29 July 2020

We’ve all seen the classic movies where two detectives sit in an unmarked car and eat fast food while on a stakeout. Seems like a pretty good time, right? The truth is that physical surveillance is pretty difficult work. It’s not as easy as sitting in the car and waiting. Detectives in real life train for years before conducting a stakeout to make sure that they do the job right. You’ve got to blend in like a chameleon for hours at a time with no sleep or food to see as much as possible without being spotted yourself. It’s a tall order and should be taken very seriously. In this post, expert private investigator, Dan Ribacoff, teaches how to conduct physical surveillance.

The Risks of Physical Surveillance.

Traffic Violations: Obeying traffic laws to the best of your abilities is a must if you want to conduct a safe and successful operation. Careless driving will not only lead to you getting in trouble, but can put others in danger of physical harm.

Assault or Physical Injury: You can’t go around knocking over elderly women and common pedestrians while you’re chasing somebody.

Trespassing: Even if you believe it to be necessary for your investigation, entering private property without consent of the of the landowner is still against the law. Also, any photo or video evidence that you obtain while trespassing cannot be used in a court of law.

Roping & Entrapment: This is one that you often hear about on TV, such as on Law & Order. Roping is the act of obtaining -information by legally deceiving others. This differs from entrapment, which is an illegal form of deception where someone creates a condition in which the target of an investigation is required to perform a certain action. For example, if you need to prove that someone is faking a disability, you can’t let the air out of his/her tires to get photos and videos of them jacking up their car. You just need to be a bystander and let the target prove themself guilty on their own.

Stalking & Harassment: Stalking is defined as instilling fear into a person; harassment as aggressive pressure and intimidation. If someone notices you following them or conducting surveillance on them and they detect you, the jig is up. You have to leave no matter what, or else it’s crime! You can definitely try again in a few days—wear a disguise, drive a different car and watch from somewhere else. In this case, it’s 2 strikes and you’re out, because if you’re caught again, they can file a complaint and you can be arrested for stalking or harassment.

Pre Surveillance

Before you go full surveillance mode, you need to understand the area that you’ll be working in. It’s always best to physically visit a location to get a feel for your surroundings. You can also use technology like Google Earth or Google Maps if going to the location isn’t an option. In doing this, you can establish vantage points, locate possible exits and identify traffic flow.

What kind of details should you be looking for in pre-surveillance? Let’s say that you think you husband is having an affair. You choose to do surveillance on the woman who you suspect him to be with because she doesn’t know you and he does. You will need to know things like, which trains are near her house, does she have a car, are there any one way streets, where most concealed area to watch from, etc. These are the kinds of questions you need to ask in order to be well prepared for surveillance.  

Most times, on the first day of surveillance, you go from 0 to 1. Then you have to come back the next day and take it from 1 to 2. Make a plan, but be prepared to change the plan if unforeseen circumstances occur. For example,  if you are following someone, but they get the last parking spot and get on the train, while you’re still trying to park, do not panic. Take a second to analyze what you’ve learned: “They get on the train at 7:45 AM on weekdays.” Now you know for tomorrow to wait in the parking lot and get parking spot early. Think smart and gather intel!

Stakeout Essentials

Pee Bottle (Wide-Mouth For Ladies):

Any detective or FBI Agent will tell you that this is the #1 must-have on a stakeout


It’s important to stay hydrated at all times, but remember, more water = more pee bottles.


You have no idea how long you’ll be there for, so bring plenty of nonperishables. Remember to avoid simple carbs, as they will cause you to feel more drowsy.

A Friend: 

If you’re going to be there for a while, having a friend to carry the load can make the operation much easier and run much smoother. One of you can sleep while the other watches. If you’re a woman, maybe having a friend there for safety purposes is something to consider as well.

Cell Phone: 

I mean, who leaves the house without it? It can be used for communication and the newer iPhones have impeccable camera quality.

Digital Camera: 

Although cell phone cameras can have great quality, many investigators prefer stand-alone digital cameras for better zoom capabilities and better picture quality.


The last thing that you want is to be getting good surveillance evidence and then all of a sudden, your recording device’s battery dies.

Dark or Inconspicuous Clothing: 

Definitely no Hawaiian shirts on a stakeout (unless you’re in Hawaii and it’s necessary to blend in). You want to choose something that’s not going to make you stand out. If you’re going to Downtown Manhattan, wear business attire. If you’re going to a sports game, wear a hat and jersey. For most stakeouts, jeans, a dark shirt/sweatshirt and a dark cap or hood will work just fine.

