#66: Getting Burned on Surveillance? 15 Honest Questions to Ask Yourself.

If you are getting burned on a surveillance you need to know you are not alone and there is a cure for is this happens frequently.  Investigators all over the world are getting burned on a surveillance case as you read this very article. After reading this article your number of incidents will decrease but will not end.  

Claimants, and individuals in general are more aware of their surroundings than ever and even more suspicious of activity in their neighborhoods.  This makes things increasingly difficult on surveillance investigators as it requires investigators  to become more stealthy in their efforts.

What does “Getting Burned on Surveillance” Mean?

If you are unfamiliar with the term “burned”, it simply means that the individual you are watching or following has become aware that they are being followed.  They might not know the exact reason but it does not matter because once they are aware of your presence their behavior and daily activities will change which will typically defeat the purpose of the surveillance being conducted.

Surveillance frustration15 Questions to Ask Yourself Honestly

I was always told that I needed to find the happy medium of surveillance.  The effort on a surveillance that is, neither too aggressive nor too passive.  Passive investigators lose their subject frequently and have difficulty determining whether claimants are home or any additional information through investigative techniques.

Investigators that are too aggressive set up their surveillance position too close to the subject’s residence, pretext the subject/claimant too aggressively and may pretext neighbors too aggressively which puts the neighborhood on alert.

Below are 15 questions you should ask yourself.  These questions are in no particular order but you must answer them none the less.

1.       What kind of surveillance vehicle do you have?

I go into great length  on my thoughts of surveillance vehicles which is post #15 and post #26.   You really need to be honest with yourself in regards to whether your surveillance vehicle is surveillance worthy.   Are you using you using the surveillance vehicle you have because you have no choice?  Is it because you like the comfort of it but you know it sticks out with your claimant’s or subjects?

I once knew of a female investigator that chose to use a large over sized ugly van and would not change because she could have a toilet and be comfortable.  She repeatedly got burned on cases because her vehicle stuck out like a sore thumb.

Are you using a vehicle that is causing you to get burned more than you should? Are you that investigator?  Be honest with yourself.

Surveillance Tips2.       Where are you parked? Is it too close?  If neighbors or police approach your vehicle will your subject see?

Where you start surveillance is typically where most investigators get burned on their case.  If you are too close, don’t fit into the neighborhood or the claimant notices you then they will likely notice you when you follow them out of the neighborhood.  I always recommend more than 5 houses away however you may need to be further away depending on the layout of the area.

Try to anticipate worst case scenarios.  If neighbors approach you and begin to make a scene near your vehicle, will your subject see it?  Will the news of a suspicious vehicle make it to the subject?  Will the subject/claimant see the police approach your vehicle?

3.       Does your vehicle blend into the neighborhood?

Are other people parked on the street?  If not, you may want to consider not parking in the area.  If you have to park in an awkward location that you know in your heart is going to draw attention to yourself you might want to consider parking somewhere else.

4.       Should you park outside of the neighborhood?

If I don’t like the set up in a neighborhood for whatever reason I will try to take my chances on the route of departure if I know all of the vehicles at the residence.  If for some reason during  a drive by of the residence my claimant is outside I will do my best to get a position in the neighborhood even if only for a short period of time.

5.       Will you have to pretext?

 If I know I have to pretext I actually might stay out of the neighborhood if possible.  And if I am in the neighborhood before I pretext the claimant or neighbors I will stay out of the neighborhood afterwards hoping to be forgotten.

6.       Did you park out of the neighborhood while conducting a physical pretext?

Do not park in the area of the neighborhood you are pretexting unless you have no choice.  In typical neighborhoods you should be able to park a block or so away so that after you have conducted your physical pretexting you can walk back to your vehicle and not be connected to it by neighbors or the claimant.

I remember one of my investigators conducted a package pretext and delivered the small package to the claimant’s residence.  It was an apartment complex and the claimant watched the investigator walk back to his car which was in view of the claimant’s apartment.  The claimant immediately became suspicious of the investigation from that point on and burned that investigator and every other investigator that worked the case regardless of tactics.

7.       What pretext are you using? Is it believable?

If your pretext isn’t believable you are only going to make your claimant or neighbors in the area more suspicious and concerned about your presence in the neighborhood.

8.       How soon do you start following your subject when they leave their residence?

Be careful how fast you begin following your claimant/subject when they leave their residence.  You might want to let them start to turn the corner onto a cross street before you begin following.  This is a bit tricky sometimes so don’t wait too long to start following as you may lose them right from the start.

9.       How many times have you followed them from their neighborhood area?

If you repeatedly follow your claimant from their residence area, the neighbors or the claimant will start to notice this pattern. It might work once or twice but not for the duration of the investigation.

If you first begin following the subject from the residence area then mix it up and see if there is a pattern of departure.  If they always leave one specific way from their residence then sit further away.  This way you are picking them up further away from the area they know best.

10.       Are you following them all the way back to their home?

I used to do this.  I would follow the claimant back to their home and video tape them unloading groceries and then going into their home.  This can be great video but it can also draw attention to you and your vehicle.   Don’t follow them all the way to their residence.  Stop following your subject a couple blocks away from their residence after you are confident they are returning home. 

If I saw someone repeatedly park in my neighborhood area exactly are the time that I arrived home I would be very suspicious of that vehicle. Wouldn’t you be suspicious?

11.      Are you getting covert video?  If so, did you change your clothing or appearance if getting covert video in multipl locations?

If you are getting covert video in several locations throughout the day you need to be changing your appearance.  Wearing a hat, jacket or even changing the color of your shirt might be enough to maintain the integrity of your investigation.  The key is to be forgettable.

