Surveillance 101, Part 4: Tips and Tricks About Mobile Surveillances

(image licensed by Colleen Collins)

(image licensed by Colleen Collins)

Welcome back to Surveillance 101, a series of classes my husband and I taught in 2011 to a mystery writers' group. I've updated information for this blog, as well as added new material.


All content is copyrighted, so please do not copy, distribute, and so forth. Within the captions of photos, I note if it is copyrighted, licensed or within the public domain. The only photos you are free to copy/use are those marked as public domain. 

Links to Classes 1 - 3

Surveillance 101: Staying Legal, Dressing the Part, Prepping the Vehicle

Surveillance 101, Part 2: The Importance of Pre-Surveillance and Knowing if a Subject Has a Lawyer

Surveillance 101, Part 3: Picking a Spot, Difference Between Mobile vs. Stationary

In class 3, we briefly described the difference between mobile and stationary surveillances. For class 4, we'll start off with a more detailed discussion of mobile, or rolling, surveillances.

Mobile Surveillance

There are various types of mobile surveillance, which is a surveillance that is, literally, mobile, AKA a "rolling" surveillance. Mobile surveillances might be on foot, riding a bicycle or skateboard, in a boat, but typically mobile surveillances occur in a car, van, pick-up truck, and so on. 

This type of surveillance might be used when:

  • The PI is following a target to an unknown destination.
  • When there’s nowhere for the PI to sit and wait.
  • If the subject may be alert to a stationary surveillance.

Next, we'll look at different vehicle/PI configurations.

One Vehicle/One Investigator

When on a mobile surveillance, a PI keeps certain items handy, such as a camera, binoculars, change of attire (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

When on a mobile surveillance, a PI keeps certain items handy, such as a camera, binoculars, change of attire (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

There are investigators who swear that a one-person mobile surveillance is a recipe for failure (one PI gives it a 5% success rate). From our own experience, we can vouch that a one-person mobile surveillance is tough. You’re watching traffic and pedestrians and intersections and traffic lights and regulatory traffic signs...all while your subject is weaving and gunning it through rush-hour traffic and…

You just lost him.

We inform prospective clients that the success rate of a two-person surveillance significantly increases the chances of success, but some people aren’t keen to pay two investigators for a surveillance job. In our business, we work to be fair with our billing as a compensation (if both of us are working a surveillance and we haven’t seen the target in 4 hours, we might bill for only one investigator, for example).

Nevertheless, there are circumstances where one of us ends up doing a solo mobile surveillance, sometimes by accident. Such as in the following case.

Following a Felon Through 3 Counties

A few years ago, an attorney hired us to serve legal papers to a felon. One of those jobs that had to be done that day. Fortunately, the lawyer knew the guy would be driving out of a gated area around noon. Obviously we couldn't walk up to his moving car and try to serve papers, so we prepared for a two-vehicle surveillance, planning to follow him to his destination where we'd serve the papers.

We conducted a quick pre-surveillance

We did a check of the area with Google Maps, then we drove ahead of time to the area to check for any traffic detours, blocked roads, and so forth. Previously, we had tried to dredge up information about where he lived in several proprietary databases, but it was as if he were a ghost -- only some outdated addresses displayed. Considering he had a serious rap sheet, he might have taken extra precautions to hide where he lived, such as renting out a room in someone's house, or perhaps he had moved in with a girlfriend, or who knew? 

We waited for Mr. Felon

My husband and I waited in our separate cars for Mr. Felon to exit the gated area (the lawyer had provided a physical description of the guy and what kind of car he'd probably be driving). One of our cell phones was out of commission, so my husband and I were communicating via walkie talkies. For those who might be unfamiliar with walkie talkies, they're two-way radios that communicate via a single, shared frequency band. Today, walkie talkies have cool features like headsets, ranges up to 50 miles, hands-free operation and more. Not so with our clunker walkie talkies. They were cumbersome to use, hissed loudly when we connected, had a 8-mile range, and we had to press a button to talk (not easy when you're driving at the same time). As the attorney called us at the last minute with this it's got to be done now case, we were stuck with our old walkie talkies.

