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

(image licensed by Colleen Collins)

(image licensed by Colleen Collins)

Welcome back to the third article in the Surveillance 101 series. This content is based on a set of courses we taught in 2011 to a mystery writers' organization -- I have updated and added material for these posts.

Links to previous classes

To read the first two articles, click on a link:

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

A few notes on copyrights

  • Class content is copyrighted. If you wish to copy, quote from, distribute, etc., please write shaunkaufmanlaw=AT=gmail-dot-com
  • Images are noted as being copyrighted, licensed or in the public domain within their captions. Sorry, I don't have the authority to allow licensed images to be copied, distributed (etc.); however, any image in the public domain is copyright-free & yours for the taking.

Now let's start the class with an introduction to picking a surveillance spot.

Picking a Location

The focus of this section is on a surveillance conducted in a parked vehicle, although certain tips can certainly apply to sitting somewhere outdoors, too. Prior to the surveillance itself, a PI typically scopes out the area via Google Maps and/or an on-site pre-surveillance check (we write about pre-surveillances in post 2). In scoping out the neighborhood, a PI will pick a few primo spots to park the surveillance vehicle. I always like to have a few spots in mind -- never know when the #1 location is taken or there's people/kids congregated near it.

What Makes a Good Surveillance Spot?

Parking in front of a house for sale can work for a short-term stationary surveillance (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

Parking in front of a house for sale can work for a short-term stationary surveillance (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

  • Keep Your Distance. Although it’s important to position oneself in a location close enough to the subject’s location to monitor activities, keep as much distance between you and the subject as possible!
  • Multiple Days, Multiple Vehicles. In a lengthy, days-long surveillance, it’s wise to use more than one vehicle (we’ll sometimes rent a different vehicle from a local car rental agency, who have told us they have other PIs as clients who do the same thing).
  • Pick a Shady Spot. Vehicles are less noticeable in shady areas then in bright sunlight.
  • Select a Spot "Buried" Between Other Vehicles, if Possible: A vehicle sitting by itself is more noticeable than one in a string of parked cars.
  • Park on a Hill, if Possible: If there's a nearby "rise" in the terrain, have your fictional PI check it out as a suitable surveillance spot -- hills and higher terrains can give a bird's eye view of the area being surveilled.
  • Check for Overhead Views: When pre-selecting a surveillance spot, it's wise to check what people might see from overhead into the PI's vehicle (for example, is there a high-rise where residents can easily look down and see what's on the seats, dashboard, etc. of the surveillance vehicle?).

All of the above pre-surveillance tips can also be used in reverse -- your fictional PI, for example, might have forgotten to check for overhead views, and a snoopy building resident grabs a camera with a zoom lens and sees the name of the subject on a file in the PI's front seat.

Two additional tips

  • Park sitting "away" from the area being surveilled: A PI is less conspicuous if he/she is facing in the opposite direction of what they are surveilling (the PI then conducts the surveillance by viewing the building, etc. in the rear-view mirror, side mirrors).
  • Stay in the vehicle: It only draws attention to the PI when he sticks an arm out the window, gets out to stretch, or has a pizza delivery guy show up with a hot pizza for dinner (believe it or not, there was a case where a real-life PI did this, and he got seen by the subject, big surprise).
(image copyright 2011 Colleen Collins)

(image copyright 2011 Colleen Collins)


Although there are all kinds of equipment and spyware a PI might use for surveillance, keep in mind the principle reason surveillance is done is to record the activity of the target. A PI’s equipment might be top-of-the-line, expensive and complicated, but the bottom line is the PI needs to watch, record, and preserve his observations so they can be attested to in a report and even in court. That said, a simple camera and a notepad can produce devastating results in surveillance. 

Types of Surveillance

Your fictional PI has done her pre-surveillance (and picked one or two advantageous spots), checked that her gear is ready, planned her clothes (plus any additional disguises), double-checked the target’s schedule. What type of surveillance will she carry out -- will she be sitting and watching, or will she be prepared to follow the subject in her vehicle? The next section highlights both approaches.

Stationary Surveillance

This is just what it sounds like. Stationary. Typically, sitting in a vehicle. Or, for example, if the target is trysting in a hotel, the PI may sit for hours in that hotel lobby. Some PIs call this “fixed” surveillance as in being fixed in one spot. Sitting for hours on end can be tedious and brain-numbing, so it requires a lot of patience, determination and focus. Especially focus. A PI can’t afford to let his attention wander because he might miss those critical few minutes when the target makes an appearance.

Colleen once sat for several hours, waiting for a subject to appear. At one point, she leaned over into the back seat to pick up a notebook, and when she straightened, the subject had parked his car and was almost inside the front door of his home! All those hours of waiting and one, seven-second reach into the backseat meant she'd lost an opportunity to take a photo. She sat and waited another hour for the target to exit his home, and luckily, got the necessary photos then.

Mobile Surveillance

There are various types of mobile surveillance, which is a surveillance that is, literally, mobile (might be on foot or on a bicycle, but typically while in a car, van or other vehicle). Some PIs call this “rolling surveillance.” 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 surveillance!

This ends class 3. In our next class, we’ll discuss mobile surveillance with one vehicle/one investigator and two vehicles/two investigators.