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Private Investigator Basics Part 3: Surveillance

Core Competencies of Private Investigation Surveillance

Editor's note: This article was written by industry professional and guest contributor Tom Shamshak. The views and opinions in this article are that of the author and do not reflect the views of PInow. If you are interesting in becoming a guest contributor, send an email to [email protected]

Tom Shamshak is the Program Director and lead instructor for Boston University's Certificate in Professional Investigation, featured on PInow's Top 25 Investigator Training and Education Programs. He is a retired Police Chief and licensed private investigator with 33 years of investigative experience, and has been featured on CNN's Nancy Grace and ABC's 20/20. His company, Shamshak Investigations, services the Boston and Providence areas.

Private investigators need an understanding of three core competencies: records research, interviewing and surveillance. Surveillance is not always a vital part of an investigation but can be helpful and necessary depending on the nature of the investigation.

Tom's Tips for Surveillance

Listen here for Tom's Tips for surveillance:

Tom's Tips for Surveillance by 

What is surveillance?

Surveillance is the art of watching someone, some place, or some object in order to document and identify any contact, activities and whereabouts.  

For more information on surveillance investigations, click here.

Why do we conduct surveillance?
Surveillance is conducted to prevent a crime, to obtain evidence of a crime, to obtain evidence of wrongful action in a civil suit, to document an individual’s location, to document activities in or around a specific location or building, to obtain information to be used in an interrogation,  to gather intelligence as a basis for future action and to obtain information to be used in court.

Types of investigations that require surveillance
Missing person, worker’s compensation, cheating spouse, vandalism, recurrent theft.

What are the different types of surveillance?
The types of surveillance that fit with individual cases vary. Private investigators have to decide which types of surveillance are best suited by understanding the case and the desired outcome of the surveillance. The nature of the case will dictate whether the surveillance will be mechanical or human, whether it will be covert or overt and whether the surveillance will be stationary or mobile.

Mechanical Surveillance vs Human Surveillance

Mechanical surveillance is when technological devices are used to conduct surveillance. This is beneficial because equipment doesn’t get tired, hungry, or bored. Equipment can be used at multiple locations at the same time and information from equipment at different locations can be accessed simultaneously. For example, mechanical surveillance would be used over human in a case where someone is stealing from a construction site. Private investigators can put up cameras and go back and harvest the recordings.

Human surveillance is when the investigative team is the main source of information. Human surveillance includes tailing targets and observing targets in person. If a private investigator is looking for a missing child, they have to start by investigating the usual haunts of the child and personally visiting those locations.

Overt Surveillance vs Covert Surveillance

Overt surveillance is visible security like security agents at the mall and security cameras in casinos. With overt surveillance, people know the surveillance equipment is there to make sure no one is stealing or cheating.

Covert surveillance is undetected surveillance. Undercover detectives usually conduct this type of surveillance. It may involve trailing a target or using a piece of equipment, like a GPS tracking device, on a company truck or automobile without the company or driver’s knowledge (provided this it does not violate the laws within that state).

Mobile Surveillance vs Stationary Surveillance

Mobile surveillance involves following a moving target. Say a case involves theft from a transporter, investigators may have to follow it along its route to observe whether or not an employee or driver is stealing.

Stationary surveillance is when the investigator stays in one place to observe the target. If a neighbor is complaining that somebody is damaging their property, a private investigator can watch the property from a stationary post, like a parked car. 

Preparing for Surveillance

Know the client’s needs. What is it that the client is trying to accomplish through surveillance? The answer to this question determines what types of surveillance will be needed, the scope of the project and the types of equipment that will be used. Private investigators have to educate the potential client and manage their expectations as investigations are often more complicated and costly than the client anticipates.

Know the subject 
Before conducting surveillance investigators should always complete a background check with comprehensive records research on the target and acquire as much information as possible about them- name, address, phone number, complete physical description, photograph and relatives in the immediate vicinity. Private investigators will also want to know pertinent background information such as routines, habits, hobbies, schedules and associates.

Know the area
Private investigators should always have a map of the area where the surveillance will be taking place. If possible, they should also have a photograph of the building they are watching or the location where surveillance will begin. If surveillance is taking place at night or in the early morning, it’s good to visit the site during various periods of the day and night.

Know your equipment
The kind of equipment a private investigator uses is contingent upon the nature of the surveillance itself. Investigators need to get familiar with their equipment ahead of time and practice with it. If surveillance involves a camera or a video camera, prepared investigators will have two of them with backup batteries. Sometimes investigators don’t get a second opportunity to capture an activity.

Every private investigator should have a flashlight for working at night, binoculars or a telescope, a tape recorder, two-way radios for team surveillance, a tripod for security equipment, gas in the car, appropriate attire, snacks and water.

Know yourself
I’m an avid believer in stress management. Investigators must do what is necessary to prepare their minds for work, like exercise, get plenty of sleep and have a practiced plan. All private investigators should also to be prepared for a situation where they are approached by a stranger or by the police while conducting surveillance. I always have a convincing story ready to tell. For stationary surveillance in a car I might say, “I’m doing a speed study”.

What Every Investigator Should Know About Conducting Surveillance

Surveillance is incredibly demanding and challenging. Private investigators who are successful at surveillance have to possess certain qualities. Someone with an outgoing personality, exceptional communication skills, the ability to take action, a good memory, an ability to blend into their surroundings and a strong attention to detail would be a good fit for surveillance. This person should also be honest, patient, observant, resourceful, flexible and focused. Not every person is able to sit for hours and focus on a particular area. Investigators often sit in an automobile for up to ten hours on the coldest day of winter or the hottest day of summer.

Ethics and Laws Relevant to Conducting Surveillance
All private investigators should know the laws that may affect their work in their respective states. Trespassing and audio recording laws are especially important to know. Laws regarding audio recording vary across the states and some states prohibit covert audio recording.  In Massachusetts, a state where two party consent is necessary, audio recording without consent is a 15 year felony. 

Informing Authorities about Investigations
In Massachusetts there is a courtesy notification form private investigators fill out to inform police when they will be in an area. An investigator should never tell them the nature of the investigation nor tell them whom they are investigating. Say a neighborhood watch reports suspicious activity in their area, if the police already know a private investigator is there, it rules them out as a suspect. Some states do not have this option, so if a private investigation is interrupted, don’t argue, just leave.

How can surveillance aid an investigation?

Surveillance is not always necessary in an investigation. Surveillance adds to an investigation when a visual confirmation of the actions or the whereabouts of the target is necessary to concluding the investigation. If an investigator needs to catch a thief in the act, find and confirm the whereabouts of a missing person or prove a worker’s compensation claim is false, surveillance is necessary.


Each of the three core competencies of private investigation plays a critical role in working through an investigation. As a valuable tool, interviewing helps investigators get more information and a clearer picture of the situation they are investigating. Combining that knowledge with records research and the basics of surveillance helps investigators hone their skills and become more effective in the field.

Additional Parts of Private Investigator Basics Series

This article was written by an industry guest contributor. If you are interesting in being a guest contributor or have an article suggestion, please send an email to [email protected]

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