Secrets of a Private Investigator, Revealed! 

by Stan Grist


Surveillance is an advanced investigative technique that takes many hours of practice to master. I do not recommend that you conduct surveillance on a subject unless you are a licensed private investigator. Without training and experience, you could get yourself into a lot of trouble by arousing the suspicion of someone who thinks you are in the act of committing a crime. Further, if you are not accomplished at conducting surveillance, there is a strong possibility that your subject will see you, which could cause major damage to your investigation.

My main reason for describing surveillance work is to give you a better idea how professional investigators work. If you should ever need to hire a private investigator to conduct surveillance, this chapter will give you a good idea of what to expect from them. Surveillance work is very demanding and great care is needed to achieve positive results. For those who are interested, a Masters in Criminal Justice degree can prepare you for a career as a private investigator.


  1. Foot Surveillance

My opinion of a good, general definition of Surveillance is: To surreptitiously determine the activities of a subject." This means following a subject without any suspicion, on their part, that you are following them.

Physical surveillance is one of the most common techniques used by investigators to obtain necessary information. Surveillance, or shadowing, involves following a person, both closely enough not to lose them (close tail), and far enough away to avoid detection (loose tail). Effective surveillance requires much practice and a good measure of patience since you may find yourself tailing someone for hours, or even waiting for them just to appear.

A couple of terms in surveillance that you should be aware of are "getting warm" and "being burned." "Warm" means that the subject suspects that you are following them, while "burned" means that the subject knows you are following them and knows who it is. Experts agree that losing a subject is better than "burning" a case since you can usually locate a subject again. But once they know you are following them, your case is finished.

One thing to remember when conducting surveillance is to blend in with the crowd. Don't carry any objects, such as a briefcase, cigar or umbrella (unless it's raining) that could distinguish you from others around you. In addition, it is rarely necessary to wear a disguise. Experts generally warn novices to avoid putting on a fake moustache or beard because, usually, they look fake. Make-up artists make good consultants if it should become necessary to disguise yourself.

If you want to change your appearance, you can do so by putting on or taking off a coat or hat. This is usually effective, but you also might want to carry a change of clothes in your car just in case. Having one or two pairs of glasses can also help.

Investigators often follow their subjects on foot and this surveillance method requires special techniques. The cardinal rule is "never lose sight of your subject." Sometimes, in heavy pedestrian traffic, this is easier said than done. In heavy traffic, follow your subject by about eight to nine feet, much farther if there is little or no other foot traffic. Walking on the opposite side of the street may be a good way to follow someone without risking detection.

If your subject turns around, just act natural; don't panic and don't make any abrupt movements like darting into an alley or quickly hiding behind some object. If possible, simply stop and look in a shop window and use the reflection in the glass to observe your subject. If that won't work, pass by your subject nonchalantly, stop a short distance ahead, look in a window and then take a casual look back toward your subject. But, it is a good idea not to meet their eyes since it will be easier for a subject to notice and remember you if your eyes briefly lock glances.

If your subject enters some public place like a restaurant, train, or bus, you will need to follow them inside. For these situations you will need to carry a sufficient amount of cash to cover your expenses. Credit cards can help in case your subject decides to take a train or plane to another city or state.

"Warm" subjects use a variety of tactics to discover if they are being followed. One way is to reverse their course of direction. Following on the opposite side of the street can help you avoid detection if your subject tries this. Walking around a corner and stopping suddenly is another method subjects use to catch investigators on their trail. If this happens to you, just keep on walking around the corner, then turn back when it's safe.

A subject might intentionally drop a piece of paper on the ground to see if someone picks it up. Other ways subjects spot a tail include slipping into public places like restaurants, theatres, or hotels and exiting immediately through another door. Getting on a subway, public transit, or bus and then jumping off just before the doors close is a common method. If this happens to you, just stay on until the next stop and hope you can find your subject again. Don't attempt to jump off with the subject.

Moving to a deserted area is an easy way for a subject to spot a tail since there is no concealment. In addition, a very suspicious subject may have another person around them acting as a lookout.

Some Surveillance Do's...

- Know as much about your subject as possible.

- Verify subject's address.

- Know the area where the surveillance will begin.

- Be properly equipped.

- Arrive early.

- When seated in a car, attract as little attention as possible.

- Watch subject's location carefully.

- Look ahead and anticipate anything.

- Watch the subject's rear closely. (the car, you fool)

- Keep intervening traffic under control when doing vehicle surveillance.

- Try to know beforehand the general direction that the subject will be heading.

  • Relax, take a deep, slow breath.

If, for example, your subject takes short trips to the same places at slow speeds everyday, your job will be much easier than if they are a fast and unpredictable driver who never visits the same place twice. If you know that the subject drives like a wild man, then you should consider a two-vehicle surveillance.

The type of vehicle you drive is important, as you do not wish to stand out. Your vehicle should be as similar as possible to other cars in the area. I have found that a later model two or four door sedan, or van, with a standard, non-flashy, neutral paint finish usually blends in nicely. Tan, dark, light blue, and white, are colors that don't call attention to themselves.

