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How to Conduct Surveillance

There are many different needs for the use of surveillance.  In this article we will discuss the different techniques used mostly for worker’s compensation, insurance defense or domestic investigation.  Should a need arise for retail surveillance in which apprehension of a shoplifter or a person suspected of shoplifting some of the techniques to be discussed can be applied.  In the event you have an occasion to conduct retail surveillance we suggest caution, planning and education as a necessary part of your planned surveillance procedure.  There is a major difference you will encounter in this retail surveillance as opposed to the three types of surveillance we will be concentrating on in this manual.  The major difference is personal contact with the subject under surveillance.  You must be prepared for possible physical confrontation in retail surveillance. Although this may happen occasionally, personal or physical confrontation is a rare occurrence in worker’s comp, insurance defense or domestic surveillance if the surveillance is conducted properly.

Terms and definitions used in this article:

Target:: The person, place or thing under surveillance.

Operative:  The person conducting surveillance.

Contact:   Any person the subject meets or confers with.

Convoy:  A person employed by a subject to detect surveillance.  Usually done by following the subject.

Decoy:   A person who attempts to divert the operative’s attention from the subject.

Burnt:  Term indication that the subject has discovered the identity of an operative.

Stationary surveillance: The target is not expected to become mobile.

Mobile surveillance:  The target is moving, either walking or in a vehicle.

Surveillance is the systematic observation of person, places, or things to obtain information.  Surveillance is generally carried out without the knowledge of those under surveillance and is concerned primarily with people. Simply, surveillance is conducted in hopes that the activity, whatever the purpose of the surveillance, will occur.  

Surveillance is conducted in one of two techniques either stationary or mobile.  Mobile surveillance is conducted in one of two techniques either on foot or in a vehicle.  One or all of these techniques of surveillance may be used on a surveillance to accurately document the target’s movements either by personal observation, photographs or video.

Regardless of the technique of surveillance to be conducting the objective is the same, to gather and document information for personal knowledge or courtroom testimony.

The most common technique of surveillance employed by private investigators is a combination of stationary and mobile.  Stationary because the subject has not moved or has not made an appearance before mobile surveillance is required.  We will discuss the different techniques systematically.


The first order of business is securing the surveillance job.  Selling the job as it were.  All the surveillance techniques learned in this manual will do no good if one does not possess the expertise to sell one’s self and secure the job.  Remember when the potential client calls your office they may be shopping for confidence more than price.  Although a competitive price is important your demeanor on the phone is what will sell the job.  Get the potential client to discuss their problems their needs and goals of the surveillance on your initial phone contact so you can build a raptor with the person before discussing hourly rates.  Remember if it is a domestic call, is it probably one of the most difficult calls that person will have to make to a stranger.  Convince the person that you are not a stranger by your demeanor, understanding and knowledge of what it takes to get the job done.  Once you have secured the job and your upfront money, then and only then should surveillance preparation will begin.

Once the job is secured and the upfront money is obtained then you should prepare a case history investigative form that contains all the vital information needed to identify the target. An example of a case history form is furnished with this manual. First and foremost is to obtain an accurate address and description of the target including any distinguishing marks, tattoos etc.  What vehicle will the target possibly be driving? What are the target’s social habits? Information in the miscellaneous details section should include details of why the investigation is required.  If domestic, the information should include why, what and who the spouse suspects.  If the investigation is a Worker’s Compensation case the information should include details of the accident and the type of injury.  The target’s habits should also be listed.  Pertinent telephone number should be included. This information is obtained from the client. Space should be provided for gathering additional information thru the investigators traditional channels such as the motor vehicle bureau, voter registration, directory assistance, etc.


Now that you have all the information needed to start the surveillance.  Equipment needed for the job should be prepared with a checklist.  The checklist should include, still camera, video camera, file, map, flashlight, pad and pencil, toilet facility (applies to males), window covers, binoculars and two way radios, at least one should be portable.  Hats, sunglasses and a change of clothes are also recommended.


Advice on which vehicle is the perfect surveillance vehicle is plentiful. There are different opinions for each investigator you may talk with. Some recommendations that the author has received over the years are, a white truck, because white blends in and is unnoticeable or a van that is equipped with all the latest equipment.  I have a friend that uses a red Cadillac and does well.  The bottom line is that the vehicle no matter what color, style or type will not be of any use if the target notices any unusual vehicle in the area.  The vehicle used is of little importance if the investigator uses the techniques and cautions outlined in this manual. If the vehicle is suspected then the investigator has to change vehicle in order to continue the surveillance in another location.


