Top Rookie Mistakes PI’s Make (and how to prevent them)

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1.     RUNNING OUT OF GAS, OR BREAKING OFF BEFORE YOU DO

I’ll admit, in the last decade this has almost happened to me several times. Personally, I am not going to show up to every surveillance with a freshly topped-off tank just in case they happen to drive 300 miles away that day, but that said, you’re flirting with disaster if you show up with less than a quarter tank. As a general rule, make sure you have around half a tank or more, depending on your vehicle’s range.

TIP: If they stop and get gas close to an interstate, that might be a sign they are going to drive for a while. Shoot a quick clip of video of them getting gas, then swoop in and top off your tank yourself. Bonus points if you find a spot where you can still film them while you’re filling up.

About a year ago I followed a contractor all over Central Florida in the morning. I started the day with maybe ¾ a tank, but after 6 hours following him job to job I was down to ¼ tank and he was now on the turnpike heading toward South Florida, and I was getting nervous, I hope this guy doesn’t go to Miami, I’ll never make it! The thoughts and mistakes rushed through my head.  Man, he had duffle bag when he left the house, didn’t he? Guess it isn’t filled with gym clothes like I thought. Why didn’t I just fill up when he was inside that restaurant having lunch? I think there was even a gas station close by. Luckily, he couldn’t make it Miami without filling up either. As he pulled into the rest center to fill up, I skipped the video for the moment and immediately snagged an empty pump and filled up. Getting gas became my number one priority! I was even able to snag some video of him and his crew going into the gas station, but regardless, what’s a few minutes of filming someone getting gas versus the slew of video you’ll get later when they get to their destination? Well, eventually he did make it down to Miami, started on a job, and checked into a hotel for the night. So I was able to turn an 8-hour day into 20 billable hours plus expenses over two days, and turn 40 minutes of video into hours of primo video, but that wouldn’t have happened if I ran out of gas.

2.     RUNNING OUT OF BATTERY POWER OR VIDEO STORAGE

This is in the same vein as running out of gas. Are you prepared to follow someone outside away from your car for 2, 4, 8 hours without needing to recharge your camera? I hope at the very least you have an AC adapter in your car to charge your camera during long days. Bonus points if you’ve purchased an extended life battery. I highly recommend purchasing several extra batteries for your cameras, and be sure to keep them charged at least one a month, because what good is having extra batteries if they’re dead when you need them most? You never know when someone may go to a park, beach, or an amusement park for the day, forcing you to leave your vehicle behind and work with only what you can carry. Have a plan ahead of time for that! If you do not, and you just have one camera with limited battery life, and it has to last you all day, you better use it sparingly and save the juice for the best possible shots. But if you prepared ahead of time, and had batteries to cover the whole day, you’ll go home feeling like a rock star (don’t forget the sunscreen)!

The same goes for video storage. If you have an SD camera make sure you have extra blank SD cards. If you have an internal memory only camera, well, you’re about to learn that might not be the best camera for this job, so I hope you have enough space or can delete enough old video files to salvage your day. If that’s the case, be sure to be selective in what you shoot!

3.     FOLLOWING THE WRONG VEHICLE/PERSON

This isn’t always a rookie mistake, but it’s often preventable. I’m sure I will follow the wrong person at least a few more times in my career. It happens, especially on an insurance case when you don’t have a picture and only a vague physical description. But do your best to prevent this. Nothing like finding out all that video you got was of the claimant’s brother-in-law who you didn’t know lived in the same house, who also perfectly fits the description, and just happens to drive your claimant’s registered vehicle around every day, while your claimant never leaves the friggin’ house (not that this has happened to me)! You’ll beat yourself up regardless, but you’ll really have egg on your face if the client finds their picture easily on social media and you did not. Mistakes happen, but don’t let it be one of negligence.

As for following the wrong car, well, somedays it seems like when you’re following a white Camry the entire road is filled with white sedans. The trick I used starting out was to try and identify distinguishing characters of the vehicle that helped me identify it quickly. Obviously, it helps if you know there’s a giant bumper sticker or vanity license plate, but you’re not always that lucky. Oh no, I got held up by that light and am catching up now. Which one of these white sedans up there is mine? Oh right, my car had the shark tail satellite antenna and brake lights that look like Batman’s eyes! Yes, I used stupid little mental tricks and said them out loud in my car to help me remember and spot them easier. Might seem cheesy, but it works.