If you are working in an upper-class neighborhood, I would advise not using an older model car or rusty van as you would be drawing much attention to yourself. Whenever possible, use a newer model van as your surveillance unit.

Your vehicle should always be in excellent working condition and you should fill your gas tank before starting surveillance. It is very frustrating to have to stop because your gas gauge reads empty. You should have all your fluid levels and belts checked regularly. There is nothing worse than a vehicle that won't run right during a surveillance.

For vehicle surveillance that will last a few days, you might want to try switching units each day to avoid detection. Since you might not have more than one vehicle, you might borrow or rent a car or van from a low cost rental agency. Be aware that even if you are driving a rental car and your subject "makes" you, they could find out who you are through the rental agency. Therefore, you must use the same precautions as you would use driving your own vehicle.

Remember to keep essential equipment in your vehicle at all times. This includes flashlight, maps of the city and state, a camera, tape recorder, binoculars, and a packed overnight bag. Also, a pair of rubber-soled shoes will be of use if you have to leave the car and follow on foot.


Initiating the Surveillance

The way you begin your vehicle surveillance may decide the success or failure of your operation. Real-life surveillance is not like the movies where the surveillance vehicle parks across the street and starts up when the subject comes out. This is far too conspicuous and a deaf, dumb and blind subject probably would notice you.

It is much less risky to park down the block with a good telescope or set of binoculars. The surrounding geography may help you in this regard. Each new surveillance location usually has a perfect spot where the investigator can observe the subject come out to their car, and which also allows the investigator to follow the subject in any direction without concern.

If your subject is on a one way street, you may park just down the street or around the corner with a reasonable expectation that the subject will drive past you when they leave. This allows you to reduce your risk of detection when initiating surveillance.


Surveillance in progress...

While tailing a vehicle, keep at least one or two cars between you and the subject's car. Also, do not remain constantly behind the subject; change lanes often. Try not to appear fully in their rear-view mirror.

The distance between you and your subject will vary according to the traffic conditions and the type of area in which you find yourself. Dense city traffic requires you to stay very close to the subject. In rural areas you may have to keep a distance of hundreds of yards to avoid detection.

Always try to stay in the subject's blind spot whenever possible. This only works, of course, in city traffic and on roads that have more than one lane. The blind spot to the subject's right rear is usually the one allowing the least visibility.

Noticing whether the subject has a companion or is alone is important along with what the companion is doing. If the companion is turning their head around every few seconds, they may be watching for a "tail". Here you would have to be much more cautious.

Changing Appearances

While it is impossible to change a vehicle's appearance totally, there are some small things that can be done to reduce the sense of familiarity with it. The simple changing of positions by you and your partner(s) in the surveillance vehicle can modify your general appearance. Your partner can crouch down in the seat sometimes and you may even change your posture behind the wheel.

Also, you and your partner(s) could put on and remove caps and sunglasses. Depending on the weather you also can change coats or jackets. These things have a tendency to change the general appearance of the surveillance unit as a whole.



With experience, you develop some preplanned moves that allow you to stay successfully with your subject, even under difficult situations. But sometimes, pure luck and inspiration play their part too.

If, for some reason, the subject stops, parks, or turns a corner before you can do so, don't panic. Drive past the subject, make the first turn you can and continue following from there, or park in the first available spot if you find the subject has parked.

Other strategies and terms you need to know include "leap frog", or "sandwich tailing" and "paralleling." The sandwich tail, or leap frog, is where two investigators participate in the tail; "A" is in front of the subject and "B" is far enough behind the subject that they remain undetected. "A" radios to "B" to tell them when the subject turns or parks.

After a while, or if "A" loses the subject, "B" closes the gap. When "A" is in position behind "B", then "B" passes the subject and takes over "A" 's original position. Of course, "A" then assumes the rear position. When properly carried out, this technique lowers suspicion and may be used for an extended period.

Much more difficult, paralleling is when the investigator tails a subject in a vehicle on a street parallel to the one the subject is driving on. Usually, the investigator will check at each intersection to see if the subject is still following the same course. If the subject isn't there, that means they either stopped on the last block, or turned the corner. The investigator must then discover the subject's exact location as quickly as possible.

When tailing an unsuspecting subject who is driving fast, it is best to follow in the same lane. Never allow too many vehicles to get between you and the subject. This is especially true if the subject is traveling in the fast or left turn lane. Suddenly, the subject may turn onto a side street and, unfortunately, lose you due to heavy oncoming traffic.

Serious problems can arise when approaching traffic signals. Remember, you are not driving a police or emergency vehicle and are liable for any traffic infractions that you may incur. Erratic driving also can arouse the suspicions of your subject. If your subject does not suspect a "tail", it is not uncommon to follow the vehicle almost directly behind. This is especially advantageous in heavy, city traffic.