I followed him for miles down a lonely stretch of country road, wondering if he'd caught on that I was following him (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

I followed him for miles down a lonely stretch of country road, wondering if he'd caught on that I was following him (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

We saw the car the lawyer had described exit the gated area, and the guy behind the wheel also matched the description. We began following Mr. Felon in our separate cars, one of us in front of our subject, the other following our subject. Some PIs call this style of rolling surveillance "leapfrog" as the PIs will swap places throughout the rolling surveillance, one taking over the lead, the other falling back and following. This way, a subject doesn't always see the same car following. I write more about leapfrogging later on.

Unfortunately, leap-frogging failed because...

We lost each other

When Mr. Felon turned on a side street, I followed, but my husband got caught in a rush-hour traffic jam.  Soon after, I was outside of the 8-mile range of our walkie talkies.

I'll skip over the next few hours and just say that through some miracle, I successfully conducted a one-person mobile surveillance through three counties, all the while tracking the felon, and ultimately tagging his final destination. To be honest, I started to sweat when Mr. Felon drove into the countryside where it was only the two of us on a single, long strip of road. I stayed far behind him, but still, we were the only vehicles on that road for at least 15 miles. Finally he turned down a short dirt road to an old home. I drove past, parked farther down the road and checked out his stopping point with my binoculars. Looked like a Sons of Anarchy barbecue. Lots of parked motorcycles, people laughing & drinking beer, smoke rising from several grills, women on the porch chatting. 

Looked safe. I drove to the house, parked and got out of the car (the papers were out of sight in a pocket). I walked up to Mr. Felon who was standing with a few of his buddies, who turned and looked at me as I approached. I said Mr. Felon's name, and he answered, "Yeah, that's me." I served him the papers, the he asked, “How’d you find me?”

I'll never forget that. The only reason he didn't notice my following him across three counties has to be that he's...well, not very observant. This is the kind of rolling surveillance one sees all the time in movies--the PI successfully following someone for hours--but in reality, it's a rare occurrence.

One Vehicle/One Investigator

Now let’s cover some tips for your fictional PI conducting a one-vehicle, one-investigator mobile surveillance:

  • Have her stay in the right lane most of the time. If that’s not possible, use the center lane (that way, your PI can respond to either a right turn or left turn at the last moment).
  • If it's a night surveillance have him disable the dome light. As mentioned in a previous class, some PIs put black tape over any miscellaneous interior lights as well (digital clocks, etc.).
  • While following, have your PI try to keep one car between him and the vehicle he’s following.
  • Rather than stop directly behind the subject at a red light, see if there is a parking lot to pull into until the light changes.

If your fictional PI is conducting the surveillance with an associate, think about using two characters in the vehicle (one to drive & one to watch the subject—the observer can then be used for foot surveillance if necessary). My husband and I once did this in a crowded downtown area. Traffic was at a stand-still, so I got out of the car and walked around, keeping an eye on the subject and staying in contact with my husband via cell phone.

Two Vehicles/Two Investigators

Here’s some tips for your fictional PI and an associate conducting a two-vehicle, two-investigator mobile surveillance:

  • If your fictional PI has a good idea where the subject is going, he might travel in front of the target’s vehicle (be the lead) while his associate travels behind the target’s vehicle.
  • Using radios, the lead unit stays fairly close to the subject (no more than three or four cars in front). If the trailing unit sees the subject signal for a turn, he can radio the lead unit in time for it to make the same turn ahead of the subject.
  • Play leapfrog: If the trailing unit gets cut off by a missed light or some other obstacle, he can radio the lead unit to drop back and behind the subject. The cut-off unit can then, by following the instructions radioed by the still in-contact unit, cut through side routes and place himself in front of the subject a few blocks down the road. Similarly, the lead and trailing units swap places while following the subject. First, the lead unit drops back behind the subject and just in front of the trailing unit.The trailing unit then speeds up and places himself in front of the subject.  

This ends class 4. Next class, we'll discuss surveillance logs, rural surveillances and health issues on lengthy surveillances.