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by Joe Hoover

These types of investigations may require surveillance.

  • Relationship (pre-relationship, romantic & domestic)
    Child custody
  • Worker's compensation & insurance claims
  • Employee theft
  • Bounty hunting
Important! Of all these, non-professionals should attempt only Relationship Investigations surveillance. All other cases should be handled by the pros.

Who Should Attempt Surveillance?

You can follow and observe someone you know, but to do so you must take extreme cautions. If the target is known to you, you might be better off to hire a trained PI, or recruit a friend or two to do the surveillance for you.

Evidence Gathering for Court

If you conduct surveillance for the purpose of gathering evidence to be presented in court, your timed and dated notes, videotapes, and photographs will have much more credibility with judge and jury if there was a witness present who is willing to testify on your behalf.

Types of Surveillance

There are two types of surveillance: tailing, or shadowing (on foot, or by private and public transportation), and fixed surveillance - also called "the stakeout."

Plan Ahead

Gather all information about the target's habits and haunts before you attempt surveillance. Know the neighborhood you'll be working. Plan possible routes your target might take. Cover yourself by preparing an alternative plan you can put into action should things suddenly go awry. If you've done your homework, you may be able to reestablish a tail even if you lose it.


The more research you do the better. Get to know the neighborhood. Find out where you can sit, where you can be. Learn to be patient.

Learn how to get off the street. One technique is to sit on the driver's side and not the street side: you're waiting for someone. Or, sit in the back seat and slump down.

A female is nowhere near as obtrusive as a male. Obviously she's waiting for her husband.


The kind of stakeout you perform will be determined by the area in which you'll be working. A neighbor's home, a hotel or motel room, an associate's office - these are but a few of the stakeout positions from which you can observe, take photos, and videotape what transpires.

Mobil Stakeout

A stakeout is most often accomplished in a car, van, or truck. A comfortable room or an office from which to watch your target would be optimum, but that kind of observation post is generally difficult to arrange. In a quiet neighborhood, you are always more conspicuous than if parked, walking, or standing on a busy city street. In a run-down section of the city, nothing but old cars parked on the street, your shiny new car will stand out and attract attention. Think about borrowing or renting an older car to use in these areas. In nicer residential areas, curious residents will notice you sitting in your automobile and will come by to check you out. Or they'll call the police, who, if they arrive, will question you and ask you to leave.


Perform a reconnaissance to familiarize yourself with the area before beginning the stakeout.

Also, Do These Things:
  • Top off the gas tank in case you have to follow your target a distance.
  • Check all exits of the house, apartment, or office building you intend to observe.
  • Wear comfortable clothing that will blend in, clothes the target will not recognize.
  • Wear sunglasses and a baseball cap to disguise your face and hair.
  • If the target knows you, he or she may still recognize you by body shape, coloring or other features and traits, even if you are fully disguised.
  • Anticipate where target is going; change to clothing appropriate to the environment, i.e. bathing suit at the beach, dressy clothes in a fancy restaurant.

On The Scene

If possible, park in front of a store, bar, or service station. Slide over to the passenger side or slump down in the back seat: You're waiting for someone while reading a road map or newspaper. Surveillance takes time; learn to be patient. You may be sitting in one spot for a long while. Minimize eating and drinking to alleviate the need to break surveillance to locate a bathroom.

Change Appearance

Take along a couple of changes of clothes to fit in where your subject might be going.

Cover Story

Prepare a cover story in case you're spotted, identified and questioned. The cover story you prepare for the police or a suspicious neighbor may not be a good cover story for your target if he or she spots you.

Following are items and methods one might employ:
  • Business cards: Consider business cards for touchy situations.
  • ID card: Picture ID cards look impressive w/official seal & thumb print.
  • Your dog: You're out walking your dog. Perfectly legal.
  • Dog leash: Your dog ran away. You're out looking for the pooch. Ask people to keep a lookout. Be prepared with the dog's name & description, the pet's breed, color, size, and markings.
  • Know your own name, where you live, etc: your "bonifieds."
  • Real estate agent: A realtor friend may accompany you on your surveillance and thereby provide you with a good cover story.
  • Your children: Parents with children are generally above suspicion. Instruct children to say nothing. (Good luck on that one.)

Documentary Evidence

Make notes of the exact time and date important activities transpire. Note addresses of houses and buildings your target enters. Describe and/or photograph buildings. Get tag numbers of parked vehicles. Buy something; obtain timed-dated receipt.

First learn the rudiments of tailing. It's easier to tail someone in a vehicle than to tail someone on foot. In a vehicle, you can position yourself behind, ahead of, or parallel to the subject. On foot and relying on taxi's, busses or other public transportation, you'll find it much more difficult to stay on the target's tail and at the same time remain unobserved.

Tailing Tips
  • Be absolutely sure you are following the right person and the correct vehicle.
  • Don't start following the moment your target starts moving.
  • Keep your distance.
  • Memorize rear of target's car. Note bumper stickers, the shape of tail lights, etc., so you'll have a mental picture to rely on if separated by traffic or stop lights.
  • Memorize what your target is wearing. This is especially helpful when following on foot, on a crowded street, or at a public function.
  • On a foot tail through a busy street, stay on the same side of the street. In less crowded areas, walk on the opposite side of the street; keep pace with your target, at least 100 feet back. If target speeds up, resist urge to speed up. If you find you have lost sight, let target go and pick up the tail another time.
  • Two (or more) followers in two (or more) vehicles work (much) more effectively than a single follower in a single vehicle.
  • Use cell phones and two-car surveillance because if you're following an individual and you're too close, you can break off and call the other guy to take over.
  • Don't go bumper to bumper. Maintain a safe distance.
  • Don't run traffic lights.


If you employ two or more vehicles, you'll need continuous communications. Cell phones work best.

Tailing Closely in Traffic

One good method of tailing a vehicle when traffic is light is called "parallel surveillance." Simply drive parallel to your target, one or even two blocks over. When passing through an intersection, look to ascertain whether your target is continuing along the same route, then speed up to the next intersection and again observe target's direction of travel. If your target turns away from you, you can follow at a safe distance. If target turns toward you, either wait and let the vehicle pass by your position, or go ahead, make a "U" turn, double back and catch up. Parallel surveillance works best when two or more vehicles with good communications are deployed.

Check and Proceed

An alternate technique involves following until your target turns a corner. Speed up and stop before reaching that corner. Get out - or have your partner get out - and go look around the corner. Your target may have stopped, perhaps to check if someone was following. By using this technique, you'll avoid running up on your target. At this point, if need be, call your back up to take over the tail.


From a well-concealed or disguised fixed position, watch until your target moves. Observe which way he or she goes. If you each have cell phones, advise your partner to pick up the tail. Move to position yourself further along your target's route without getting too close. The observation continues - perhaps even over a period of several days - until you know target's destination. This method is more time-consuming, but safer than tailing, especially tailing someone who is suspicious
More Background Checks Articles

For more information regarding the various types of background checks available, please read the in-depth articles from the following links: Employee Background Checks, Tenant Screening, Business Background Checks, Asset Searches and Criminal History.

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