12.   Are you running your vehicle in the neighborhood?

It gets too hot or too cold.  Your laptop battery dies or you need to charge something else in your vehicle.  Either way you need to run your vehicle.  You should know by now that running your vehicle no matter where you are draws attention to you.  Don’t let it ruin your case.

13.     How many phone pretexts have you done?

How often are you pretexing your claimant or subject on the phone.   Don’t over pretext your claimant.  Confirm that they are home and call it good.  Several phone calls a day will only draw attention to you even if you are only hanging up the phone.

14.     Are you a smoker?  Are you smoking with your windows down?

If you smoke then I know you smoke on surveillance. You might even change your surveillance position to accommodate your smoking.  There is nothing like drawing attention to yourself in a neighborhood or while following a subject then having your arm fling out of your window to ash your cigarette.  I am not going to tell you to quite smoking but…you need to quit smoking.  Or simply replace that habit with something while working surveillance such as eating sunflower seeds.

15.     Are you psyching yourself out?

One U-turn by the claimant does not constitute being burned or even heated.

If you think you are getting burned all the time but you have no concrete proof, then you may want to wait for some definite confirmation that you are indeed getting burned.   Sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking that we have been made when in fact the claimant has no idea they are being followed.


I will always caution everyone to be safe and to do what your gut tells you.  Never do anything that you think will put you in danger or harms way.   My overall approach to surveillance is to be as hands-off as possible with the claimant or subject.  The less contact I have with them the better as I will be a ghost and never make their radar of concern.

The more honest you are with your abilities, and how you conduct your surveillance the quicker you can make adjustments and find that happy medium during surveillance for every situation.


  1. Good advice Andrew!
    Having been in that boat of wondering if the Claimant has been alerted, but not knowing; we should wait for confirmation. People are mostly oblivious you us being out there.


    • Hey Brian,

      I am pretty good at this point in my career in figuring out if I am burnt or not during a case. I typically dont’ have to wait for them to chase me or give me the middle finger (as this has been done more than I would like to admit).

      Many times investigators will make themselves believe they are burnt when in-fact they are not. It’s tough out there doing surveillance 😉

  2. Great Article !

    The saying “On the job training” is the only way you will figure out the answers to the above 15 questions. Each answer will be figured out eventually. Good luck to all ! #LIPI

    • There is truth in your comment. My hope is that the can anticipate or make themselves aware of things they are potentially doing to get burned.

      Take care


  3. Great article, getting burned happens to the best of us. Through each experience if we analyze the how than we can definitely prevent it from happening again. I also try to get to know my claimant/subject via my client, have this person been followed before, if so did the other investigator get burned. I once worked a case where my employer had neglected to tell me that the case had gotten quite heated. I went out and pretexted the claimant’s neighbor in order to verify that the claimant still resided at the residence. Unbeknownst to me the claimant came out while I was speaking to the neighbor and all hell broke loose. Thank you very much for this article.

    • Well Said. Many times I think the client doesn’t realize how important to let an investigator know that a case has been worked before. You never know what another investigative company did on a previous surveillance.

  4. Here’s a ‘touchy subject’ at least among some investigators I work with; it involves ‘3rd party awareness.’
    As investigators we are, or at least should be conscious or aware of 3rd party persons aka, (neighbors) while set up on a static surveillance in residential areas for example. There is one investigator on staff where I work who swears by obtaining a private residents driveway on every surveillance that is very close in proximity to the targets house he is watching.
    He goes house to house until he finds someone who will allow him to use their driveway to watch the targets house, he does not tell them who he’s watching, but gives a pretext of some sort like, watching a person of interest who may or may not be involved in the narcotics trade.

    He claims he’s never been burned, and the target has never found out from ‘3rd party’ neighbors that there is a investigator parked in John Do’s driveway etc… Yet I have witnessed from another co-worker that 3rd party information surely can get to the actual target your watching, it happens! No other investigator I know will rarely ever obtain driveways from neighbors to watch a target, yet this investigator does it successfully 100% of the time he claims!

    A) He’s full of absolute crap!
    B) He’s the luckiest P.I. in the world.
    C) He’s awesome at what he does.

    I would love to know your, or anyone’s comment on what the thought is in using 3rd party driveways for static surveillance to watch a targets house?

    • Mike, Seriously great question. Your co-workers tactic use to be something that was encouraged when I first started in this business. I have used it sparingly over the years. And when I did use it, it wasn’t to get 3 doors down from the residence.

      All it takes is for that one neighbor to tell the claimant or the person surveillance being watched that they have a private investigator in the driveway or on their property and the gig is up. There is no way the investigator can follow them from the surveillance position. And the fact of the matter is neighbors talk in general. So the investigator tells the neighbor that he is watching for someone involved in narcotics trade and now the neighbor thinks their neighbors are drug dealers. And they will be watching to see who the investigator follows.

      With that being said, there are plenty of investigators that are full or crap. And there are plenty of investigators that lie and say they aren’t burned when they really area. And there are plenty of investigators that are oblivious to there surroundings and don’t even know when they are burned. If you work with the guy you are talking to enough, you will figure out if he is full of crap or not.


      • Thanks Andrew, it’s great to hear your perspective on the matter, it just confirms what I my gut felt to begin with. I believe the ‘3rd party rule’ and the awareness of should always be of importance to an investigator who is supposed to be covert to begin with, even if it means obtaining less video evidence instead of potentially compromising the surveillance.
        I’m still puzzled as to how he gets away with it, so he claims! Time will tell I guess.