice recorders, and you can even speak your notes into them.
Bring a change of clothes.
Pack at least one extra set of clothes with a hat so you can change your clothing and accessories (hats, sunglasses, etc.) throughout the assignment – especially if you have had close contact with the target. Plan for all weather conditions.
Be ready for a long day/night.
Pack plenty of food and water and, of course, a system for relieving yourself. As long as you stay put, you’re unlikely to be noticed. Any movement, such as driving away and returning or getting out of your car, is likely to raise curiosity.
Check your gear for settings and charge.
Check all electronic devices for proper date and time setting and fully charged batteries. Have an assortment of extra batteries on hand.
Get fog lights.
A vehicle with fog lights is a great asset. This affords you the option of changing your headlight pattern, which may reduce the chances of the subject identifying you over the course of the surveillance.
Consider your audience
Write your report to satisfy the client AND the end user – i.e. the client’s attorney.
Write in third person, “The investigator arrived…” And remember, many people will never see you but will judge you by how you write
Organize audio & visual materials.
Include a photo log that contains:
- Identification photos of the target
- Photos of all vehicles involved in the investigation
- Photos of every location the target visits, including addresses
- Photos of any special identifying marks on the target and vehicle(s)
- Other useful photos pertinent to the intent of your investigation
- note: Video can be referenced and/or included in the report by including still photos from the video, noting the time into the segment.
Get to the point and stay there.
Stay on topic in your report and satisfy the intent of the request. If it’s not pertinent to the case, it doesn’t belong in the report. For example, if it’s a worker’s compensation injury case, discuss how the injury is consistent or inconsistent with the target’s current behaviour and mobility and the fact the target/claimant is functioning inside or outside of those restrictions in your report.
Leave the rest out — reading irrelevant extras will simply waste your client’s time.