4.     NOT KNOWING HOW TO USE YOUR CAMERA

Want to know what really makes you look like a novice? Blurry video! Especially when followed by rapidly zooming in and out trying to get your camera’s autofocus to move passed the rain drops on your window so you can see the target clearly. Video like this is jarring to look at and I’ve seen it from people who have been doing this for years. Same goes for filming through a chain-link fence or passed the tops of bushes. You need to read the instruction manual and practice a little bit before you get caught in such situations. You’re just sitting there in your car bored, right? Start playing with your camera. The issue above is easily fixed by turning off autofocus (the part making it focus on the nearest object while blurring the background) and going into manual mode/focus. I’m sure every camera has the function and some even have presets like “mountain mode” with a little icon picture of a mountain. This tells your camera to focus on the further object. My camera has presets and I turn mine on “mountain mode” every time it even starts to sprinkle. Practice switching modes and learn how to do it quickly. 1-3 seconds of blurry video before you fix the problem is acceptable (albeit entirely preventable), but 10-20 seconds or repeated zooming in and out to get the image in focus is not. It looks like you don’t know what you’re doing.

Also, memorize where the image stabilization button or settings are. My favorite daily-use camera has the tendency to turn off the image stabilizer on occasion (or maybe I just bump it easily), and it’s easy to spot because my video gets shaky. Luckily, at this point I have the image stabilization button memorized and can reach it easily with my index finger while recording to correct the error almost immediately when it happens. Oh by the way, when is the best time to get a new camera? When the image stabilization no longer works! So take a few minutes and familiarize yourself with all your cameras settings and practice quickly activating the ones you’ll use most (image stabilization, manual mode, auto focus, low-light/night vision).

Tip: If you’re in a jam, and you need to zoom passed a fence and don’t have time to figure out manual mode, focus on something far away that isn’t blocked by the fence, like a tree you can see above the fence line, then once it is in focus it will remain that way when you pan the camera down and record.

5.     BEING TOO PARANOID

Nothing wrong with being cautious, or a little paranoid, but you can be too cautious at the expense of missing out on key video. “Oh man, I think he sees me! I’ve been right behind him in the last 3 stop lights in the left turn lane. You can’t make this many left turns and it still seem like coincidence, can you?! Maybe I’ll shoot through the intersection so I don’t seem obvious. I’ll just head through the light while he’s sitting there, then I’m sure I can easily make a U-turn after that and catch him as he turns!” That was me my first year. Must have lost people pulling that maneuver a half-dozen times before I abandoned it. Look, following someone doesn’t come naturally to us. But I promise, you are your own worst enemy when you’re first starting out. You need to learn to silence the paranoia. Don’t let the hurricane of thoughts rapid firing in your brain cause you to make dumb mistakes. Chances are your subject isn’t paying attention to who is behind them at all, much less the last 3 lights. Do you do that? I rarely do. It’s most likely in your head, and if it’s not, make them prove it to you—don’t’ just assume it! People usually let you know when you’re made.

Tip: Just get them to their first stop! Get them off their street, out of the neighborhood, down the road, and if they stop at a gas station, then look for any signs they know that you’re there. Are they looking at your vehicle? No, just going about their business? Then you’re good. Relax. Re-lax. They are oblivious, and now you can calm down and just do your job.

In regards to this, you need to look at things from the client or your employer’s perspective. So for the first 6 hours of the day nothing happens, then they finally leave the house and two turns and a traffic light later and –poof—they’re gone. You check the nearby shopping centers to no avail and then go back to the house. Still not home. Oh well, guess I’ll call it a day. Now imagine being the client and receiving a hefty bill for this surveillance. What exactly am I paying for?! Them to sit there all day and when it finally counts, nothing? Look, you’re going to lose people. It will occur less as you improve, but until you get there, just do your absolute best to get them to the first stop, assess their level of awareness, and stay on them.

In summation, don’t make preventable mistakes like running out of gas or battery life. Do learn your cameras settings in and out. Do your homework to make sure you follow the right person or vehicle. And don’t let your noisy paranoid head make you lose people! Do these things, and soon enough you can shake off the term rookie investigator, and be welcomed into the next stage, the plentiful ranks of the decent investigator! (What, you think mastering these will make you an awesome investigator? Slow down. There’s so much more to learn, newbie. But fix these and you’ll be on your way!)
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