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Surveillance—Consumers Should Know This

The video above is many years old, but none the less, still relevant today.

Investigators will not be precise when it comes to the topic of vehicular surveillance. Vehicular surveillance is following another person with the use of a car. We aim to dispel the myths and provide consumers with an honest understanding of mobile and crewless surveillance operations so that you may make an informed choice on whether you should hire a private investigator to watch someone.

Consumers should know that surveillance is the act of placing another person or location under observation. A lack of clarity is an issue for a variety of reasons. Private investigators may surveil a person for an insurance company or a domestic problem. Law enforcement may build cases by conducting surveillance on criminals involved in various illegal activities.

Surveillance - What You Need to Understand


Surveillance performed from automobiles is the most common surveillance platform for private investigators. Because most people drive from point to point, motor vehicle surveillance is essential to many private investigations such as errant partners, child welfare and during work related incident investigations..

When the subject of investigation utilizes their automobile to go to work, school, social situations, and more, private investigators must use an automobile to keep track of the activities the subject is engaging in.


Unlike other forms of investigation, surveillance gives our client a fundamental understanding of a person's identity, characteristics, habits, whereabouts, associations, etc. Surveillance is the act of placing a person’s conduct under observation for any one of numerous lawful reasons.

Surveillance gives our clients a genuine understanding of the investigative subject's lifestyle and provides video or photographic documentation for review and decision making.

It helps to answer questions such as:

  • Is the claimant telling the truth about alleged injuries?

  • Is my partner being faithful, when I suspect they are not?

  • Is the parent of my child really providing for the welfare of my child during visittation?

  • Are employees taking liberties while working from home?

  • Are company associates really working while in the field?

  • Is my teenager abiding by my rules when I cannot be there to monitor them?

  • Is there cohabitation between my ex partner and their new partner - can this help my alimony case?

  • Is my ex partners new love interest good with my kids?

  • And dozens of other custom created solutions


Surveillance is very complicated and requires more than one investigator in more than one automobile when it is a mobile based private investigation.

Mobile private investigations are when the subject of investigation may be going from place-to-place.

An example of mobile surveillance may be when an injured claimant is going to the doctor, gym, taking employment or outdoor activitis.

Another example is during a child custody matter: wher the subject of investigation is taking the child to eat, to the park, visiting family and other activities that are common during child visitation times.

How about the errant husband or wife? Yes that too usually requires mobile surveillance. The subject of investigation may drive their car and park it in a parking lot. Then comes the other party who picks them up and then they are off to the races—so to speak.

Here are a few factors that make surveillance operations logistically challenging:

  • Traffic - It is the bane of a private investigator's existence. Traffic pops out of driveways as you approach a traffic light, and the subject goes right through it, not to mention many other difficulties with high traffic flow and city streets.

  • Not being made - Getting made or burned is when the subject recognizes surveillance. Getting burned happens when there is only one surveillance (follow) vehicle.

  • No backup - This is essential when conducting surveillance to get the best possible angles and documentation. Not having an additional surveillance vehicle means that one investigator has to manage too many environmental issues alone.

  • Subject drives aggressively - Another prevalent issue is the subject of investigation moving very fast or aggressively. Again, one vehicle attempting to do the same to keep surveillance on the subject only opens that one car up to be noticed, thus negatively impacting the field investigation.

How Surveillane Is Formed

When a person requires surveillance to better understand the integrity of another person, a surveillance investigation is initiated.

It starts with the private investigator understanding your reason for the inquiry.

Then the investigator will do pre-operational workup to understad the location(s) where the investigation will take place. Usually this requires us to look at Google Maps or some such mapping service.

When we look at maps we look at where the subject will be when we ”pick up the tail” (detective speak) or, in other words, begin the surveillance. What streets are possible for them to travel on? Is there more than one way out of a complex? Do they take freeways?

Then the investigator will determine where to “set up” the surveillance. Meaning, what is the best possible location in order to document the subject’s activities before or while they are leaving the start point.

The investigator is usually in a non-descript car (Honda civics are great for this) and sitting quietly while waiting for the subject to move or depart their current location.

Private investigators want to blend in. So they will park where they can see the subject residence or work, or the subjects motor vehicle. So in essence they could be two or three houses over parked somewhere in the street.

What Private Investigators Have To Be Careful Of

When forming their surveillance plan, you can never tell how things may go. A private investigation may be parked in front of a residence with a meticulous lawn and eagle eyed home owner. This person will likely come outside, rap on the window of the detective and make an inquiry and likely threaten to call the police.

Some private investigators make it a habit to check in with law enforcement dispatch once they arrive on location. The dispatcher will ask what agency they are with, their name, cell phone number and registration number of vehicle and whether the detective is carrying firearms. This does not guarantee that the private investigator won’t get lit up, but it works in most circumstances.