When approaching traffic lights at an intersection it is helpful to watch the pedestrian cross-walk signals. These let you know how fresh or stale your green light is. If the pedestrian signal shows a white or green light, you know that you have a fresh green light. You don't have to hurry as much to get through the intersection. But, if the pedestrian signal shows solid or blinking red, you have a stale green traffic light that could turn yellow at any moment. Here, you have to get through the intersection, behind or next to your subject, as soon as possible.

In residential areas, it is somewhat easy to maintain a "loose tail" and observe parked cars from a considerable distance with the use of binoculars. But, you must use extreme caution and never let anyone see you using binoculars. This will arouse enough suspicion for the neighbors to call the police.

When observing the subject and their associates, make complete detailed notes at the time or as soon as possible, noting complete descriptions of clothing and physical appearances. If appropriate, photograph what you see whenever possible, as photographic evidence is difficult to repute in a Court of Law. We will be discussing note taking and photography later in the book.

Perhaps you have prior information that your subject will be traveling to a specific location, such as another home, hotel or motel. If this is the case, you may not need to attempt to follow the vehicle. You might proceed ahead of them and locate an appropriate place of hiding before their arrival.


Night Surveillance

Night surveillance poses some problems, and also some relief from other problems. The lower visibility works both ways. It is harder for the subject to see who is following, but the investigator has more trouble keeping track of the subject's car.

One problem with night vehicle surveillance is that your headlights will be very visible from a long distance. This isn't a problem if there is other traffic because headlights look even more alike than tail lights, but in a rural area they stand out.

One solution is to have your headlights wired so that they can be operated independently from one another. (This may be illegal in some areas.) It is done usually with two toggle switches. When your subject goes around a corner, you simply turn off one of your headlights. If your subject should be paying attention, your vehicle will appear as a completely different one at night.

If the investigation is of considerable importance, then sophisticated equipment may be rented or purchased for the occasion. Such sophisticated equipment might include an electronic tracking device, night vision starlight scope or an expensive high-speed telephoto lens for the camera.

Extended periods of surveillance should be conducted by several different investigators because fatigue can play tricks on one's imagination. Remember to be well equipped and have fresh replacement batteries for the appropriate equipment. The greatest teacher in this type of investigation is experience. The more you attempt something, the more efficient you become.


  1. Stakeout Surveillance

The Hollywood or television version of a stakeout is two men in a car parked some 30 feet away from the subject's premises, watching through the windshield. In real life, two men in a car might as well hang out a sign saying "Stake Out In Progress" because they would be that obvious. Usually a nervous neighbor will call the police.

Using a car as a fixed observation post is very amateurish, and is a method of last resort. Standing in a doorway is also conspicuous, although it may become useful when following a subject who goes into a building and will soon be coming back out.


Temporary Stakeouts

There must be a better way, and there is! A temporary stakeout works much better if you can blend in with other people in the area. One way of doing so is to go into a nearby cafe, store or restaurant. When you do this, the subject would have to pick you out of a crowd to "make" you. This is much more difficult than spotting a lone figure in a doorway.

Behavior is as important as physical surroundings. Your behavior must be appropriate for a given situation. That is why standing in a doorway or sitting in a parked car is so conspicuous. People don't normally stand in doorways unless it's raining or snowing or they're waiting for a bus. People normally park their car, lock it and leave. Anyone who sits in a car for more than a couple of minutes will stand out because it is not a normal thing.

One exception is a male-female team. They don't stand out if they sit in a car together. Anyone who sees them will interpret their behavior as that of friends or lovers, especially if they are talking. At night on a dark street they can avoid seeming out of place by hugging and kissing. Obviously, in the same situation and in most neighborhoods, a team of two men hugging and kissing would attract attention.

Setting up a temporary observation post is a matter of quick improvisation. Often, there are props available nearby. A shoeshine stand or a stand-up lunch counter is often nearby in a city. A telephone booth might be another prop. A gas station is yet another opportunity.

Using a phone booth for a few minutes' cover is more than just picking up the hand set and pretending to talk. It helps to have a notebook open and pretend to be writing. A briefcase is a useful prop for this situation. If the phone booth is occupied, even better. Simply stand next to it as if you are waiting to use the phone. This will enable you to look around and remain normal and less conspicuous.

If no props seem available, you might lift the hood of your car and appear to be working on your engine. A stalled motorist won't usually arouse suspicion, but this improvised maneuver shouldn't last for too long.


Semi-Fixed Stakeouts

Sometimes it's possible to establish a somewhat more permanent position for a stakeout. I mentioned cars being the worst possible choice for a stakeout, but other vehicles can be much better. Any vehicle that does not permit easy observation of the inside will do, when it blends in with the surroundings.

Vans and campers are very common surveillance vehicles and are ideal. If you can borrow or use a van, you will have a tremendous advantage. You might rent a van, but if you do so often, you might be better off buying one.

