Surveillance: A Balancing Act


How to Balance Case Time Constraints, Challenging Locations and Counter-Surveillance Forces 

Covert video surveillance is intelligence gathering in its rawest form. Many think all surveillance cases are the same: You just park down the street and chase your subject until the case is done.

When you have little or no experience in the art of surveillance, it might seem that way. In workers’ compensation, child custody or infidelity cases, the surveillance operative’s goal is essentially the same: to gather video evidence of any and all activity.

But zoom in on the details, and no two cases are alike. That’s why a surveillance operative needs to put each case into context from the start, as they balance their efforts with time constraints, case location challenges and the counter-surveillance forces arrayed against them.

The Rush Case

The call from the attorney or claims adjuster comes late on a Friday afternoon. “I need you in Hinky Town. Joe Claimant is going to be painting his cousin’s house,” or “Bad Mama is going to be hooking up with her ex-boyfriend and current motorcycle gang member, Big Mean. We need you there and get the video. NOW!!!”

Whether you are on a rush case or on an out of town surveillance, you just flat-out don’t have that luxury of time. So the blue flame roaring out your backside is cranked up a few notches hotter than normal. The rush case brings high expectations, and you do not want to disappoint. So you push that surveillance a little harder than you might on a local case where time is not an issue.

On a rush case, there are three important thoughts to keep in mind:

#1. Have a plan NOT to lose your subject.

You don’t have time to lose Joe Claimant. Plan to have eyes on his house early, so you can catch him leaving at 6:15 a.m. to drive the thirty miles to where his cousin is having a painting party.

Tail your subject tighter then you normally would. You are going to err on the side of being a bit aggressive. It helps to tell yourself this ahead of time, so you’ll be ready to react. If Bad Mama and Big Mean leave the kids alone at the house and take off on that chopper at 9:00 p.m., you’d better be on them to find out where they go and when they return. Before they leave, think about how you are going to react once they finally do.

#2. Have a plan of action/reaction ready in advance.

If my subject is up on a ladder painting, will I be prepared to sit close and watch for an extended period of time? Do I have the right vehicle for such a surveillance? Do I have video supplies and personal supplies, i.e. water, food, etc?

And finally, be mentally ready to go for it, so you don’t get wobbly in the knees when the case calls for decisive action. Get in there and get the video.

#3. Have an organized approach.

Make a list of supplies you need to take on your trip. Also, be thinking about what information you’ll need for your case and for the final report. Make a mental checklist, or a real one on a notepad.

Be sure you get everything you can on that list:

  • facial video shot of Big Mean going in and out of Bad Mama’s house on Friday night and Saturday morning
  • video of the license plate on Big Mean’s chopper
  • video of Bad Mama carrying the jug of whisky out of the liquor store
  • video of the kids playing outside back at home, while Big and Bad are downtown at the bar
  • All of that is accurately time and date-stamped of course, with the highlights summarized in your report.


In summary: Be prepared, be organized, and be on time, because this case has an expiration date.

The Progressive Surveillance

In the movie “Zero Dark Thirty, the surveillance agents (in a van) locate the elusive courier for Osama bin Laden, follow him a short distance and then break surveillance so as not to attract suspicion. Using restraint, and even breaking surveillance, can be a useful tool, especially on sensitive and complex cases. It’s like hitting a sacrifice fly — you get an out, but you advance a player from second base to third.

In “Zero Dark Thirty,” the main character (a real life CIA heroine) asks her bosses for assistance. What she’s requesting is a picket-line setup, in which a group of observers are stationed along possible routes as they track the courier’s movements (in this case, to Osama bin Laden’s hideout). Without the good work of a few surveillance operatives and the planning of our CIA heroine, there would be no finding bin Laden.

As sole operators, we don’t usually have the resources for a picket-line setup. But we can do our own form of picket line — what I refer to as the progressive surveillance.

You might do this to determine where a work comp claimant (who’s off his regular job because of a work comp claim) is working for cash under the table; or on an infidelity case where a spouse is meeting their lover in a secret location; or in cases where the subject is just too difficult to follow because of traffic or terrain. These cases generally have the subject taking part in some routine activity, but given the circumstances, they are difficult for a lone investigator to surveil.

The surveillance operative will set up at different choke points as they progressively verify when the subject leaves and where the subject is traveling. Patience and creativity are required. You may need to alternate vehicles. You may need to repeat this on specific days at specific times, over and over again. Using this method, the solo investigator (like eating an apple one bite at a time) will gradually work the subject closer and closer, over a period of time, to the specific location(s) without getting burned. Then fixed surveillance can be planned at this key location.

This is an important tool and can be used by surveillance operatives whether on a workers’ comp case or infidelity case, or if you ever find yourself hunting terrorists.

Counter-Surveillance Forces

There are many indirect and direct forces which can thwart your surveillance efforts. It is important to profile your subject and the neighborhood you will be working in. A train engineer claimant, living in a nice neighborhood, may be more challenging to surveil then a meat-packer claimant in a rougher neighborhood.

Both are represented by a plaintiff’s attorney who routinely works with high-dollar claims or a high volume of claims. These attorneys’ efforts have been thwarted by surveillance operatives in the past, so they educate their clients to be on the lookout.

Don’t discount the possibility that your subject may have been informed of what vehicle you drive. Rotating surveillance vehicles is a good idea, if you work against the same plaintiff attorneys on a routine basis. Also, given that claimants are more educated as to the likelihood of surveillance, you may want to ease into your surveillance. Lay low until you fall into the rhythm of the subject’s movements and get a feel for the neighborhood. If your subject’s activities require a more aggressive approach, crank up that blue flame accordingly and go for it.

Visualize how you might look from the other side looking out on your surveillance vehicle…The trick is NOT to be invisible. The trick is to be unremarkable.

Nosy neighbors and other indirect forces can also distract you or alter your plan. You must learn to melt into the background. Visualize how you might look from the other side looking out on your surveillance vehicle. A guy sitting in a car reading a newspaper in your average neighborhood, for hours on end, is eventually going to get a visit from a police officer. Driving past your subject’s residence again and again is also going to attract attention. You need to hide in plain sight and be ready to follow your subject or move in for the kill shot. And then come back again and again with the same vehicle over a course of days.

Successful surveillance operatives have vehicles, clothing and skills that allow them to blend into their surroundings. The trick is NOT to be tricky. The trick is NOT to be invisible. The trick is to be unremarkable.

Look and listen. Be cool, calm and alert. Use common sense and creativity, and put your surveillance into its proper context. And go get that video!

End of Report

About the Author:

Steve Koenig has more than twenty-five years of experience investigating cases for insurance companies, attorneys, corporations, and private parties. He owns an investigations firm, Koenig Investigative Agency, in Nebraska, and is founder and past president of the Nebraska Association of Licensed Private Investigators. You can check Steve out on LinkedIn. 

Steve Koenig and Ken Mitchell also co-authored the quirky crime novel, They Call Her Ed, which can be found via paperback or on Kindle at Any questions for Steve, contact him at