A Change of Clothes: 

During a surveillance, you may have to change your appearance at a moment’s notice. Wear a blue baseball cap, and carry a red one. It takes a person 3 looks to recognize someone if they don’t know them already (if they know the person, it only takes 1). Wear a reversible jacket or start walking with a limp when you pull a collapsible cane out of your backpack. Basically, do anything that you can so that the target thinks that they’ve only seen you once, even if that’s not the case.

Full-Windshield Sunshade: 

A simple tool, but it can be used to cover yourself from people who try to look through you front or back windshields.

ID and Vehicle Paperwork: 

There’s nothing illegal about conducting a stakeout, but if a police officer roles up to you for being in a No Parking Zone, you have to be prepared for that.

A Believable Cover Story: 

This one might even be as important as the pee bottle. Again, stakeout’s aren’t illegal, but its always best not to tell people (including cops) what you’re up to. For example, if you’re doing surveillance on your husband in a store and you tell a cop what you’re doing when he asks why you’re just sitting in your car, that cop will go into that store and give you right up 10 out of 10 times. We want to steer observers away from what’s going on in order to maintain our cover.

Keys For an Effective Stationary Surveillance

1. Distance:

In a stationary surveillance, distance is your best friend. The farther away you are from the target, the better. I’ve seen other private investigators. pull up right outside a target’s house. All I could think was “What a bunch of morons!” You always want to go down the block and watch from there. You can even use binoculars to get the best view from a distance.

2. Concealment:

The main idea of a stakeout is to not be seen. Even if you’re far away, you should do your best to hide yourself by:

-Sitting in the backseat of your car

-Face your car away from the target (It gives the illusion of disinterest)

-Installing tinted windows on your car

-closing your sunroof to make the inside of the car as dark as possible

Monitoring a Vehicle

If you ever have to disrupt or leave a surveillance and need to return at a later time, you may want to monitor if the target has moved their vehicle in your absence. Here are 2 pro-methods that you can use to do that:

1. Use a Rock: 

If you want to know if a person has left a particular location, place a rock on the top of their back tire before you leave. If it’s not still sitting there when you return, it means that the wheels on the car have rolled and they drove somewhere while you were away.

2. The Watch Trick: 

My favorite way track car movements is to buy a dull, colorless, inexpensive watch at Kmart for about three to four dollars. Place the watch on the passenger side, underneath one of the tires. If the target moves his/her car, they will crush the watch and break it. Because the watch will no longer work, it will be stuck at the time that it was broken, giving the exact time that the target left.

Moving Surveillance in the Car

When you tail someone by car, you have an extra layer of cover. However, you’re also at the mercy of the traffic gods: a bus will cut you off, the traffic signal changes, etc., so be prepared for everything out there.

As with other types of surveillance, you want to put as much distance as possible between you and the target. Try to leave a car or two between you and the target when you’re tailing them. That way, you can still see where they’re going and they can’t spot you unless they’re outwardly looking for you. If the target starts to drive dangerously (running red lights, making illegal u-turns, speeding, etc.), it may be an indication that they know they are being followed. Remember that your safety and the safety of others comes first.

Moving Surveillance on Foot

The same rules apply on foot⁠—distance, concealment and safety. Crowds can be a huge problem if you’re following a target. If you look away for even a second, you can lose the target completely. Everyone looks the same from behind, so you won’t be able to relocate them either. The point is to always have your eyes on the target and to stay close enough that you won’t lose them, but not close enough that they’ll spot you. If it’s too difficult to keep up (like if you’re following a jogger), you can consider using a bike.

Practice Makes Perfect

At one point or another, you’re going to lose your target. It happens to everyone, newbies as well as professionals sometimes. Surveillance is like any other skills, it takes a lot of practice. You can’t just wake up one morning and say “I’m gonna go follow my husband around” and expect to be successful. You have to get yourself prepared and you have to use common sense. If at first you don’t succeed, eat your Wheaties and try again tomorrow. Also, consider using electronic surveillance as an alternative if physical surveillance isn’t working out.

If you need professional help for a stakeout or any investigation for that matter, do not hesitate to contact us at hello@iigpi.com or at (212) 987-0808

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