The ideal set up is a van with lightly tinted windows at the sides and back. Combine this with heavy, dark curtains over each window and an opaque curtain or partition between the front seats and rear compartment. The tinted windows prevent people from easily seeing that curtains are opening and closing. The curtains prevent you from being silhouetted. When there are two windows on opposite sides of the van, people can see you moving between them.

It is critical to remain back from the windows when observing, just as you would in a room. The interior of the van should be darker than the light level outside to make seeing in more difficult. Curtains also serve the purpose of keeping the van darker inside. If the stakeout takes place overnight, it's important to make sure no lights come on when any van door opens, as the slightest light might give you away.

The van windows should be clean, not only for observation, but to enable you to take clear photographs when the opportunity arises. When using camera or binoculars, be sure to remain far enough inside to avoid direct sunlight reflection from the lenses. A ray of sunlight can reflect very brightly if the angle is right, thus giving your presence away.

If you expect your stakeout to last a long time, it is good to prepare in advance. You should plan for food, drink and toilet facilities. If your van isn't camperized, you'll have to improvise. In a pinch, some granola bars and a canteen of water will do for a short while. A milk carton or jar might serve for urination unless you are staked out for more than twenty-four hours. Here, you should have a camper's porta-potti. It is important not to risk blowing the stakeout by leaving your post due to a call of nature.

If you have a camperized van, you can set your stakeout up in style. Presumably, you'll have a refrigerator or icebox, a stove, and even a toilet. This enables you to maintain the observation post for days at a time in comfort.In such a case, your main problems will be that of staying awake and avoiding signs of occupancy. You'll have to be careful about noise and be aware that any moving around inside the vehicle may make it rock. If anyone passes by and notices movement or talking, it could give you away.

Parking could be a problem. First, the vehicle must "fit in" and appear normal in the area. A lavish motor home seems out of place in a poor section of the city. A rusted "hippy van" doesn't fit very well into a middle or upper-class neighborhood. There may be local parking regulations that will impede your operation. Watch out for parking meters and time restricted parking zones.

Parking distance is important. People are less likely to pay attention to vehicles parked a block or two away than within a few yards of them. If the parking place is a logical one, such as a shopping center parking lot, your surveillance vehicle will remain psychologically invisible.


The Fixed Stakeout

The basic prerequisite for a fixed observation post is to know the territory. Knowing the layout of the area is important because it allows you to choose the best possible observation post. Knowing your subject's building and all its exits enables you to cover it best. It may be necessary to set up more than one observation point if you need to cover several sides of a building.

In certain instances you will need to rent a room or an apartment to carry out your surveillance. You'll want to keep your true purpose a secret from the landlord. They may talk to, or even be a friend of your subject.

Another danger is having the landlord think that you are doing something suspicious. Unless you behave fairly naturally, someone might suspect that you are dealing drugs or doing something illegal and bring in police surveillance or even direct questioning.

Most likely you will need to move in some equipment and supplies, even for the smaller stakeouts. Some of these items might be:

· food 

· drink

· 35 mm. and/or Video Camera

· Binoculars or Telescope

· Misc. Electronic Equipment

While the sight of a person carrying a cooler or cardboard box doesn't ordinarily arouse suspicion, a pair of binoculars might. Remember to transport any optical or other specialized equipment in a box or bag to avoid revealing your true purpose.

Avoiding detection while at the observation post is essential. The first thing you should do upon entering the surveillance area is to draw all the blinds, curtains and drapes almost shut, and turn off any lights that are on. Set up your post so that you can see the target area while back from the window some distance. Never put your face close to the window or draw back the drapes to get a better view. Select your field of view and leave it that way.

You may use a small, weak flashlight at night if you are careful not to shine it out the window. Turning on the room lights in a residential neighborhood may seem normal during the night, but in a commercial area it would be a giveaway.


Rural Observation Posts

Wide open spaces give you more freedom but also expose you to easier observation by your subject or others. When selecting an observation post, you may choose a gully, rock formation or shrubbery. An important point is that you should choose a spot that gives you cover from all angles. Someone might come along, see you before you can hide, and blow your cover.

People living in rural areas usually know their neighbors and immediately spot anyone who doesn't belong. Thick woods usually give good cover. It may be necessary to approach the post at night to reduce the chances of detection by anyone. This may mean that warm clothing is necessary with food and drink.

Finding a place to leave your vehicle can be a serious problem. If there are no campgrounds nearby, it might be necessary to have a friend drive you to a point near your cover and drop you off.

It is most likely going too far to wear camouflage clothing and camouflage colors on your face. If anyone sees you it would immediately arouse suspicion. Much better is dark clothing and the removal of anything shiny, reflective or bright, such as a belt buckle.

Noise carries far on a quiet night, therefore, it is best to leave behind things that rattle or make noise such as coins and other objects. Choice of clothing material is important too, because some fabrics, such as nylon, are noisy when rubbed against brush. Dacron or cotton, and even wool, is much better.