If the location is in close proximity to the investigative office, a drive-by a couple of days prior to starting the surveillance is recommended.  This may not be possible in all surveillance cases. The investigator will have to make on the spot surveillance decisions as to what is the best location for parking and blending on most of the jobs.  The purpose of the drive-by is to log any vehicles for identification later and positive identification of the target’s address and residence at the target’s address.  The investigators should log either by micro recorder or by physical notes any activity seen at the time of the drive-by.  The investigator should make notes on any items that would indicate leisure activity or work activity along with a description of the house and its location within the residential block.  The investigator should make notes of the surrounding neighbors and any animals seen in the neighborhood. The investigator should note all possible surveillance locations including the rear and sides of the residence and if one vehicle will do the job. The investigator should make note of all possible avenues that the target might take when leaving the location.  The investigator should check all parallel routes in order to start the surveillance with knowledge of the immediate area.


The question always arises as to whether or not the investigator should notify the police when ever conducting surveillance.  This is a question that has a different answer for different circumstances. My recommendation is that the investigator must do what they feel is necessary to protect their surveillance location.  There is no law that I know of in any state that requires notification of the police. After all this is America and we enjoy the same freedoms as any other businessperson does.  We have encountered police departments that state that they have a policy that investigators check in with them before beginning investigations.  This so called policy is not law.  The question the investigator should ask themselves on some surveillance jobs after assessing the surrounding area is “ how much trouble do I want to bring upon myself and my surveillance?”  The investigator should determine from the neighborhood if the threat of being exposed by police exist.  The decision to call in and notify the police so they won’t respond to a call from a neighbor may be a good one and then again it may not.

Golden rule number one is; “ Never take your eyes off of the target.”

My recommendation for the beginning location of any surveillance is to pick the farthest location from the target’s location that will allow the investigator to see movement of any vehicles coming or going.  When the surveillance is to be conducted in a residential neighborhood it is a good idea to park with the rising sun or setting sun and in the shade so the vehicle won’t be easy to see. When it is possible, blend into a business parking lot and with other vehicles and place shades over in the windshield to make it appear that the vehicle is empty.  Sometimes it becomes necessary to view at the target’s location backwards in order to blend into the neighborhood.  Watching in the rear view mirror while the investigators vehicle is pointed in the opposite direction is a bit more difficult because it narrows the field of vision but is just as effective. Humans are creatures of habit.  Once the direction of travel of the target is established the investigator should conduct the surveillance in the opposite direction if possible.  This will prevent the investigator from having to leave in a hurry to get out of the line of sight of the target and will prevent the investigator from taking their eye off of the target.  The investigator should record the license plates on any vehicle that arrives at the residence. Although it may not seem relevant at the time, the plate could be used to locate the target in the event the investigator loses sight of the target.  If movement at the location is detected, the investigator should react by starting the video or moving closer to assess what the movement indicates.  Either the target is getting ready to leave the location or is getting ready to start activity that might be worthy of video or moving even closer to the target. The investigator must be prepared to drive aggressively while driving defensibly. Driving aggressive may require driving across a yellow light or even a red light, making U-turns where one would normally not make U-turns, cutting though parking lots etc.  Mind you that this is not a recommendation but a reality.  We never will recommend that an investigator break the law in any way in the pursuit of their duties.

Golden rule number Two; “if the target sees the investigator three times the investigator is burnt.”


Animals and children are the biggest worry the investigator has when parked on surveillance.  Dogs will bark, cows and horses will look and sometime walk towards the investigator. Children are as bold and will approach the investigator and sometime notify the neighborhood or the target that someone is parked in the neighborhood with a camera.

From time to time neighbors, kids and sometimes the target or a member of their family will confront the investigator.  The investigator must have a story ready when the confrontation occurs.  Depending on the location of the investigator from the target, the statement to the confronter could very well be, when asked what the investigator is doing at the location, none of your business.  However even if this is true it may not be the very best approach because it may cause the police to be summoned to the location. Generally, the investigator could say he’s working child custody, car repossession or even staking out a location for a bond jumper arrest or something simple such as “I’m on official business.”  Should the police confront the investigator it is a good idea to tell the truth as to the reason for being at the location without giving out specifics. The investigator could withhold this information; but once again it depends on how much trouble and/or aggravation the investigator wants.