Private investigators also have to be careful they are not too far away from the subject’s departure point, especially in high traffic areas. Also, they must consider if they need to get film of the subject in their garage or mowing the lawn.

All reasons why a two plus person surveillance team is really needed to effectively cover all angles and contingencies.


I constantly get calls from clients that say, "Gee-whiz, why did the private investigator I hired never catch ______(you fill in the blank). Okay, they didn't say gee-whiz, but they wondered why the results were not as expected.

I am well known for saying it like it is, and people that contact me want to be educated and told the real thing.

Surveillance is hard.

There, I said it. It is a problematic tool in the private investigators' toolbox and must have the care and diligence surveillance requires in order to provide the consumer/client with honest and tangible results.

Bad results are why many people are so unhappy with private investigation services they contracted for. Bad workmanship is also why we aim to do our part in truly educating the client so they can make the best decision for their case and their budget and understand the results they may obtain based on what they can budget for.

The Hook

Private investigators can mislead consumers into thinking that surveillance is like what they see on TV. They believed that one investigator was enough, which is not valid.

Private investigators should help their clients understand the nuances of surveillance and the pitfalls of hiring one investigator. They should tell them the truth as it relates to the complexity of the assignement.

Instead, consumers are locked up in contracts that state “we guarantee no results”. And, this is a true statement as it is an investigation, but why not give the client every chance to fully understand the difficulties a private investigator faces as a solo surveillance operator.

Because of money. Because if the client can only afford one detective and I tell them we only conduct surveillance with two or more operatives, they will go to the next detective who does say yes…and sadly end with bad results.

I call those private investigators ”the ear ticklers”.

Ultimately it is your decision on whether you can afford to spend

on a two or three-person surveillance team, but it should be your decision. Private investigators should not mislead you into believing something that isn't true to get your business.

Yes, some outstanding surveillance investigators are out there, especially those who have done it every day for many years. However, they are still susceptible to human error and environmental considerations.

No law enforcement agency conducts mobile surveillance with one vehicle. It just does not happen. Mobile Surveillance needs more than one investigator to avoid losing the investigation's subject.


  • Lose the subject more often than not.

  • Compromises to the discreetness of the investigation.

  • No sound, usable film, or photographs because one investigator is managing environmental issues.

  • More frustration and low morale from one investigator make for a bad case.

  • Lying to the client to cover up the truth of the situation with a single surveillance operative.

Better results come from a team of investigators conducting surveillance: better documentation, less loss, and a complete investigation.


Hire more. You will not be wasting your investigative budget. We will conduct static surveillance with one investigator, but if it is a mobile investigation, you should have more than one.

Don't be duped by slick-talking private investigators. They will lose the subject, and some will lie about the situation.

If you only can afford one investigator, we at least feel we have informed the consumer and understand that not everyone can afford two or three-person surveillance teams. We want you to understand that surveillance is not like television. It is complex, and private investigators should not treat the matter lightly, nor should the client.

Unmanned Surveillance

What is unmanned surveillance, and how can it aid your investigation? Many private investigators have options to place a particular location under surveillance without the need for human resources in the field.

Unmanned surveillance can save mistakes and money and provide for uninterrupted operations.

How is Unmanned Surveillance Performed?

Private investigators can provide unmanned surveillance in certain circumstances.

Observation can perform unmanned surveillance by placing a camera where the subject does not see it. The camera is usually battery operated, runs on a cell phone signal, and may have pan-tilt-zoom options.

For unmanned surveillance to be successful, there needs to be a location where it can observe the subject of investigation. The camera needs to be able to be obscured or hidden. There needs to be convenient access that does not raise suspicion of neighbors or the risk of the camera getting stolen. Finally, the location needs to have a good cellular connection.

Unmanned Surveillance Saves You Money

Where a traditional surveillance investigator can cost $1,000 per day–unmanned surveillance could be half that price.

Unmanned surveillance does not get tired, distracted, or have to take a bio-break. But, there can be technological issues. Since the private investigator is dealing with technology, it is easy to see that something may malfunction. Problems may occur with poor lighting conditions, corrupted data, bad cell tower connections, etc.


Surveillance is complicated. It should not be taken for granted that all private investigators have the ability to be good surveillance operatives.

That being said, of course there are fantastic surveillance detectives, but how will you really know?

You won’t know how skillful they are until you see the results and those may be dismal at best. Asking to see two or three examples will only get you their very best work and there will be no understanding as to how many times they were unsuccessful.

The only way you will know you are dealing with a professional at surveillance for cheating partners, infidelity cases, child custody matters or, workplace injuries is to hire a private investigator who will only operate with a two to three person surveillance team.

That is how you know you have a professional.

Crewless or unmanned surveillance may also be an option for static locations. Of course, it is not possible to conduct crewless surveillance when a person is mobile, this is only good for a location that has the aforementioned prerequisites, so it is not for every client or every case type.


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