In an extreme situation it may become necessary to dig a foxhole and camouflage it with branches. If this does become necessary, it is best to dig at night and have all loose soil and other evidence of digging covered up or scattered by first light.


Surveillance Conclusions

Most of the techniques and tactics that I have discussed have carried with them the aura of "deep secrets" over the years. They are only known, for the most part, by police departments, private investigators and government intelligence organizations.

This chapter on surveillance deals mostly with practical techniques used by many private investigators. Most often, the use of expensive equipment is not cost effective and is oversold. I feel that emphasis on tactics, more than hardware, makes one a more skilled investigator in less time.

I have also discussed team tactics. It is much more common to find investigators working alone in a given situation, than as a team. Therefore, if you intend to become a serious investigator who works mostly alone, it is important to practice these techniques repeatedly so as not to develop too much of a habit of depending on others.

For more useful information, please see the bonus report

 "Surveillance Techniques: Knowing When to Back-off"




4. Investigative Equipment


A flashlight can come in very handy in a variety of situations. If you find yourself doing nocturnal surveillance work, a flashlight will come in handy when preparing your equipment or taking notes.

If appropriate, it is probably best to keep the flashlight in your vehicle since you won't always have time to return home to get it. I recommend a small Maglight that you can purchase for around $30.

Binoculars and Telescopes

Binoculars or telescopes are essential to investigators conducting surveillance work. Many investigators find themselves sitting behind a curtained window, binoculars in hand, waiting for a subject to appear. Naturally, in surveillance, the farther away from the subject you can get, the less chance you have of detection, so a small telescope or binoculars are usually best. You can purchase a used pair of binoculars for around $50.

When using binoculars, it is important to learn how to properly focus each eye, individually. The procedure is simple and allows one pair of binoculars to be used by different people who have varying qualities of eyesight.

When using a telescope it is important to keep both eyes open. This may seem unnatural or difficult at first, but it can be mastered with a little practice. The reason for keeping the dormant eye open is to prevent developing fuzzy vision when putting the telescope down to see normally again.

Tape Recorder

The tape recorder can be used to record conversations with witnesses, informants, subjects, and can prove useful in forming part of the investigator's notes for the case. Subjects may be recorded in the hope that subsequent study of the tape by the investigator will reveal an important clue. These types of recordings of threats, statements, or key bits of conversation may be the basis of proof in your investigation. Recording conversations also can be used to bring back evidence to a lawyer. A small micro-cassette tape recorder that can fit in a pocket or handbag is ideal and usually won't cost more than $80-$100 new. It is important to remember never to record a conversation without "one party consent." It is a criminal offence for anyone to monitor or record the conversation of two people, when neither of them knows or gives permission.

Small tape recorders are also very convenient for making verbal notes. Details of events are much easier to record verbally than in writing, especially when the action begins in a surveillance situation. By verbalizing your notes instead of writing them, you won't have to take your eyes off what is happening and you can record much more detail in the process.

Photographic Equipment

Investigators sometimes have the need to photograph subjects under surveillance. For this purpose, you would need a 35 mm. camera and a zoom telephoto lens. Since super high quality is not your primary goal, you don't need the most sophisticated equipment. But, you should choose equipment that produces good photographs.

If you're not the greatest photographer in the world, you might want to invest a little more money in a camera that can focus and set shutter speeds and aperture adjustments automatically. A new automatic camera can cost you about $700 or more, while a manually operated camera can cost as little as $350. Buying good used equipment can save you half the cost or more.

Two-Way Radios

When carrying out team surveillance, it is usually necessary to communicate with two-way radios. The least expensive way to handle the job is with Citizens Band (C.B.) radios. It is possible to purchase a good used C.B. radio for as little as $50. The main advantage of a C.B. radio is the price.

But, there are some disadvantages associated with a C.B. The first disadvantage is a lack of privacy. In a large city, thousands of people own and monitor C.B. transmissions. You may have to use coded language and have a list of pre-arranged channels to switch to when communicating by C.B.

Also, the range of a C.B. can be somewhat limited. With a good antenna, your range may vary from a few blocks to a few miles, depending on the surrounding terrain. Two investigators could not hope to communicate from street level at opposite ends of a large city.

Preferable to the C.B. is a VHF handheld two-way radio. These radios can be linked into a repeater or trunked system, or network of antennas throughout your city. This means that when you talk, your transmissions connect by computer from repeater antenna to repeater antenna, from one radio to the other. Therefore, you get a tremendous range and clarity with your radio system. Another advantage is that your conversations are more private. There is much less chance of having your conversation monitored on the VHF radio than on the C.B.

The main disadvantage of a VHF radio system is the price. The monthly fee to use the repeater system is around $25. In addition, each handheld radio can costs from $500 to $1,800. Obviously, you won't want to purchase a system like this unless you have a great need.

Video Cameras

While VCR's have come down considerably in price, video cameras have decreased in price more slowly. These cameras vary in terms of features and price. One option you may want to consider is renting a video camera on the days you need to video tape.

