A Texas investigator finds a creative solution to the conundrum of choosing that one perfect surveillance vehicle that will work in all circumstances.
Choosing the Best Surveillance Vehicle: An Ongoing Debate
Lots of ink has been spilled in our trade journals and blog postings about the dos and don’ts of surveillance vehicles. What makes the best surveillance vehicle; how to set up your surveillance vehicle; what’s the best color for the ultimate surveillance vehicle, etc. We’ve all read those articles and mumbled under our breath about how our personal surveillance vehicle is better than that author’s, regardless of what the author is recommending.
That’s just the nature of our industry. Plenty of egos to go around, and just like what they say about opinions, as well as elbows, everyone has two of them.
One of the best recent articles about surveillance vehicles appeared in this very journal: the “Mom Van” piece written by Barry Maguire back in June of 2015. (See “Five Keys to a Successful Surveillance.”) Mr. Maguire is a twenty-year veteran of the surveillance industry, so he definitely knows a lot about the topic. In no way am I taking issue with Mr. Maguire on his choice of vehicles, because fundamentally, he is right: The #1 rule in surveillance, as Maguire puts it, “is to blend in, not stand out.”
Blending In in Waco, Texas
To that end, however, I’ve developed a localized practice that ensures that I always blend in no matter where I am conducting surveillance. It takes a little planning, a nice smile, and your best salesmanship act, but I have used this technique successfully on numerous occasions, primarily when I’m conducting multi-day surveillance on a subject and I don’t want to risk getting made.
My investigative practice is based in Waco, Texas — a quaint little hamlet of approximately 150,000 people, equidistant between Dallas and Austin on Interstate 35. Consequently, most of my surveillance work occurs in and around Central Texas. Our surrounding areas are definitely rural. So if I’m conducting surveillance in Waco and we end up out in the country, driving a blacked-out sedan or a soccer-mom minivan would instantly violate Surveillance Rule #1: Blend in, don’t stand out.
If I’m conducting surveillance in Waco and we end up out in the country, driving a blacked-out sedan or a soccer-mom minivan would instantly violate Surveillance Rule #1: Blend in, don’t stand out.
In many parts of Texas, one of the most versatile vehicles for blending in and not standing out is the ubiquitous pickup truck. For nearly thirty years, the most popular vehicle in all of the United States has been the Ford F-series pickup, so I can only imagine how many of these there are in Texas alone. While my primary surveillance vehicle is indeed a pickup truck, if I have someone under surveillance for several days in a row or I’m going to be tailing the subject on multiple occasions, I need to ensure that my pickup doesn’t get noticed by the subject. This is where single-use surveillance vehicles can come in handy.
An Unusual Idea
I discovered this single-use surveillance vehicle option one day in a panic when a client called and wanted me to continue surveillance on our subject for another two days beyond the initial two days already in the books. I felt like I was already pushing my luck by tailing the guy pretty closely for two days in the same vehicle, and I didn’t want to get made on Day 3 while still having Day 4 to contend with. That afternoon, I was driving by a local car dealership when the idea hit me: Why not borrow a late model truck for a few hours to use as my “new” surveillance vehicle?
I’m sure some of you intrepid, nationally-known PIs have rented cars to use as surveillance vehicles when you are jet-setting around the country doing hot-shot PI work, but I didn’t want to jump through all those hoops of dealing with an Enterprise or an Avis. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money up front, I didn’t want the paper trail, and I wanted to slip in and out quickly in my “new” ride. Developing a relationship with a locally-owned used car dealership has allowed me to do just that.
I was driving by a local car dealership when the idea hit me: Why not borrow a late model truck for a few hours to use as my “new” surveillance vehicle?
I knew it was not uncommon for local used car dealerships to let customers take “extended test drives” in their vehicles, because it usually ends up helping them make the sale, even if it means letting the customer keep the vehicle overnight. Armed with that knowledge, I approached a local used car dealer and laid it all out there for him. I told him I was a PI, I showed him my credentials, I told him I had been working surveillance on a guy for a few days, and that I needed to change up my surveillance vehicle … just in case.
I asked if he had any trucks on his lot with tinted windows that he would let me take on an “extended test drive” if I agreed to bring it back washed and full of gas. I told him that in this situation, his vehicle would not be involved in any jumps, high speed chases, shoot outs, or any other run-of-the-mill activities that we investigators usually engage in while behind the wheel. I also volunteered that I would not take his vehicle across the Mexican border.
A Gentleman’s Agreement
Perhaps this was just a local yokel who was having a slow day on the lot and thought this sounded cool. Or maybe he realized it was pretty low risk proposition, and he didn’t have anything to lose. But for whatever reason, this dealer said yes. He told me he had just the thing.
He made a copy of my driver’s license, PI license, and commercial vehicle insurance card, and we walked out to the lot, where he handed me the keys to a white, late model F-150 with dark-tinted windows. Pretty much as plain vanilla as you can get in Texas. I agreed to leave my truck on his lot, we shook hands, he put on some temporary plates, and I drove off in my new surveillance vehicle.
I had plenty of time that evening to get my “new” surveillance vehicle all set up for the next two days. With a couple of expandable clothes rods, a few yards of some lightweight black fabric, and few pieces of Velcro, this new single-use surveillance vehicle was every bit as functional and discreet as my own. When I arrived on scene to begin surveillance, getting the inside ready to go was just about as easy as it was in my own vehicle. I used all my normal equipment, closed my impromptu blinds, and did my job.
Needless to say, the surveillance went off without a hitch, and the next day I returned the newly-washed truck with a full tank of gas and in cleaner condition than when I picked it up. Obviously, removing the clothes rods, fabric, and Velcro left no damage whatsoever to the interior, and the truck had minimal additional mileage on the odometer. Mr. Used Car Dealer was proud to have played an important part in a successful PI case, and I was thrilled to have successfully delivered the goods to my client.
And so it was that my love affair with single-use surveillance vehicles was born. As much as I enjoyed turning my truck into a rolling command center and a covert surveillance vehicle, having a virtually limitless supply of surveillance vehicles has proven to be an incredible resource for my small firm.