On March 7, 2012, in Blog, by sieditor

THE ART of surveillance or sub rosa as it is also commonly known can best be described as comparing the difference between a Picasso painting with that of a local artist who paints primarily as a hobby. Many would argue that the difference between two artists may be in the eye of the beholder. However, in surveillance the results can often be measured but the quality and performance of the investigator. There are Pros… and there are Cons.

During the past twenty nine plus years, I have conducted many surveillance assignments and supervised countless investigators/cases. I have learned that the difference between and Pro and a Con is very evident…and the results often speak for themselves. Our firm has expanded its surveillance unit significantly over the past ten years. Surveillance assignments may now represent at least 40% of our work throughout the state of California. With that expansion, many lessons have been learned that have enabled us to separate the Pros from the Cons. The following examples are a few of those experiences.


Nothing can take the place of experience!! Some people may believe that anyone can do surveillance. Although that may be partially true, not everyone can conduct a SUCCESSFUL surveillance. The difference between an experienced SURVEILLANCE investigator (one who specialized in surveillance) and an experienced investigator is monumental (trust me on this one). A Pro takes his/her surveillance job very seriously. They would rather be on surveillance than do anything else. A Pro will be there when they say they were… and be able to back it up. If the job requires a 4:00 a.m. start time, the Pro will be there at, or before. 4:00 a.m. The Pro will record their arrival time, intermittent times throughout the surveillance, and departure time. The real Pros will often conduct additional surveillance on their own time if they did not get the desired results. On the other hand, the con will show up late and occasionally miss golden opportunities (i.e. claimant leaving for work when they are not supposed to be working, etc.). The Cons will often leave early to beat the traffic or boredom… and miss other golden opportunities. I once hired an independent contractor who even manipulated the time on his recorder to document that he was there several hours earlier than he was. Fortunately, a Pro was on a nearby surveillance that ended early and went by (on his own time) to check up on the claimant (who he had worked earlier in the week), and made the sad discovery. Needless to say, that independent contractor never saw another surveillance from our firm.

The Pro is an expert at “tailing a subject” without losing them in traffic or being detected. However, even the best Pros lose the subject, or are detected, on occasion. There is no way to avoid this reality. If an investigator tries to tell you otherwise, or oversells their success ratio, you are definitely with a Con. Also, if an investigator/firm tries to sell you the idea of having two-person surveillance teams on the majority of cases, you may be dealing with a Con. In my experience, most cases only require one EXPERIENCED surveillance investigator. However, there are exceptions which include situations where there are more than one visible exit, “take-aways” from commercial buildings on medical/legal appointments, and/or if the subject has acted suspicious on a prior occasion.


The second most important distinctions between the Pro and the Con is the type of equipment used. The Pro knows his/her equipment better than they know their significant ones. After all, the Pro spends more time with their equipment than anyone or anything else. A Pro can tell you the video camera manufacturer, the zoom range, along with many other less commonly known features. Ask a Con and they may know a few basic details about their equipment, and may not even know the brand name.

A Pro will usually have at least two different SURVEILLANCE vehicles that he/she has available in order to mix it up on an ongoing case. The Pro will have a very discreet vehicle (with tinted windows) that will blend in well with the surroundings. The con may use their luxury car, an outdated full sized van (with all the bells and whistles), or their ill-equipped family vehicle (I always laughed when watching the Miami Vice characters on TV conducting their surveillance in a Ferrari). The Pro is well prepared to spend the full day/evening inside the vehicle so as not to miss a moment when the claimant can slip out. He/she will have toilet facilities (bottle, etc.), a change of clothes, food/water, and other supplies stored in the vehicle at all times.  On the other hand, the Con will leave the post occasionally to visit the local McDonald’s for toilet and food breaks. The Con may spend much of their time reading, talking on a cell phone, writing reports, and/or even sleeping while on a surveillance.


There is a major difference when comparing the Pro’s other skills with the Con’s. For example, the Pro will produce videotape of the subject much more frequently than the Con (my rough estimate would be 8 out of 10 times for the Pro compared to 4 out of 10 times for the Con, depending upon their level). The videotape quality of the Pro will be far superior, with at least some close-up footage of the subject for identification purposes. The footage will be clear with little, if any, blurring or “shake”. The subject’s activities or lack thereof will be well documented. The quantity of footage will be much greater than that of the Con who may choose to stop recording out of fatigue or disinterest. The Con may even run out of batteries occasionally. The Con may have forgotten to fuel up his/her vehicle before starting the surveillance, and runs too low to continue. The Con may try to shoot video from a distant location and through dirty windows. The Con may have inadequate equipment (shorter zoom range, no stabilizer, etc.), compared with the Pro, who may have invested lots of money in getting the very best.

The Pro is also an expert at developing information about the subject before, during and after the surveillance. The real Pros are some of the best pretext artists in the business.