Rentals usually run from $30 to $50 a day, plus a deposit. If you're not planning to video tape often, renting may prove less costly.

Video Cassette Recorders

In recent years, VCR's have become almost as commonplace as televisions. Because of their rapid increase in availability, they have decreased significantly in price. You can presently pick up a new VCR for as little as $150. VCR's are particularly handy when dubbing a surveillance video from a VHSC or 8 mm. format to full-size VHS.

Surveillance Vehicle

A truck or van is often ideal for surveillance projects. Equipping your van or truck for this type of stakeout is somewhat simple. You may buy a van that is already camperized or you may choose to do the job yourself.

The important thing is that if you are going to be doing surveillance regularly, you will want to use a vehicle that offers the most possible protection from detection. As mentioned before, a van seems the best possible vehicle for the job.

Depending on your budget, you will want to equip it as comfortably as possible. The price for such a vehicle can run anywhere from $1,500 to $30,000. If you can find a van with the necessary windows, you may have extra windows installed after purchasing the van.

Buying Used Equipment

You can buy equipment for almost any type of business, second or even third-hand for a fraction of what it would cost new. Other businesses that have failed, merged, or grown to the point where they require larger or more modern equipment, are often good sources for used equipment.

Judicious shopping will turn up some excellent bargains. In the Sunday classified sections of most large city newspapers, you will find many used equipment bargains. Also check the "Business Opportunities" classification. Businesses that are liquidated, or sold, may have fixtures or equipment for sale at substantial savings.

Don't overlook suppliers of new equipment. Ask them if they have good used items; frequently they have trade-ins or repossessions that can be obtained at discounts of up to 50 percent. You can save hundreds of dollars by shopping wisely for second-hand items for your investigative needs.


5. Surveillance Photography

Photography may become important during any part of the investigator's work. The investigator will find that photographs taken of various scenes will reveal much more than any eye-witness can see and remember.

If the investigator has taken the photo, or is present when the photo is taken, they qualify to testify legally that the picture gives a true representation of the scene or occurrence. By studying an enlarged photo of a scene or incident under investigation, some important clue previously overlooked may be revealed to the careful investigator.

Let's take a closer look at some reasons for obtaining photographs of your subject or investigation:

  1. For evidence. If, for example, you are the owner of a business and know someone is stealing from you, photographs you take will serve as evidence for a prosecution.

2. For future reference and comparison. You might want a record of cars parked in a certain place, or you might need a photograph of a subject to show to another person for possible identification. For either case you'll probably prefer that the subject not know they were photographed.


The Surroundings

You may have to take pictures in broad daylight, or the available light may be dim. You may get close, photographing your subject from across a room or street, or the range may be much greater. You'll have to adapt your techniques to the situation.

Most surveillance photography takes place in "existing light". This means that the investigator has to make do with the light that is available and does not have the luxury of using a flash, for obvious reasons.


The Equipment

The best all-round camera for surveillance photography is the 35mm. The following is a list of reasons why:

1. It's light in weight and compact, compared to larger format cameras.

2. It's commonly available, and takes commonly available film of many types.

3. It gives negatives of excellent quality, good enough to make enlargements of 16" x 20", and larger, assuming the right film and competent use.

4. It accepts a variety of accessories, such as telephoto lenses and remote releases.

5. Most 35 mm. single-lens reflex cameras have behind-the-lens metering, which is important when using different lenses of different efficiency and for getting a reading without getting close to the subject.

6. The price is right. It's possible to buy a 35 mm. camera of excellent quality for under $250. Larger format cameras cost a lot more and the accessories are much more expensive.

This book is not an appropriate place for a discussion of which brand names are the best. You should use whatever brand of 35 mm. camera that seems to suit you best. There are many good cameras on the market and most have very similar features.

What is even more important than the brand of camera you use is your skill in knowing how to use it. This set of skills is impossible to learn from reading a few pages in this book. It is important to learn much more about photography and to practice your skills. There are many good books available in libraries and bookstores. You might even consider taking an evening course in photography if your skills could use some improvement.

Photographs taken by an investigator may or may not be allowed as evidence in a court of law. Some photographs can be allowed under specific conditions as ruled upon by a judge. But, most photographs never get far enough along to go as far as the courtroom.

As with an affidavit or deposition of an eyewitness, clear and easily discernible images on film, when properly presented in pre-trial negotiations, will often serve to preempt an actual trial. The photographs will show that at least one individual, the investigator who took the pictures, was in direct visual contact during the commission of the act captured on film. In most civil or domestic cases, that is often a strong enough consideration to induce the parties involved to get down to more vigorous and serious attitudes toward settlement.

Such settlements include appropriate indentures of indemnification and "hold harmless" agreements concerning possible future litigation on the same issues. Photographs and negatives are then generally surrendered.

Like plea bargaining between a criminal defendant and the Prosecutors office, negotiations over well-executed photographs, with their promise of a possible strong testimony by a capable investigator, are a real and regularly practiced phase of judicial systems around the world.

