11 Time Tested Surveillance Tips For New Investigators- A Reader’s Questions Are Answered #110

Being a private investigator is tough. Being a new private investigator conducting surveillance can be even tougher.  I still remember the trials and struggles I went through as a new investigator and those days were stressful and tough.  Not just mentally but financially.  They were mentally tough because when things don’t go right on a surveillance you begin to second guess yourself.  And when you start to second guess yourself you begin to make even more mistakes.  And then after you have been burned (found out) by the person you are following or you lose them, you find yourself replaying what happened in the surveillance and trying to figure out where you went wrong.

Everything I mentioned above is natural as a surveillance investigator.  You should dwell on your mistakes because you need to improve.  You do need to replay the surveillance in you mind and try to figure out where you went wrong.  Evaluating yourself sincerely and determining your strengths and weaknesses will let you know where you need to improve.

So the whole reason for this topic is to answer questions written by a new investigator named Alyssa who is new to surveillance and having a tough time.  Here is her question:


Hi there. I am a new PI, it’s my 2nd week, and I have been on my own for one week. I really want to excel in this job and it is very challenging. Every time my subject leaves their house, they turn the corner and boom, gone. I have lost 3 out of my 6 subjects so far and iI am getting incredibly frustrated. I know i’m new, and that getting good will take time. My question is how often do new private investigators lose their subjects when they first start? is this common, or am i as terrible as i think I am. How can I avoid this? and how long did it take you to start feeling comfortable and confident in your abilities?

First I just want to commend Alyssa for reaching out to me with these questions.  Many people don’t identify when they need help and many times people don’t know what they need to improve on.  I can imagine Alyssa is getting tired of calling her boss and telling her boss she lost her subject.  And I know it can feel even worse when you lose someone right when they leave their home.  There are many dimensions to being a surveillance investigator and many skills required.  Being a surveillance investigator is an art form.

I really love her questions and I am going to try to help her improve her surveillance skills. In order for me to address all her questions I will break them up and answer them separately.

Surveillance Tips

Questions #1: How often do new private investigators lose their subjects when they first start? Is this common, or am I as terrible as I think I am?

Answer:  New investigators lose their subjects all of the time or they get burned all of the time.  New investigators are trying to find that happy medium where they can follow someone without being caught. All investigators are trying to find this.

Everyday you work you should be trying to correct your mistakes.  I was fortunate early in my career to have a mentor to help me out.  I was also fortunate to work with dozens of other investigators frequently and I was able to see what worked for them and what didn’t.

You are not terrible, though I know you feel that way when a case doesn’t go like you think it should.  You need to realize that not every surveillance is going to go to plan. There are so many outside elements out of your control aside from the mistakes you make.  Over time you will minimize your mistakes and you will only have to deal with outside elements.

So I want you to shake it off, don’t get down on yourself (though it is only natural to do so) and keep reading.

Question#2:  Every Time my subject leaves their house, they turn the corner and boom, gone. I have lost 3 out of my 6 subjects so far and I am getting incredibly frustrated.  How can I avoid losing the subject I am conducting surveillance on?

Answer:  I want you to keep in mind that you have only been doing this for 2 weeks.  And if you stay in this industry you will lose you subjects frequently throughout your career.  It happens.  With that being said, ideally you don’t want to lose them when just leaving their home.  That will really mess up your day.  Your main objective should always be to get the subject to their first location.  Getting your subject to their first location with put you at ease and should make following your subject much easier for you because no one is expecting to be followed from a store.

Private Investigator Surveillance

Following your subject from their home

I want to start by providing some basic things you should be thinking about on your surveillance.  

