This is the fourth blog post about private investigators, drawn from my research for my next novel. Links to the previous posts are below.
Disclaimer - the research is done for a book with a US setting. The information may not apply to other countries. It is not professional advice and should not be taken as such. Surveillance done without legal reason is called STALKING and you could be arrested.
It’s 5 am and you softly shut the front door of your home as you leave. You have an appointment and you don’t want to miss it.
You make one last check to ensure you have everything you need before you back your SUV out of the drive and head off. The case you’re working on is one of suspected insurance fraud, your client (the insurance company) believing the injury is not as bad as the subject claims.
Twenty-five minutes later you pull over to the side of the road, turn off the vehicle, and carefully creep into the back. You fasten the blackout curtain behind the front seats, blocking out most of the sunlight that is beginning to creep across the city. The tinted windows provide the rest of your cover.
With your camera in hand and your notebook beside you, you settle in for what could be a long wait.
Some PIs do a lot of surveillance, some do virtually none. It depends what areas of work they make their focus.
Surveillance is about seeing without being seen. The best surveillance operators blend into their surrounds. They make themselves normal, unremarkable, unmemorable. You don’t notice the guy across the street, smoking and checking his mobile phone, nor do you notice the woman browsing through books outside a bookstore. Skulking around in shadows and peering around corners makes you stand out, so you have to be boring.
There are three main kinds of surveillance:
Fixed - watching a subject from an empty flat, a hedge or bushes, an office, rooftop, or any other location you can’t take with you.
Fixed mobile - a van, car, or similar, used as a fixed location, but able to move to follow a subject.
Mobile - following in a vehicle or on foot.
The above scenario is fixed mobile. The best vehicles to use are ordinary ones: white vans, station wagons and SUVs with tinted windows, utes with hard canopies (best if you can access the rear through a small window to the cabin). Some PIs use magnet sheets on the side of their vehicles with fake business names, but generally the more unremarkable the vehicle the better. Inside vans and utes it should be carpeted to reduce any sound you make, and have all you need for hours spent on the job – and yes, that includes a container to pee in!
At 7.43 am, your subject emerges from his house, locks the door, and climbs into his car. You take some quick photos and prepare to follow him as soon as he has left. When you planned for this operation, you carefully studied the road map and you know where he will most likely be heading.
Once his car has disappeared, you quickly climb into the driver’s seat and head in the direction he took. As you round a corner, you see his car up ahead, stopped at some traffic lights. There are a few cars between you and your subject, and as the lights change, you keep him in sight, never getting too close.
There are a couple of good rules to keep during mobile surveillance.
Your subject pulls into the car park of a large shopping centre. Your research has told you he gets his pain medication from the chemist in the centre, but you’re not going to assume anything. You wait until he is walking away from you and then you get out of your car, putting on a jacket and a pair of plain lens glasses. Keeping him in sight, you follow behind other shoppers as he heads for the chemist. He goes in. You walk past to a clothing store and start examining the sale rack out the front—or pretending to. You can’t get distracted from your task, so stay focussed!
He leave the shopping centre, and you continue your mobile surveillance. His next stop is the building site he works at. Now, he is supposed to be on light duties, according to the insurance company, and unable to lift heavy loads. The site has hessian fences, so setting up surveillance in the SUV won’t get you anywhere.
Time to improvise.
Opposite the building site is another new office block that is in the final stages of decoration before occupation by tenants. You have already negotiated with the building and site managers to rent a small space on the third floor. The room is incomplete; no floor coverings or air conditioning. It’s not comfortable, but the view it provides over the opposite building site is perfect for your needs.
You set up your video camera and have you still camera ready to go. Now you have to wait.
You watch your subject all morning, but he does nothing he shouldn’t. Just as your stomach is starting to growl, making you thankful for the sandwiches you brought with you, a delivery van shows up at the site. As you watch, the workers down tools and head for the van. The side door slides open and someone inside starts passing out cartons of beer to the willing helpers.
Including you subject.
You film and photograph him as he helps carry not one, but two cartons across to the site hut. He lays them on the floor and returns outside; no sign of any discomfort or soreness from his injury. You note the time, date, location, and activity in your notebook, ready for your report.
And then you wait again.
Surveillance is about patience and focus. It’s also about using your knowledge and thinking ahead to what might happen. Above all, it’s about finding the facts and reporting them. Regardless of what your client wants, you give them the facts. What they do with them is their decision.
Just before knock-off, you see your subject helping another worker lift cement bags onto a wheelbarrow. More video, more photos, and another entry in your notebook. You follow your subject home again, and then head to your own home, over thirteen hours after you left it. Your body is stiff from being still all day, and you can still taste the dust from the unfinished room on the third floor. You give your report to your client the next day, and when the subject’s lawyer sees the video footage, the subject admits he has faked the seriousness of his injury. Your client is happy with your work and gives you another case to start on.
Next week – an interview with my fictional PI, Sam Dalton.
Missing anything? Previous Private Investigator posts:
What Does a Real Private Investigator Do?
Skips and Runaways - Finding the Missing
Seeking the Facts - Criminal Investigations
What's it about?
It's about words and my life as a writer. There are also tips for those starting their writing journey, with a focus on self-publishing, and encouragement all round.