In other circumstances, at the discretion of the lawyer, the photographs taken by an investigator may not be revealed to an opposing attorney until the trial commences. On the second or third day in court, a settlement may be even more likely than it might have been earlier. Photographs also may be deemed unnecessary if other phases of testimony are getting satisfactory results.

As with cassette tapes and field notes of the investigator, photographs are always conducive to the effective gathering of information, which is what investigation is all about. When properly presented at the right moment, photographs will often stimulate energetic cooperation from other witnesses.


Clandestine Photographic Positions

One age-old military technique of cover and concealment for a forward observer can be used effectively by the investigator on a surveillance stakeout or photo shoot. This fundamental principle dictates that rather than take a position between two obstacles, always take a position in front of an obstacle behind you. This will allow a full and clear field of view for the observer, but will not allow his silhouette to be seen against the sky or a plain background.

This technique will allow some movement as needed to manipulate a tripod, spotting scope, or other photographic equipment. It will work especially well at night, providing that the investigator uses dark clothing.

It is always desirable to use a tripod for taking photographs, especially when using a telephoto lens. Naturally, the use of more elaborate equipment makes the investigator's activities harder to conceal than when they are using a small hand-held camera. With the extra apparatus, choice of a site and cover are of primary consideration.

As often as not, the investigator/photographer works in the open, improvising as best they can, as the following case illustrates.


A Case in Point

The P.I. was engaged to secure evidence for the plaintiff in a planned "breach of covenant" lawsuit already in negotiation. The basic investigative objective was established: to show, in a convincing method, that principal figures who had contractually agreed not to reenter the type of business that they had sold to the investigator's client, as competitors, had actually established a similar business in direct competition.

The agreements between the client (purchaser) and the sellers of the business had covered a certain number of years. But, it had only been a matter of months since the agreements were consummated. The P.I.'s assignment was to provide proof that the sellers had breached the covenant.

After preliminary investigation, it was decided that one of the first objectives to pursue would be the discovery of exactly to whom the newly formed competitive company was selling its products.

The first phase of the investigation involved tailing delivery vehicles. It was quickly established that the subjects of the investigation were not only selling in competition with the proprietor of their former company, they were actually delivering products to his current bread-and-butter, volume-buying and specially discounted customers who received the goods. These pieces of evidence were gathered in a somewhat short period of time.

Then, in a conference involving lawyers, the client, and the private investigator, it was determined that a "clincher" was desirable. Something with which out-of-court negotiations and a satisfactory solution might quickly be achieved. The investigator was to try to obtain a clear, close-up and candid photograph of the top principal, easily and clearly identifiable, on or about the premises of the newly constructed facilities of the rival company. If possible, he should try to include in the same photographs, the facilities, the principal, and his identifiable motor vehicle, showing the Canadian Provincial license plate. How this was to be done was up to the investigator.

His previous investigations had enabled the P.I. to become familiar with the physical layout of the target's facilities. While waiting each morning for delivery trucks to be loaded and "tailed" on their delivery runs, he had become familiar with each employee and with the social and business visitors to the facility. He could also anticipate, with some accuracy, where the top principal would park his car before entering the office.

The P.I. found four good positions from which he could observe the office area and parking lot. He took up his position. An assistant, acting as a back-up, was stationed in the most remote of the selected observation posts in an old pick-up truck with a nondescript camper cover.

The pick-up was well-equipped with standard surveillance equipment and devices. The P.I. himself, a Nikon 35 mm. camera with telescopic lens on the seat beside him, was staked out in an equally inconspicuous van.

Sometimes on surveillance everything goes wrong; other times everything falls into place.

At ten o' clock in the morning, a big, expensive sedan came over the railroad tracks and cut a dusty trail toward the main gate of the target facility. The car's description matched that in the P.I.'s notes; so did the appearance of the man who emerged from the big car after it came to a stop, exactly where the P.I. had anticipated. Hastily, the subject entered the office building.

The P.I. stepped out of his car with his camera. He had already observed a five-man railroad repair crew at work directly behind the offices. As the P.I. started toward them, he suddenly found a billboard company crew parking below a huge billboard near the railroad tracks.

Acting on sudden inspiration, the P.I. ducked back into his car and lifted a hardhat from the floor of the backseat area. It was a solid white hat with a large "Z" on the front (cut out of red reflecting vinyl tape). With his casual jacket, white hardhat, camera, clipboard with a yellow stenographer's pad and a felt tip pen, the P.I. looked like a laborer - or better yet, a supervisor.

The rest was luck, timing, improvisation and preparedness. The railroad work crew, with whom he chatted briefly, thought he was with the sign crew; the latter group in turn presumed that he was a railroad supervisor.

The P.I. could get into position within twenty-five feet of the target facility's fence. He had time to focus accurately on the license plate of the target subject's car, and to set up a potential shot of the car, with the door and name of the company showing clearly on the side of the building in the background. Focus, shutter speed and lens opening (aperture setting) were all set - ready for the reappearance of the subject.

