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Follow that Car: 10 Mobile Surveillance Tips for Private Investigators

  • December 01, 2010
  • by Scott B. Fulmer

Texas private investigator and current TALI President Kelly E. Riddle wrote an excellent surveillance book years ago titled The Art of Surveillance. Mr. Riddle was correct. Mobile surveillance is indeed an art form. There's an exception to every rule. Much of it depends on traffic flow, location and the time of day. The following 10 tips will help you conduct a successful mobile surveillance.

We Have Ignition!

The timing of your initial departure from a stationary position to a mobile or rolling surveillance behind the subject is critical. The tendency is to either begin following too soon (and get burned) or to hesitate (and lose the subject.) You have to allow the subject a short amount of time to drive off. Following too quickly or closely at the outset will make the subject notice you. Later on, when you're miles down the road and still behind them they'll wonder why the same vehicle from their neighborhood (yours) is still behind them. Let the subject get down the block before you ease into traffic.

Follow that car! (But not too closely)

The distance you maintain between your surveillance vehicle and the vehicle you are following during a mobile surveillance is dictated by the amount of traffic on the road and your environment. For example, during rush hour on a busy street or highway, you should maintain no more than one car between you and the subject. In rural areas, you can allow a greater distance between you and the subject. This is all very relative. The more congested the traffic, the closer you need to be to the subject. Make sure you keep an eye on the subject's vehicle and use your peripheral vision for everything else. Find something unique about the subject's vehicle such as a bumper sticker, brake light pattern, spoiler, etc., and keep your eyes glued.

Choke Points:

During a mobile surveillance keep your eyes focused on the subjects vehicle and the traffic ahead of them. This will allow you plenty of time to determine the best course of action. Major intersections, highway intersections, bridges, toll roads, etc., are all choke points. Be alert for these types of areas. You'll have to decrease the distance between you and the subject's vehicle until you get through these choke points. If you fail to do so they will breeze through a green light and you'll be cooling your jets at a red light as they slip away.

Double traffic lights:

Beware of streets having two sets of traffic lights on the same block, one right after another in very close proximity. It's like that old Tennessee Ernie Ford song 16 Tons about the guy with two fists of steel: If the right one doesn't get you then the left one will. When following someone through double traffic lights keep your eyes on the second set of traffic lights. Those are the lights you have to stay ahead of. If you're not alert the subject will make it through and you'll get stuck.

Right Turns and Left Turns:

When the subject turns right at an intersection you should speed up to that intersection. Once at the corner quickly decrease your speed and slowly turn right. Burning rubber around a right turn will cause the subject to look in his rear-view mirror and notice you. Double left turns can present a minor challenge. If the subject is in the right-hand lane of a double left turn he could be turning left or going straight. You usually have no choice but to pull up behind him in the same lane or you risk losing him at this choke point.

Sunday Drivers:

Slow or Sunday drivers magically appear out of nowhere to torment you as soon as your mobile surveillance begins. Do not sit and think about whether you should pass them or whether they will eventually speed up: you should because they won't. Don't hesitate. Pass them right away. Get around them quickly or you'll lose your subject. It is that simple.

It Tolls for Thee:

Be aware of all toll roads, turnpikes and other private or publicly built roads in your surveillance area that require a fee for usage. More importantly, consider whether or not your subject will take the toll road and blow through with an EZ tag like someone I recently followed in Houston. Maybe your subject will stop and pay the fee at each toll booth. Either way, you have to be prepared with an EZ tag or plenty of coins. I'd have both on hand. If you operate in Dallas, Houston or other big cities that have toll roads you would do well to purchase an EZ tag.

Free Parking:

One of the more difficult aspects of a mobile surveillance is the fact that you generally do not know where the subject is going. When it comes to clients, a video is everything. As the subject arrives at his destination you have to immediately determine where they will park and at the same time scout out a suitable surveillance position for you. Do this quickly and you will be able to get video of the subject walking in. Handicap-accessible parking spaces and other reserved spots are usually up front in prime locations and allow for excellent opportunities to videotape. I am not suggesting you break the law by parking there, but using these parking spaces if only for a few minutes, will allow you to secure good, close, solid video of your subject as they walk into a place of business. Once they're in you can relocate to another parking space to videotape them walking back to their vehicle. You have to do what you have to do to secure video. There are no excuses. Clients have no understanding of how difficult our job can be.

The Sun is Not Your Friend:

As I mentioned in tip #8, when you follow a subject to their destination you must quickly park and set up your surveillance vehicle to acquire videotape as they walk in. As you do so, remember the sun is not your friend. Videotaping against the sun will wash out the video and reflect off your windows, giving you poor-quality video. Along with everything else going through your mind as you get the subject to their destination, don't forget to set up your surveillance vehicle so that the sun is behind you as you videotape.

Taking Notes on the Go!

It is difficult to try to accurately write down every detail of a subjects activity during the middle of a mobile surveillance. Although there are periods when you can reach for pen and paper and update your notes, more often than not things are happening too quickly to do so. It is also best not to simply rely upon your memory. Remember: you're gathering evidence and what you write may end up being read back to you in court one day. It has to be factual. A simple solution is to verbally dictate the subjects activities into a digital recorder during the mobile surveillance and then use these audio files to complete your notes once the surveillance has ended.

As I said earlier, surveillance is an art form. It takes patience and a keen understanding of human nature. The reality is much of it is learned through trial and error; what works and what doesn't work. Adding these 10 techniques to your surveillance toolkit will improve your odds of having a successful surveillance. Good luck! Send me a quick e-mail if you have any questions about mobile surveillance.

If you liked these tips, read Scott B. Fulmers articles on successful surveillance and interviewing techniques.

Scott B. Fulmer is a private investigator, speaker, and president and CEO of Scott B. Fulmer Investigations, LLC based in San Antonio, Texas. He has been in the security and investigation field for over 20 years. He is a Gulf War veteran, husband, and father of three. Mr. Fulmer is a frequent contributor to and is available to speak to your group, seminar or conference. You can contact him at

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