A light hearted look at the Surveillance Game
By David Cook (Case Manager for Bedrock Investigations)
When I tell people I work as a Private Investigator, frequently I’ll get asked what it takes to get into the business of legally stalking people for money. The answer to that is complicated, so I put this together as a basic introduction.
There are some states where all you need to do is decide that you're a PI that day, and bam! – you're an investigator. Even if you live in one of those states, I strongly discourage leaving it at that. Contact your state's professional licensing department and find out what the requirements and cost are before doing anything else. After determining what the local laws are regarding licensing, you're going to need some training. A lot of the time, the training has to come before you can get a license. I highly suggest taking an apprenticeship under a licensed, experienced PI or detective agency.
The reason for obtaining a license is two-fold: First, in places where a PI must be licensed, any evidence collected by an unlicensed investigator is inadmissible in court. Since this completely defeats the purpose of gathering the information in the first place your client will be extremely unhappy and may begin legal proceedings against you. Frankly, you'll deserve it so make sure you're licensed and bonded.
A bond is kind of like insurance, but a little different. Where, say, general liability insurance would protect you against the actions of others, a bond protects others if you screw up in a big way. Generally, the investigator will pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 per year for anywhere between $5,000-$25,000 of coverage depending on the state. Some states require more, and prices vary somewhat state to state.
Second, investigating isn't as easy as it seems. I tell people that most of what I do is sit in the back of a van, point a camera at someone's house, and wait for something to happen; but in reality, it's a lot more complicated than that. Frequently, the client will be unsure as to the correct address for the subject and they'll present you with several options. Sometimes the subject has been coached by their lawyers how to spot and defeat a tail. Occasionally, the subject will have been under surveillance by another PI that screwed things up and now the subject is paranoid. Every case is different, and every case needs to be approached with a mixture of caution and aggressiveness that can only be developed through experience. This is why an apprenticeship with an established agency is so valuable. The training you’ll get will drastically reduce the learning curve and keep you from making the sorts of mistakes that can end a career before it begins.
I’m going to get this out of the way right now. YOUR CELL PHONE IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH.
I was recently on an assignment where the client wanted two people on site at all times. We didn't really need two investigators, but he who pays the money makes the rules. Because of everything that my company was handling at the time, I was sent a guy that didn't usually work investigations. He had been told that it was a surveillance case and when he showed up I met him to give him the rundown on what was happening. I asked about his camera, and he told me he'd just use his cell phone.
Are you kidding me? I couldn't NOT use him because there was no one else, so I was forced to stick him on lookout duty. He'd watch the subject's house and tell me when they were leaving so I could perform the tail and get the video. He was present, therefore, just to fulfill the client's requirement. Otherwise, he was absolutely useless and made my job harder.
If you really want to stand out to your clients, then you’ll also want a small hidden camera that you can use to get video in places a standard-sized camera would be glaringly obvious. Clients love inside video, so investing in a hidden camera is well worth the cost. I’ve modified a Case Logic 6 unit flash drive carrying case to conceal the camera. To the casual glance it looks a lot like a testing kit such as a diabetic might use to test their blood sugar. I use a PV500 evo Pocket Video Recorder, and it’s never let me down. I’ve taken it into restaurants, stores, bars, gyms, a Hare Krishna outdoor festival, and lots of other places. Many times, this little camera has made the difference between an inconclusive result and getting actionable intelligence.
A good surveillance vehicle is essential. Successful surveillance can be performed from almost any type of vehicle, but some are definitely better than others. Regardless of which vehicle you end up using, you want to make sure the exterior is clean and free from any distinguishing damage or marks so it’s easier to blend into traffic. I've had to use everything from a midsize sedan to a large SUV to conduct surveillance and my personal favorite, by far, is the humble minivan. In most residential neighborhoods, a minivan is functionally invisible. They're everywhere.