  1. As much as you want to get a view of your subject’s home I would recommend at the very least you be 5 houses away from your subject’s home.  If this takes you out of view then that is ok.  As long as you can see people or vehicles leaving from the residence you are in good shape.
  2. I would recommend when you arrive at your surveillance you try to determine the main route of departure.  You need to know which way most people are leaving the area.  This will help you in preparing for your surveillance setup.  Don’t forget to Google Map the area to see a big picture view of the area.  It will help you prepare because it will give you an idea of the area you can park in if you don’t have a view of the residence.
  3. I would recommend sitting in your front seat, especially if you don’t have a view of the residence.  You don’t have time to move from your back seat to your front seat when your subject is leaving.  As soon as your subject begins departing you need to start your car and be ready to start moving.
  4. Your surveillance position and how you begin a case is very important.  It usually sets the tone as to whether you will be successful that day or not.  Don’t spend a great deal of time near your subject’s residence.  In the morning hours I usually videotape the residence while driving passed it so I know what vehicles are there and what they look like.  I can then refer to the video later to see anything specific related to the vehicles (bumper stickers, dents, etc..) If I can videotape their plates without looking suspicious I will do that as well.   After that, generally speaking I typically don’t have a clear view of the residence.  And because I don’t have a view, people in my subject’s residence don’t have a view of me.  You don’t want your subject or their neighbors seeing your vehicle all day when they know it doesn’t belong in the area.  And then if they see that new vehicle follow them it will be even more suspicious.
  5. Don’t get fancy.  You were likely trained to have buffer vehicles  (vehicles in between you and your subject).  There is a time and place for buffer vehicles which I will address but don’t force that to happen.  If someone is driving in town there is no reason for buffer vehicles.  If someone is suspicious of your vehicle then a buffer vehicle won’t change the fact that they are suspicious of you.
  6. I use buffer vehicles on freeways and rural roads.  I don’t use buffers on freeways when it is bumper to bumper traffic.  I use buffer vehicles on rural roads because there aren’t enough vehicles on the road and I don’t want my subject to be staring at my vehicle for long durations at a time.
  7. Learn from your mistakes.  If you are having a hard time following your subject from their residence then sit further away from the residence on the primary route of departure.  No one is expecting someone to follow them from several blocks away.
  8. One of the biggest obstacles in surveillance is you.  Not you specifically but your brain.  Your mind will play tricks on you. You will think you are burned, or that everyone knows why your vehicle is parked in a neighborhood.  You will try so hard not to get burned that you will sabotage your surveillance and lose your subject by playing it too safe with how you work the file (your surveillance setup, mobile surveillance, how close you follow them, etc..).

Question:   How long did it take you to start feeling comfortable and confident in your abilities?

Answer: This is a complicated question to answer.  I probably felt confident in my abilities after 1 year of working as a surveillance investigator but I can tell you that I am a 100 times better 12 years later.

Every day you work a surveillance you will  learn something new.  You will get better everyday if you are self aware and learn from your mistakes.   Everyone feels the way you are feeling right now.  I would recommend that you continue asking questions and absorbing all the information you can.   I still remember the day I felt as though I didn’t need help.  You will remember that day too.  I think the time it takes to feel comfortable is different for everyone.  As time goes on you will have some good surveillance cases with lots of video and that will help you build your confidence.   You confidence may waiver from time to time but it will always grow.

Thank you for the questions.



  1. Great Answers Andrew,
    I still don’t have Surveillance right after one year still working on it here in Australia

    • What do you mean?

      • Well in Sydney Australia, there is so much traffic and so many people that get in the way of your surveillance. You have very slow people and so many people that drive so fast that it is a choice to break the law or not.

        Do I go through a red light or do I loose the target. In Australia people are so security conscious because of terrorism. If you follow someone they are so quick to try to loose you or lead you into a dead end street.

        I have picked up a lot of skills on how to follow someone, but its still hard and frustrating at times.

        It is a skill that I’m still working on how to not be deceted

        • Dominic, I think the best way not to be detected is to not be noticed at the residence. If you can get your person away from their residence undetected, you won’t need to have vehicles in between you and the person you are following all the time. In traffic I stay right behind them.


          • Andrew, Very true. Thank you for your great advice. Love your website and your advice. Hope to meet up with you one day and if ever you come to Sydney Australia I would love to take you out for lunch.


          • Thanks Dominic. Might take you up on that someday.

  2. I am new to this job. my assignments require surveillance from my car. I live in south Florida where the outside temperature is over 95 most days. The heat in the car is unbearable. I have limo tint but it is still over 120 in the car. Any suggestions

    • It is tough trying to be covert and new in this job because you are still learning. It is that balance of figuring out what you can get away with while not compromising your surveillance. You have couple of options. One option is to be on the route of departure (assuming you know which way they will leave and what they will be driving) and run your vehicle with AC.

      You can also get a fan that can connect to your cigarette lighter and run that. You will probably need to start your car every now and then to make sure your battery is still good.

      Here are some Amazon Affiliate links to some fans. I have not tested these but they look to have some good reviews and look affordable.

      Fan with a clip- http://amzn.to/1Nlor7g

      Black fan with a clip- http://amzn.to/1Nlosb9

      RoadPro RPSC-857 12-Volt Tornado Fan – http://amzn.to/26Z0HMm

      Large AC for vehicles/camping- http://amzn.to/1TM5ucZ

      Thanks for the question. Might be time to review some of these fans as summer approaches.