While PIs spend a lot of time behind the keyboard these days, work still brings them out of the office for important tasks like surveillance and interviews. A lot of that work requires private investigators to be politely inauspicious. That means blending in well with crowds, customers, and the general public while working.
There are limits to what a PI can get away with in public, and important guidelines about how they can stay hidden without breaking any laws. Our guide will help PIs stay away from the limits and understand a few best practices about surveilling around other people. Let’s get started.
Always Start with a Little Research
Surveilling someone in public is hard – don’t go in blind. Always start a surveillance job with a little research first. Look up maps of the area that you’ll be in. If you are watching a person’s house or place of business, research nearby streets and places where the public can gather like cafes, restaurants, parking lots, and more spots. Gather information about all your options and choose a few places where it looks like you can surveil without being noticed.
This kind of preparation ensures you know what to do when you get to a location, and are less likely to be surprised by anything that happens. Research can also help you pinpoint the best ways to quickly leave if necessary.
If You’re Going to Linger, Take an Accessory
Nobody likes a loiterer, and some businesses or security teams won’t hesitate to ask why someone is sticking around when they aren’t doing anything. Many businesses even have limits for how long customers can stay, and servers may ask people to leave so they can clear out room for new guests.
These issues can pose problems for PIs who want to stay in one spot for an extended period of time. One thing that helps is bringing something along that makes it clear you are occupied. These days, when we do so much business and casual conversation with our smartphones, browsing through your phone is always an option. This also helps PIs snap some quick photos without drawing too much attention. However, we suggest you also bring along a book, a magazine to flip through, a notepad, or a collection of papers to review so it looks like you’re consistently occupied. That makes it much more likely that others will leave you alone so that you can focus on your real target without drawing much attention.
Be Ready with Explanations, Too
From nosy neighbors to excellent customer service, there’s a good possibility someone will ask how you are and what you’re doing when out on a job. This isn’t a problem! Just have an additional explanation ready to go so that you’re never at a loss.
Common and effective excuses include looking for a house in the neighborhood, taking an afternoon off work, and preparing for a big presentation or project. The specific purpose should be innocuous and give you lots of time to stay in one spot. Don’t get too creative, just practice a basic excuse that sounds normal for your area and lets you quickly get back to what you were doing.
Cameras Raise Too Many Questions
People are more sensitive about their privacy than ever. Bringing a camera into a public spot is almost never going to work out – there’s no real way to play a convincing “tourist” or “amateur photographer” for an extended period time, and it will gather lots of unwanted attention. If you’re caught snapping pictures of a subject, you may be asked to leave and it will be very obvious what you’re doing. If people at a restaurant or park feel nervous, they might start taking pictures right back, which is an even bigger problem.
Instead, stick to your smartphone. Today’s phones have excellent cameras and zoom functions and will draw far less attention than a DSLR or other hardware. If you really need to maximize zoom and quality, you can add a lens attachment to your phone that will give you additional capabilities while still looking fairly normal. Many PI sites will try to market spy cameras, but these can be difficult to use in public and often very low quality. Sticking with your phone is a win-win move here.
Know the Loitering Laws in Your State
Cities and states have a variety of approaches to loitering laws and how loitering is dealt with. If you haven’t looked into it yet, review the loitering laws in your area to see what’s allowed. Many places actually protect a certain amount of loitering when there’s clearly no ill intent. Some states even have carveouts for private investigators if they can discreetly produce a license.
Surveillance Without Intruding on Privacy
Surveillance has never been trickier, thanks to the latest rules on loitering or overstaying your welcome, as well as public awareness about privacy issues. It’s important to stay inconspicuous, have something to do while you’re watching, and avoid actions that look like you’re interfering with some else’s privacy.