When the office door suddenly popped open, the P.I. was standing by the poster sign crew, camera pointing upward as if he were busily engaged in shooting. The target moved quickly to his car. When he opened the car door he had his back to the P.I., but just before he entered the vehicle he lifted his head into perfect position, just as the shutter clicked.

One shot was all that was possible. Seconds later the big black sedan was barreling away from the scene in another cloud of dust. But that one shot was all that was necessary. It provided a perfectly focused, clearly recognizable shot of the subject, his car with license plate visible, and the new company's insignia on the wall in the background; just what the lawyer had requested.

The investigator cannot count on everything going as planned in a photographic or any other assignment. They should always prepare for the worst while hoping for the best in any assignment. They can be prepared to take full advantage of favorable circumstances.

To paraphrase what someone else had said about good fortune, the better prepared you are, the luckier you are. That includes such details as having a handy, initialed white hardhat in the backseat of your car, ready to top off an unexpected role as the opportunity may present itself.


Other Surveillance Cameras

Beside the 35 mm. camera used by investigators most of the time, you may find it necessary to use a small, miniature camera in certain situations. Just about the best quality miniature camera on the market is the Minox. This camera is about the same size as a cigarette lighter. It may be used to take photographs of a subject a few yards away from you without them knowing. Most camera stores can tell you how to obtain more information about the Minox.

Also, on a less expensive note is the Pentax 110 miniature camera system. This camera uses standard 110 film that is readily available and easy to process. The camera usually comes with an automatic winder, which is very important in surveillance photography. Also, the camera offers the luxury of interchangeable lenses for just about any type of range requirements. This is a great little surveillance unit that can be concealed in the palm of your hand.


6. Surveillance Video

Videos are invaluable in recording a sequence of action, or in maintaining a continuous record of a surveillance. The investigator should use a video camera equipped with a "zoom" lens so that they can take wide-angle shots, telephoto close-ups and normal 50 mm. shots.

The video camera can be especially valuable in providing a record of a quick or confusing sequence of events. This video footage can later be studied in detail by the investigator to obtain the information they need with a degree of certainty, impossible to obtain from any eyewitness accounts.

For example, if there have been threats of violence before a political demonstration or during a labor dispute, the investigator may be assigned to locate the source of the threats. In this situation, the investigator can put the video camera to work in recording the actions of peaceful demonstrators or strikers committing violence.

Certain people may use situations such as demonstrations or picket lines to achieve their ends through violence. A video record of their inflammatory remarks, actions, or techniques, is the best evidence against them.

Perhaps the most common use of video taping in investigations is in the area of fraudulent bodily injury claims. Video, better than any other means, can capture a sequence of bodily movements, clearly indicating the level of pain and injury to a particular part of the body.

The following story is true and illustrates how video can be used to combat the horrendous increase in fraudulent bodily injury claims that are so prevalent in our society today:

Richard Ripoff's (name changed to protect the guilty) left hand and arm came into contact with a live electrical source. The burns were so severe that $20,000 in medical bills resulted. There was nerve damage. With no question about liability, this was a serious claim.

The insurer had a large limits commercial policy. Adding to the seriousness of the claim, Mr. Ripoff had convinced the examining doctors that his hand and fingers were useless. During exams, he kept his fingers together as if they were the webbed toes of a duck.

Five days of surveillance showed that Mr. Ripoff, four years after the accident, was still not employed. Video footage taken, however, showed that his hand was not as disabled as alleged. Mr. Ripoff was videotaped using his hand in a perfectly normal fashion - spreading the fingers, putting a key into the lock of his car door, carrying a grocery bag with his hand grasping only the folded top part of the bag. He simply did not act as injured as he alleged.

The subject was having his case heard in the Court of Queen's Bench in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The demand was for more than $900,000, and he would not even talk of a settlement figure less than $620,000. If he was injured as alleged, the figures might not have seemed so outrageous.

On the opening day of the trial, the videotapes were shown to Mr. Ripoff and his attorney. By the next morning the case was settled for an amount the insurer had been ready to pay from the beginning, which was one quarter of the amount the subject had demanded for settlement.

Video cameras are smaller than ever today and carry with them an amazing array of features. They can clearly record events that occur in low light and with the use of digital zoom, they may bring in close, events that occur a long distance away. Whenever possible, a tripod or other stabilizing device should be employed to hold the camera as still as possible while videotaping.

The zoom lens can be used effectively in a variety of situations. For example, when the investigator wants to properly identify the location where the taping is done, he can zoom out to a wide angle that will show a large area. Then, the investigator can zoom in close to easily identify the subject and the activity that is taking place.

As with photography, it is important for the investigator to record the exact times that the sequences are shot, the type of equipment used, distance from the subject, weather conditions, and any other pertinent information. This information may be requested by the cross examining lawyer if the case ever goes to court.

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