When using one investigator one vehicle, tailing a target’s vehicle in the city and tailing the target’s vehicle in the country require two different approaches.  When tailing in the country, a distance must be maintained to keep from being burnt.  On curves when the target is out of sight, the investigator must close the distance and then back off to a safe distance while maintaining eye contact with the vehicle. This will prevent losing the vehicle should it turn off before the investigator has a chance to get a visual, whether the vehicle turns or continues straight. When tailing a target in the city the investigator must keep a closer vigilance on the moving target’s vehicle because of the possibility of the investigator hitting a red light and losing the target.  Keeping in mind the number one golden rule, “Never take your eyes off of the target” the investigator should keep as close to the target’s vehicle as possible in city block stretches without traffic lights.  If traffic lights exist it is recommended that the investigator tailgate or at the very least do not leave room for any other vehicle to come between the investigator’s and the target’s vehicle eliminating the possibility of the investigator hitting the red light while the target moves across and out of sight. In the event both the investigator and the target are stopped at a traffic light and a vehicle is between the two.  The investigator should leave room between themselves and the odd vehicle in the event the odd vehicle stalls or does not move when the light changes.  The investigator will have enough room to go around. The investigator should be aware as to whether or not the target is dragging the light in order to check to see if they are being followed.  When following a target in the city the investigator might want to keep the sun visor down blocking full view of the investigator in the target’s rearview mirror. Since some targets will be more aware than others, this will keep the investigator from being identified in the event leaving the vehicle becomes necessary for a walking tail i.e. in a mall or shopping center.

Paying close attention to the vehicles that visit the target’s residence or any vehicles that leave the target’s residence when the tailing begins may save the investigator from being “burnt” during the tailing surveillance.  The two vehicles may meet in traffic and if the investigator has to quickly make a traffic light or quickly drive around a vehicle that is moving slow, the investigator may call attention to their movements if the second vehicle is traveling behind of along side of the target or the investigator.  The investigator has to be just as observant of what is happening around them as the investigator might expect the target to be observing.  The investigator must be cautious as to what the target might be observing without being paranoid.  If the investigator becomes paranoid, then they are sure to lose the target.  One reason investigators become paranoid is because people will look at them while they are on surveillance.  This is a natural occurrence because it is human nature to look at someone when you drive by.  This natural occurrence should not necessarily be of concern unless the person stops at the target’s residence or leaves the target’s residence, drives-by and pays particular attention to the investigator’s vehicle.  If the target is suspicious for any reason they may make a series of turns to see if they are being followed or turn down a cul-de-sac.  The investigator if familiar with the area might want to wait for a time to allow the target to exit the cul-de-sac depending on the purpose of the surveillance.  If the target does not exit in a reasonable amount of time the investigator will be forced to make a drive by into the cul-de-sac to observe where the vehicle is parked or any activity that the target may be engaged in.  The investigator should be sure to make notations of vehicles and a description of item in the yard for possible future use.  What may not make any sense at the time may turn out to be significant when solving the question as to what the target is doing at the residence.

If a target pulls into a parking space the investigator should pull into a parking space a across the street or a couple of spaces either before or after the target.  Park where it will be easy to reenter the flow of traffic whenever the target starts to move again.  If there are no parking spaces available, circle the block immediately, do not wait five or ten minutes and decide to find the perfect space.  This is when the investigator will likely lose the target. This is the only time it will be recommended that the investigator take his eyes off of the subject.  Golden rule number three; “if you want to make something happen, take your eyes off of the target i.e., leave the area for a bathroom break, to grab a quick bite in the drive thru etc.” more often than not the target will leave the location causing the investigator to report what they should try to avoid, I lost the target.  Of course, the investigator may not lose the target but I refer you back to Golden Rule # 1. Why take the chance? 


Should the target enter a hotel, mall or possibly leaving the vehicle for the purpose of creating a diversion for any friends that may see the target and recognize their vehicle.  The target may park the vehicle and meet someone in another location, take the bus or a taxi.  The investigator may choose to continue surveillance on foot depending on the purpose of the surveillance.  Foot surveillance is sometimes referred to as shadowing.  When shadowing the target on a long street with little foot traffic the investigator should give the target a bigger lead than in a crowded mall.  As when the target is in a vehicle approaching a traffic light, when the target approaches a corner the investigator should close the distance in the event the target turns and is out of sight of the investigator briefly.

