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How to Conduct a Surveillance ~ Be Your Own Detective

Surveillance Techniques

Surveillance, Tailing, Shadowing, Positioning and the Stakeout

The following types of investigations may require surveillance.

Relationship - Cheating Lovers (pre-relationship, romantic, and domestic)
Child custody, Worker's Compensation & Insurance claims
Employee Theft, Bounty Hunting

The information provided in the Be Your Own Detective section is comprised of excerpts from our Private Investigators Training Course, Secrets of Top Private Eyes.

Important! Of all these, non-professionals should attempt only Relationship Investigations surveillance. All other cases should be handled by the pros.

Who Should Conduct a Surveillance?

You can surveillance someone you know, but to do so you must take extreme precautions.  If the target is known to you, you might be better off to hire a trained Private Eye, or recruit one or more of your friends to do the surveillance for you.

Evidence Gathering for Court

If you conduct a 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 the information about the target's habits and haunts before you attempt a 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. You'd be very foolish to go out on a surveillance without knowing the neighborhood. Find out where you can sit, where you can be. You're going to have to be patient and you're going to have to learn how to get off the street because you're not going to be allowed to be on that street but for about five minutes before that little old lady in tennis shoes is going to be knocking on your car window wanting to know why the hell you're in her neighborhood. And she's going to call the cops and they're going to come out and they're going to want to know why you're on that street and you're going to say, 'Well, I'm just here."  And they're going to tell you to go away and don't come back.

The neighbor who called is going to have to get pacified somehow that you're not a bad guy. One technique is to sit on the passenger's side and not the drivers side, as if you're waiting for someone. 

A female is nowhere near as obtrusive as a male. That's one reason I have females agents. We put the female in the shotgun position. Obviously she's waiting for her husband. Not a problem.

Or, sit in the back seat and slump down. Dressing and disguising yourself can help you in a surveillance - especially if the person you're following or staking out knows you.

Become a Private Investigator with our  Private Investigator Home Training course.  Secrets of Top Private Eyes. Read More>


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, photograph, and videotape what transpires.

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, question you and ask you to leave.

Perform a reconnaissance to familiarize yourself with the area before beginning the stakeout. 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 surveil. 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.
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.  Pretend to be waiting for someone while reading a road map or newspaper.

Surveillance takes time, so relax and 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.

Become a Private Investigator with our  Private Investigator Home Training course.  Secrets of Top Private Eyes. Read More>

Change Appearance

When I going on surveillance take a change of clothes - sometimes a couple changes of clothes. If you anticipate your subject may be going to the beach, bring along a swim suit, towel, shorts, and shirt - anything you may need to fit into where the subject might be going. When following someone for a long period of time - like foot to car, or in the mall - have a jacket with you to change the color of what you're wearing.

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.)

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