Rethinking San Francisco Bay Area Surveillance

img_2614The traditional talk for private investigator/potential surveillance client goes like this: Client wants the job done as cheaply as possible and private eye quotes a price to try to land the client. The negotiation seems to be more about price than about achieving results. The first-time client has maybe called around to a few other investigators and seeks a bargain.

The bargain mindset, going with the lowest bidder, often leads to failure. The standard arrangement would be for the private eye to do the best he could to tail and follow a subject all by himself. A lone surveillance operative can be successful but notorious Bay Area traffic makes it exceedingly difficult. All it takes is a right turn on red or any vehicle getting between you and the subject and even the most gifted and tenacious private investigator could lose the person.

Perhaps the first step in the talk between P.I. and potential client needs to be about the type of person who will be followed and when. Are we dealing with a younger person more likely to have a wild Friday or Saturday night, a person who drives a lot or someone who is more of a suburban homebody who might be up to something? It’s a very different surveillance task following someone in an East Bay or Marin suburb vs. following someone hitting the San Francisco clubs. In the old model, the single P.I. would try to do his best on the retainer but may or may not get results.

I encourage clients to use at least two and as many as four licensed private investigators for mobile surveillance. The operatives can be split into any number of ways, having two cars each with a driver and P.I. ready to tail on foot or other form of transit.  Even the simplest move makes the lone P.I. pull out his hair. The lone P.I. does everything right and follows the subject into San Francisco or San Jose. The subject quickly gets a parking spot and is away on foot while the lone P.I. searches in vain for a parking place and loses the target because he can’t get out on foot quickly enough.

On a retainer of $2,000, billed at $125 per hour, a single operative would have 16 hours of surveillance time. An extra P.I. added would be about $200 per-hour or give the client 10 hours on the $2000 retainer. Add a third P.I. and the hourly fee is up to about $250 per hour or 8 hours of time on the initial $2,000 retainer.

The object of surveillance is to obtain video evidence and document the subject’s activities. You might not have that many chances to get results. Adding personnel to the mission greatly increases the odds of success. A client will actually get better value, i.e., increasing the odds of success, by paying for more mobile operatives. When police do surveillance they are using teams of personnel and constantly rotating vehicles and people.

There are more transportation options than ever and a private investigator has to be ready to get on BART or follow an Uber or a Lyft. One private eye on surveillance faces incredible odds to get results.