How to Follow the Subject Inside, Shoot Video, and Get Out Alive
Mr. Webster defines surveillance as a “close watch kept over someone or something.” It’s also bread and butter for many private investigators. And as any working PI knows, there’s a lot more to surveillance than passively sitting and watching. Whether it’s stationary or moving surveillance, keeping eyes on the subject can present quite a challenge.
All surveillance is, of course, covert by nature. In this article, I’ll discuss covert surveillance indoors—in other words, following a subject inside a public establishment and videotaping her activities by use of a covert undercover camera. (For example, you might follow a subject suspected of workers’ comp fraud from his residence to Home Depot. When he enters the store, you grab your covert camera and follow him in with the intention of videotaping him exhibiting behavior outside the scope of his alleged injury.)
These 6 tips will help you with the nuances of collecting the video evidence you need without getting burned:
1. What Camera Should I Use?
The short answer is that it’s a matter of personal preference. I’ve used a body cam, button cam, hat cam, drinking mug cam, and a pen cam. Each had strengths and drawbacks. Currently, I like a certain car alarm key chain video recorder (found here). In terms of price, versatility, and application to practically every kind of covert surveillance, this device cannot be beat. It fulfills the two most important elements you want in a covert camera: Reliability and ease of use.
2. Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain.
Sure, it’s exciting to be a private investigator. But you are not the great and powerful Oz: When you follow someone indoors, you don’t want to impress anyone or attract attention. You want to disappear. Do not wear bright clothing. Avoid wearing shirts with noticeable graphics or phrases.
With a covert camera you’ll need to be about 10 to 15 feet from the subject and still be practically invisible. You’ll have to maintain this distance to videotape him as he moves around the store. Unless you come equipped with Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, this can be difficult. Dress in dark colors or shades of brown. Wear a dark colored plain ball cap without a noticeable logo. If you’re gorgeous, do your best to uglify yourself a bit.
3. We Don’t Need no Stinkin’ Badges!
If you’re made during a covert surveillance, be prepared to identify yourself (not to the subject of course.) Loss prevention or management may have questions for you. Unfortunately, there are plenty of pedophiles and perverts in the world. You do not want to be identified as such (particularly if they discover your covert camera.) Make sure you have your private investigator identification and a business card. This is especially important if they call Five-O.
In the 1987 film Gardens of Stone, James Caan plays a crusty old sergeant in charge of an army unit at Arlington National Cemetery that provides military honors to soldiers killed in Vietnam. He always yells “Steady!” when he hears soldiers talking while standing in formation. I love that.
Think “Steady” as you walk with your covert camera. I can’t stress this enough. You must make a point to consciously walk smoothly and let each step roll off the balls of your feet while keeping your upper body (and the camera) level and steady. If not, your video will look like an episode of NYPD Blue, and your client will need Dramamine to watch it.
Additionally, since a covert camera is covert by nature and does not have a viewfinder, you’ll need practice with the camera ahead of time to get a feel for how close it videotapes and how shaky it can get.
5. “Tell me a story, Jack.”
Again with the movie analogies: In the 1982 film 48 Hours, Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte play a convict and police detective at odds with each other but forced to work together. During surveillance, Murphy’s character clowns around and requests a bedtime story: “Tell me a story Jack.” We can’t print Nolte’s reply in a family magazine, but the phrase “tell me a story” should resonate.
Let the video tell a story. The client should be able to watch it and know, basically, what happened without referring to the written report. For example, if you’re following a subject into a shopping mall, make sure to record the name of the mall on the door. If the subject has entered Sears, record the Sears sign. If he’s in the appliance section, capture the section sign.
Tell a story with the video of where your subject went and what she did. You are selling a service, an intangible…an observation, yes—but as complete an observation as humanly possible. You are selling a story.
6. Follow You, Follow Me
Phil Collins sang “I will follow you. Will you follow me?” I doubt Phil ever did any covert surveillance, but he was apparently interested in who was following whom.
You should be as well, especially if you end up following your subject indoors at multiple locations. You can’t shoot covert video every time the subject gets out of the car. He’ll wonder why you happen to appear at every store where he’s shopping that day.
Make careful choices about where you follow the subject. Avoid short stops (such as convenience stores). The minimal video you get will not be worth the effort…and the increased likelihood of getting burned.
Scott B. Fulmer is a 20-year veteran private investigator and is president and CEO of Resolutis Investigations, a Texas-based firm specializing in surveillance. He writes about surveillance for Pursuit Magazine and other publications and posts a popular weekly blog here, and you can follow him on Twitter at @Resolutis.
Mr. Fulmer is available to speak to your group, seminar, or conference as a presenter or keynote speaker. He’s a decorated Gulf War veteran, holds a BA in criminal justice from the University of Texas at San Antonio, and resides in the Texas Hill Country with his beautiful wife, three very responsible teenagers and a cat named Pepper. If you have any questions or investigative needs, contact him at (210) 520-0148 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.