If you wind up doing surveillance work full-time, you're going to want the space afforded by the back of a minivan. Get one with stow-and-go seating, or just remove the back seats and stick a comfortable camp chair back there. This lets you face whichever window you're going to be shooting video from without killing your back by sitting in a forward-facing seat and twisting to one side or the other. It also gives you plenty of room for your tripod so you can get that steady, clear video that clients love.
Make sure that the center console between the driver's and the front passenger seat is either removable or not there in the first place. You're going to want to be able to dive into the back quickly in order to get video from a concealed position, and a center console makes that almost impossible. To make sure that the back of your van is a concealed position, you're going to want to install either heavy black curtains, tinting on the windows, or both.
I'm not a huge fan of heavy tint on the windows because it can have a negative effect on the quality of your video. If you keep the tint to 50%-80% and hang some heavy black curtains with both a top and bottom rod, it creates a nice cave effect that keeps anyone from being able to see in from the outside, even if they have their noses pressed against the glass.
Electrical power is a major concern. Letting your camera die is ridiculously unprofessional. There are several methods of keeping your equipment juiced up. The easiest thing to do is to purchase two or three spare batteries and keep them charged, swapping out as necessary. This method has some major drawbacks, however. If you have to stop taking video of some juicy action in order to change batteries, you'll cause problems for your client should the case go to court. Any break in the video will be pounced on by the opposing lawyers and you'll wind up on the stand listening to a lawyer cast aspersions on your character, your integrity, your ability and raising doubts about the validity of your case. Keeping a spare battery for emergencies is a good idea, but I would strongly recommend against relying on it.
The next method is using your vehicle's electrical system to keep your camera powered. If you've got a vehicle that will charge from its battery even when the ignition is off this method will work just fine, assuming you've got a good battery and alternator. All you'll need is a good power inverter.
The problem here is you run the risk of killing your battery and being unable to start your vehicle when you need to tail your subject. Nothing is worse than having to tell your client that the subject is out and about, but you had to let them go because can’t start your vehicle. Keep in mind that your client is paying good money for results, and mistakes that keep you from providing those results will prevent them from hiring you again.
The best method of providing a steady, reliable source of power is to buy or create a power bank independent of your vehicle battery. The folks at hunker.com have put together a good how-to on creating your own power bank by using a spare car battery.
So now you've got a license, a camera, and a vehicle. Let's assume you've also got a job and have been sent out on surveillance. Now what?
Positioning is key. A poor position will kill your effectiveness faster than just about anything else. The advent of Google Maps has made pre-surveillance planning really simple. Street View is your friend, here, as it’s useful for checking lines-of-sight and topography before you even arrive on-site. Ideally, you'll want to pick a spot about 100 yards away from your target house on the opposite side of the street to maximize your view. At the very least, you'll want an unobstructed view of the end of the driveway so you can see vehicles come and go. As you arrive and perform your preliminary drive by, take note of any landmarks that will help you identify the correct driveway in the predawn darkness and from a hundred yards away. You're looking for things like fire hydrants, bushes, trees, or lampposts and which side of the target driveway they're on.Also, take note of which direction someone leaving the target house is likely to go when leaving the neighborhood and if at all possible position yourself so they won't pass your vehicle. As I've said before, every case is different and you'll need to be flexible.
After you get your vehicle in position and you're safely hidden in the back, having made doubly sure that your doors are locked, you're going to take a ten-second video of your view out of whichever window you're shooting out of. This is a time shot and it's used to prove to your client that you were actually out there, on-site, and awake. You'll take another ten-second shot every hour on the hour for as long as you're there.