The Pro goes out on the assignment with as much information about the subject as the client can/will provide. In addition he/she will obtain additional information from other sources (driving records, vehicle registration neighbors, etc.). The Con will often go out on an assignment with nothing more than the name and (last known) address of the subject. The Con may surveil a vacant house the entire day without making any discreet inquiries. The Con may not even have a DMV source to check out license plates at the location, whereas the Pro will have “real time” access to this information.


The verbal and written reports will obviously distinguish the Pro from the Con. The Pro’s report will be detailed, yet concise. The report will include physical description of the surroundings, the vehicles, and (most importantly) of the subject. The report will document the subject’s activities, or lack thereof. It will include a time/date sequence of events, a summary of the activity, video summary, and recommendations. The real Pro will usually attach a photo snapshot (from the video) of the subject for identification purposes. The surveillance videotape will include all activity, not just a “highlight film”. The Con’s report will often lack much of the key information, will often read like a police report (with military times, etc.), and will contain a great deal of superfluous (fluff) information (opinions, speculations, etc.).

MOST IMPORTANTLY, the Pro knows the laws concerning invasion of privacy, trespassing, stalking, and others governing surveillance. The Pro also has experience testifying in depositions and/or court and will bring the necessary equipment to view the videotape evidence. The testimony of the Pro, including their experience level, personal appearance, and ability to articulate the facts, will definitely separate the Pro from the Con when it counts the most.


There are a number of things you can do to improve your chances of selecting a Pro when in a situation, or location, where you may not have a surveillance investigator/firm that you’ve used before… and gotten good results (keep in mind that “good results” may be subjective, and may not always produce results that help your particular case). The following are some steps to take before hiring a surveillance investigator/firm:

1)       Require that the investigator/firm provide you with a copy of their current license, insurance (including workers’ comp), and any other materials which indicate that surveillance is one of their areas of expertise (the word “surveillance” in their brochure, along with numerous other specialties, may not be sufficient). Some may even have a “highlight” film that they can give you to demonstrate their skills (call Specialized Investigations for a copy of our videotape, which is quite entertaining);

2)       Ask the potential investigator/firm for personal references of other clients who have used them for surveillance on more than one occasion, and call at least one of them. Ask the investigator/firm for copies of any external/internal checklists they may use for surveillance purposes (the Pros will also have an Assignment Form they will gladly provide). Ask for the name and personal Bio of the investigator who will be assigned the case. Remember, the outcome will depend solely upon the investigator, not the past reputation of the company hired. Many firms may not have a personal Bio on each surveillance investigator, but should be able to tell you who will be assigned the case, and their level of experience;

3)       Ask for an investigator that would best fit a particular area or situation. For example, if the subject is located in an ethnic community, it may be best to use an investigator who will blend in better. This is especially important in some communities where language may also be a barrier;

4)       If you’ve had a good experience with a specific investigator at a firm, don’t hesitate to ask for that particular investigator again. They may not always be available, but it’s the old adage that “if you don’t ask, you may not get”. If you’ve had a bad experience with a specific investigator at a firm, you should ask to use another investigator, rather than going out on a shopping expedition for another firm whose reputation is unknown. The truth is, even the best investigators and firms have bad days. It’s when the bad days start to outnumber the good days when it may be time to start looking for a replacement. Try to avoid judging an investigator or firm on the basis of one case that didn’t turn out the way you wanted, as you can’t always “make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” if the subject doesn’t leave the house, or their activities didn’t meet your hopeful expectations. There are also many unavoidable circumstances that can occur on a surveillance, which may have nothing to do with the investigator’s performance. And occasionally, even the best make mistakes;

5)       Set specific criteria to be followed, along with specific deadlines and reporting requirements. Too often, clients will say they need the surveillance done ASAP, without providing a due date, or any specific reason for the “rush”. If your company/state has strict rules/laws about doing a pretext, be sure to advise the investigator/firm about it in writing, along with other guidelines;

6)       Give the investigator/firm every bit of information you have available on the subject.. Too often, the client will fail to provide key information on the subject, such as a recent change of address/phone number, limitations/restrictions, physical description, photos, and/or work schedules, even though the information may be available in a file or through another contact. This alone will often insure the success of many surveillance assignments;

7)       Ask others for the name(s) of successful surveillance investigators/firms. Try not to rely on yellow page ads, internet sources, and/or flashy advertisements to select a Pro. Many companies have “been there, done that,” and have done the screening for you (sometimes the hard way).

We have all “kissed a lot of frogs” in the hiring process, and will occasionally do so again in our collective lives. However, a little more forethought, knowledge and experience will empower each of us to make better choices when the need arises. So when the need arises, who ya gonna call?

By Richard Harer, Vice President

Photo Credit: bypass2020 at Deviantart


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