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10 Tips for Private Investigators to Conduct More Successful Surveillance

  • July 22, 2010
  • by Scott B. Fulmer

Surveillance is an art form, not a science. Unfortunately many of its best lessons are learned through trial and error. Whether you conduct insurance defense or domestic investigations, surveillance is a large part of your day as a private investigator. The following 10 suggestions will help you conduct a more cost-effective and successful surveillance.

1. A Detailed Intake Sheet Start by gathering as much information as you can from the client up front. This sounds pretty obvious but youd be surprised. Many clients simply want to give you the subjects name, age and address and leave it at that. A detailed intake sheet draws together information above and beyond the industry standard: information such as doctor appointments, therapy appointments, marital status, number of children, hobbies, etc. This allows for a clearer picture of the subjects routine and helps you avoid re-inventing the wheel out in the field. This information, together with a search of public and proprietary databases, will save you time and allow you to provide your client a more cost-effective investigation.

2. Is Your Surveillance Vehicle Completely Forgettable?
If not, it should be. White, black, silver and gray are the most popular colors for cars. Beige and brown vehicles tend to be the least noticeable and, incidentally, get the fewest tickets. Red, yellow and custom paint jobs make your vehicle too noticeable. While youre at it, take a good look at your surveillance vehicle and make sure it blends in to your environment. No bumper stickers, no window stickers, no vanity plates, no handicapped plates, nothing attached to the antenna, no custom rims, no after-market accessories and no body damage. Your vehicle should not be too clean or too dirty. The less noticeable your vehicle is the more successful you will be on surveillance. When it comes to tint dont just get limousine tent on your windows and forget about it. Limousine tint is often too dark for surveillance early in the morning and late at night. A combination of dark tint, a windshield cover and black surveillance curtains is enough to mask your presence. Make sure you comply with your states tint laws.

3. A Pre-Surveillance Check Very few companies conduct a pre-surveillance check because they're more concerned about their financial bottom line than providing quality work. With a pre-surveillance check the investigator drives by the subjects residence in the daytime the day before what would typically be an early morning surveillance. This allows the investigator to observe the correct address in daylight hours, observe what vehicles are present, locate a suitable area to set up and park, look for potential problems and scout ahead for likely exits. Its the first step in a more successful surveillance.

4. What Time Do I Start? Typically it's best to be in place for a workers comp or liability surveillance by 6:00 a.m. Any later and you risk the chance of losing the subject or wondering if they are even home.

5. Moving into Position Move your surveillance vehicle into position quickly, particularly in a residential area, and get set up. If you performed a pre-surveillance check you won't waste time circling the block twice or wondering where you'll set up surveillance. You'll simply move right into your pre-determined position. Look for spots that tend to make you less noticeable such as parking between two residences, next to large trees, walls or heavy vegetation.

6. Answering the Call of Nature One of the biggest mistakes made by not only rookies but seasoned investigators is thinking they can temporarily break off surveillance and grab lunch at a drive-thru or take a quick restroom break. It's practically a truism that the one time you do it, is the one time the subject decides to leave. Be prepared for a long surveillance by keeping a small ice chest in your vehicle. Fill it with water, energy bars, fruit, anything thats quick, easy and will give you energy. Of course that means when nature calls youre going to have to stay right where youre at. Old water bottles or half-gallon juice jugs are good for storing urine. Whatever you use make sure it has a solid lid. If you're a female investigator a water bottle wont do. You can purchase a small portable RV toilet which can be used again and again. Unfortunately, it'll have to be cleaned again and again.

7. Do You Possess Superhero Powers of Observation? It's easy to pull up on surveillance and crack open a paperback book. But you wont get very far in the surveillance world. Use your powers of observation and stay focused. Vigilance is its own reward. Is everyone's lawn mowed except the subjects? Is it trash pickup day and his cans are still on the side of his house? Are there bags of fertilizer in front of the subjects garage door? Use your powers of reasoning. Remember: people are creatures of habit. Men begin shaving on the same side of their face every time. Look to establish patterns in your subjects behavior.

8. Keep That Camera Steady Do your clients need Dramamine when they watch your videos? Technology, like Sonys Steady Shot, has helped image stabilization. Go a step further and use either a monopod or a tripod.

9. Just the Facts, Ma'am Just the Facts. Your surveillance notes should contain clear and concise facts, not opinion. Write your notes as if you expect them to be subpoenaed. Any derogatory, inflammatory or discriminatory comments regarding the subject are unprofessional and could hurt your client in court.

10. Follow That Car! Unfortunately, following someone is best learned by trial and error. Most of it seems obvious. For example, its usually better to lose someone rather than be burned. It's all about watching slightly ahead of the subjects vehicle and speculating what they will do. Will they make the light? If so, you'd better speed up. The distance you keep between your surveillance vehicle and the subjects vehicle is dictated by the kind of traffic you're in. Heavy traffic: stay close. Highway or rural traffic: you can allow some distance between you. When you begin following a subject try to look for anything on their vehicle that makes it unique, e.g., bumper stickers, window stickers, body damage, etc. Regardless of what kind of vehicle theyre driving, as soon as you begin following them in traffic you'll see nothing but that particular model of vehicle.

Scott B. Fulmer is a guest writer for Fulmer is President and CEO of Scott B. Fulmer Investigations in San Antonio, Texas, and has been in the private investigations industry for about 20 years. He is a Gulf War veteran and a graduate of the University of Texas at San Antonio.

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If you would like to discuss becoming a guest writer for, or if you would like to redistribute this article, contact us at [email protected].

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