Next, call the police. As invisible as minivans can be, people know which vehicles belong in their neighborhoods and which don't. Sooner or later, you will have the police called on you, so why not beat them to the punch and call the cops on yourself? Google the non-emergency dispatch number for whichever agency has jurisdiction over the area and give them a call. Let them know that you're a PI working in the area and you're just checking in. They'll ask your name, phone number and they'll need a description of your vehicle. Very often they'll want your license plate number as well, so memorize it or have it written down because you really don't want to have to get out and look.This is a good idea because it'll keep them from coming out and making a scene when someone reports a suspicious vehicle. If you're fortunate this will happen before some nosy neighbor approaches your vehicle, peers into the windows, bangs on the side to get your attention, and tries the doors. When this happens, ignore them. Let them bang and yell. Unless they're law enforcement you have no obligation to even admit you're in there.
If and when law enforcement does show up, you should see them coming. Get your ID and license out and get into the driver's seat. Roll your window down and put your hands on the wheel. Even if you've called dispatch, there's no guarantee every officer got the memo and they may not know what to expect. It's best not to make them jumpy. Law enforcement gets the truth, always. You tell them who you are and what you're doing. Every time I've spoken with a cop, they've been understanding and polite. Once they understand what's going on, they'll leave as soon as they can to minimize their impact on your case.
They may ask you whom you're investigating, and this is where things can get a little tricky. The best way to respond is to tell them that you're supposed to keep that information confidential and you've been asked by your client not to divulge it. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they'll be cool with it. The only time that didn't work for me was when a power-tripping deputy in a flyspeck town in Montana threatened to kick me out of town if I didn't tell him, so I didn't have much choice. By and large, though, you won't have that problem.
The point of covert surveillance is to observe the actions of a specific person. Unless they confine their activities to their front yard you’re going to need to tail them wherever they go while keeping them ignorant as to your presence. Following someone without their knowledge is more difficult than it seems.
The most difficult part, and your most vulnerable time as an investigator, is the very beginning of the tail. Timing is everything. As soon as you see them pulling out of their driveway, you should jump into the driver’s seat and start your engine. Don’t start moving right away, however. Give them a moment to get going, then start the tail. If you leave at the exact same time they do, you’re immediately suspicious. You’ll want to give them enough of a lead that a glance in their rearview mirror won’t make it obvious that they’re being followed while staying close enough that they can’t make a turn and get away without you seeing it.
Once you’re out of the neighborhood, you can blend in with traffic. Generally speaking, you’ll want to keep at least one car between you and your subject to act as cover, but don’t go out of your way to make that happen. Remember, the subject should have no idea that they’re being followed, so as far as they’re concerned you’re just another vehicle. You’ll need to adjust to traffic levels as you continue tailing, so keep an eye on the cars around you; don’t tunnel-vision in on your subject.If traffic is really light, it’s a good idea to give your subject a longer than usual lead. Be aware of traffic lights, however. If you get stuck at a light, you’ll have to play catch-up and that in and of itself can be suspicious. To minimize the chances of getting stuck at a red light, you’ll want to “yo-yo” the target vehicle. Let them get a respectable distance in front of you, then, as they approach a traffic light, close the gap until you’re two or three car lengths behind. Once you’re through the light, back off again and repeat as necessary.
Even if you perform the tail flawlessly, there will come a time when you’ll be able to see that your subject is going to make a light, but you won’t. Now you’ve got a choice to make. I cannot and will not advocate running red lights, but I’ll admit that I’ve run so many over the course of my career that I’ve lost count. Every light is different and you have to weigh the risks of running the light with the rewards of not losing the tail. Remember, just because you got stuck at a red light does not mean that you’ve lost your subject. It is entirely possible to catch up once the light turns, but it certainly isn’t easy. Use your best judgment and remember: no case is worth your life or the lives of others. Don’t take unnecessary risks.
One more thing: eventually, you will get made. No matter how experienced you become, or how sharply you’ve honed your tailing skills, sooner or later you’ll be spotted. It happens to everyone eventually, so don’t feel too bad about yourself. Most often, it’ll happen during a tail so be on the lookout for some telltale signs.