The investigator is at a disadvantage if working alone because the target may exit their vehicle and walk into a mall only to exit on the other side and enter a vehicle of another person, a bus or have a taxi waiting for them.  If the surveillance is being conducted with two investigators, the investigator than takes the foot surveillance should have a portable radio to report back to the investigator who remained in the vehicle to take up the mobile surveillance.

There area generally less people to deal with in residential neighborhoods. However, the investigator can count on the outside neighbors to pay particular attention to the investigator if he or she is seen too many times, especially if the investigator is acting out of place and trying not to be noticed.  This is where a change of clothes comes in handy the investigator can change into a walking outfit and blend in without any suspicious being raised by the neighbor who is outside watering the lawn. It is recommended that when shadowing a target walking in a residential neighborhood the investigator should conduct the shadowing from across the street.

If the target enters an office building and enters an elevator, depending on the need to know, the investigator should enter the elevator with the target as required by Golden Rule # 1.  Depending on how the surveillance has progressed thus far, the investigator should exit on the same floor as the target and walk in the opposite direction at some point the investigator can stop and turn as though they have walked in the wrong direction or have dropped something.  This will give the investigator the opportunity to see which office the target has entered without raising suspicion.  If the office is a doctor’s office the investigator can enter and pretend to sign the sign in log and take a seat to observe the target.  If the surveillance is to begin on the target when they leave the doctor’s office it is a good idea to arrive at the doctor’s office prior to the appointment time of the target.  When the target arrives they must sign in and their name will be called when the nurse is ready for them.  This give the investigator a good look for identification purpose when the appointment is over and the surveillance is to begin.  After identifying which office the target entered then the investigator can return to the lobby and wait for the target to exit the building.

If the target enters a hotel the investigator must blend in with the guest and attempt to follow the target until the room is established. Once the room number is established the investigator should register and check into a room at the hotel. This will help the investigator justify being on the hotel property should a confrontation with hotel security occur.  Once you establish that you are a hotel guest the hotel security will have no grounds to question or bother you. The investigator should attempt to get the room across from the target and make observations through the peephole.  Making contact with hotel personnel may not be a good idea unless the investigator has dealt with them on other occasions.

When two investigators are employ on foot surveillance, one should shadow on the same side of the street and the other one should shadow on the opposite side.  The investigators should change positions on occasions to keep the target from becoming familiar with either of the investigators.

The information contained in this manual has been a compilation of information gleaned from 20 years of experience, surveillance articles and fellow investigators that have been willing to share their stories with me. (Like there is an investigator out there who doesn’t like to share war stories!!)

My hope is that you learn just one fact that you didn’t know from this article.  More importantly, that you remember to use them when the situation arises.

Good luck and I hope we never meet and I never see you in the future. (On the job that is!!)

Pete Trahan, “Your Louisiana Cajun Connection”

Example Case History Worksheet

ABC Investigators, Inc.    Case No. 08-________ Case Type ______

                        Date Received ___/___/___   Referred by ______________________

Contact Person: _______________________________ Phone #: (____)_____-______

Company/Client Name: _________________________________________________

Company/Client Address: _______________________________________________

City: _______________  State:  _____ Zip: _______-_____ Fax #: (____)_____-______


First Name: _____________________ Middle: ______________ Last: ______________

Address: ________________________________________________________________

City: ___________________________ State: ____________ Zip: _________-________

DOB: ____/____/____  SS#: ____-_____-_____ DL #/ State: _____________________

Race: _______ Sex: _______ Height: ______ Weight: _____ Hair: ______  Eyes: ______


Home Phone #: (____)_______-_______        Work Phone #: (____)_______-__________ 

Distinguishing Marks:______________________________________________________

Employer: _________________________ Job Description: _______________________

Attorney: _______________________________________________________________


Injury Type/Date: _____/____/_____  _________________________________________

Trial Date: ____/____/____ Criminal/Traffic: ___________________________________

Directory Assistance: ______________________________________________________

Voter Registration: ________________________________________________________

Misc. Details: ____________________________________________________________

Domestic Information

Children & Schools: _________________________________________________________________________

Marriage; Date & Place: __/__/___(Parish also)____________________________________


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