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Covert Surveillance: A valuable tool if done correctly


A valuable tool if done correctly

When an employee is stealing, stalking, potentially threatening or embezzling, covert surveillance is often the best strategy to mitigate risk, avoid violence and build a legal case.

Covert surveillance can also be used when there is no specific subject. When receipts seem lower than they should be, an inventory check comes up short, or when something in a business seems “off,” covert surveillance can pinpoint both the reason and the responsible person(s).

If conducted within the letter of the law, covert surveillance can be a powerful tool for investigators. Done incorrectly, it can inflame a situation and open a company up to significant liability.

Preparing and conducting covert surveillance

A covert surveillance project begins long before the surveillance itself. Best practices for preparation include the following:

  • Do conduct reconnaissance before the surveillance. This includes not only visiting the site, if possible, but also using resources such as Google Earth. Advance planning will allow you to choose optimum areas for positioning equipment, depending on your goal.
  • Do show up early. If performing surveillance from a vehicle in the morning, for instance, get in position several hours earlier, so the car blends into the surroundings.
  • Do have a cover story in place that’s appropriate to the specific environment—in case someone sees you and questions your presence.
  • Do plan egress routes. If someone spots you and you get “burned,” you’ll want to avoid a confrontation in what’s likely an emotionally charged situation.
  • Don’t use the wrong vehicle. Choose one that allows you to sit in the back, like an SUV or minivan. Hang curtains or some other means of preventing people from seeing inside; this process is known as “blinding up.”
  • Don’t assume you know the local privacy laws. State laws vary on such issues as the use of GPS.

Keep the following in mind once the surveillance begins:

  • Do dress the part. A ratty outfit will stand out in an upscale department store; a suit will draw stares at the gym.
  • Do use mirrors and glass when available to shoot video without being seen.
  • Do bring sufficient supplies to sustain long surveillances.
  • Do use coordinated teams to break up surveillance sessions and/or follow/intercept mobile suspects.
  • Don’t record audio. In fact, turn off audio recording to avoid legal problems.
  • Don’t position the lens against a vehicle window, where it may be visible from the outside. Instead, shoot video from the shadows.
  • Do document every action: date, time, place, activities. Tell the story of your video: how you got it, when you got it, how it applies to the case at hand.

Most importantly, understand that quality video can make or break a case. A shaky, out-of- focus video from a phone camera will not make a case or prove a point. Quality video equipment can be obtained for a few hundred dollars; a tripod or other device to help produce steady, shake-free video is much less. Even good-quality concealed cameras are reasonably priced these days.

To convince a judge or jury, individuals in a video must be easily identified by someone who doesn’t know them. A judge or jury must be able to look at the subject and then look at the video and say, “Yes, that’s him (or her).”

Privacy pitfalls

Covert surveillance has one huge legal consideration: privacy laws. Video, for example, doesn’t lie. Legally obtained video can prove a case; illegally obtained video can lead to significant liability. A clear, high-quality video can prove a legal case. An inadmissible video that violates privacy laws can lead to a legal nightmare.

In recent years, courts have taken invasion of privacy very seriously. Covert surveillance in an area where an employee, customer or other individual would have had a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as a bathroom or locker room, has led to major lawsuits. Even shooting video through partially closed curtains has run afoul of privacy laws.

Federal and state laws are very clear about what is and isn’t allowed in surveillance. In many cases, video may be legal, but audio often violates federal privacy and wiretapping laws. Any company, investigation firm or security firm that doesn’t fully understand all applicable privacy laws is asking for trouble.

Learning covert and mobile surveillance

AT-RISK International offers both three- and five-day courses that cover every aspect of covert surveillance, from preparation and equipment to basic and advanced techniques. Courses include proven techniques for covert surveillance on foot and in vehicles, as well as in-depth tactics using the latest digital technology, AT-RISK students learn how to remain “invisible,”
how to execute different mobile surveillance formations, and how to conduct surveillance while
remaining within the law.

Courses can be conducted in AT-RISK facilities or on-site for groups virtually anywhere in the country. To learn more about our covert surveillance courses, contact us at 1-877-323-2444 or info@atriskpi.com.