Most obviously, they’ll stare at you in their mirrors while at a light. If you see them alternating between their side and rearview, chances are they’re suspicious. If they turn to look as they make a left turn, that’s a huge red flag.
Be alert for driving behaviors that indicate your subject may be on to you. Sudden turns without signaling, pulling into a parking lot and then out again without parking; sudden, excessive bursts of speed and the running of lights are all signs that your subject maybe suspicious. They’re also signs your subject might just be a really bad driver, so you’ll need to use your judgment. If you think you’re in danger of being found out while driving, the best thing to do is give them more space. Don’t follow them immediately into a parking lot or their neighborhood. Drive past without looking at them and make your turn when out of their sight. You’ll probably end up losing the tail, but sometimes it can’t be helped. If you have the resources to do it, you can always come back later in a different vehicle.
Rarely, you may find yourself being chased by your subject. Obviously, this is A Bad Thing. You’ve been burned in the worst way and the case is over. On top of that, now your subject is following you.What do you do?
DO NOT STOP. The only reason you should stop your vehicle in this circumstance is if law enforcement is pulling you over. Otherwise, you keep going. It is extremely unlikely that your subject wants to have a calm discussion about why you’ve been following them and it’s better to not give them the opportunity to commit an act of violence should they be so inclined.
Don’t turn it into a Fast & Furious high-speed chase, either. If pulling over is the last thing you want to do, then leading them on a chase is a close second. You’re putting yourself and everyone around you at risk. Just don’t. Also, don’t lead them back to your home or office. That’s a headache you just don’t need.
So if you can’t run and can’t go home, what should you do? My favorite thing to do is to head for the longest city street you can find and just drive. Drive like you’re the most boring person on the planet. Stop at yellow lights, drive just under the speed limit, and pretend you don’t see your subject behind you. This is the single most frustrating thing for them. They’ve spotted you and they probably know why you’ve been following them. Their blood is up, their heart rate is elevated, and they have this burning need to find out who you are and what you know. But as you drive like Boring McDullperson, all that energy will have nowhere to go and they’ll get frustrated and start to second-guess themselves. Sooner or later, they’ll leave and you can go home. The longest I’ve ever had someone follow me was half an hour before they got bored and left.
This is the single most important skill you’re going to need when conducting covert surveillance. The entire point is to obtain useable video of your subject doing whatever it is they do. If your video is out of focus, shaky, or zoomed out/in too far it will be useless and your client will be unhappy.As soon as you identify your subject, zoom in on his or her face and hit record. This is an ID shot that will establish that you are following the right person. After that, you’ll want as much of the subject’s body in the shot as possible. If you can see their whole body, you’ll want to frame them so that they fill the frame, with a touch of space above their head. Your tripod should move smoothly so the camera doesn’t jerk as you move with them. If they’re not moving, set the camera on them and don’t even touch it.
Full Body Shot - Things are a little different when using your hidden camera. Cameras like the one I recommended above don’t have an autofocus or aperture control, so you’re going to need to know how close you need to be to the subject for the best results. Avoid filming with a window behind your subject as they will be backlit and washed out almost completely. Take some time and practice with your hidden camera, you’ll be glad you did.
Working as a PI is a lot more complicated than most people think. Surveillance is only one aspect of what a PI’s job can entail. All the training and helpful articles in the world are no substitute for fieldwork, and there’s only one way to gain the experience necessary to be an effective, in-demand investigator. In the beginning, you’ll make rookie mistakes that you’ll look back on later and wonder how you could ever be so naïve.
As your career progresses, you'll see things that will make your blood boil and things that will tug at your heartstrings. You'll catch people committing acts of fraud and feel proud that the evidence you're collecting will put a stop to it, and you'll see people who are in legitimate need and the evidence will show that they should continue to receive their benefits.
No matter the types of cases you investigate, remember that you're just the observer. You are in no way responsible for what your subject chooses to do, and therefore not responsible for what becomes of them.
Good luck, and good hunting!
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