Surveillance Investigator Job Description
Working for investigation services firms, the government, or as self-employed individuals, surveillance investigators collaborate with their clients to obtain information to support cases and make conclusions from their evidence. This often includes researching information about persons of interest, going to their location to film them and find evidence, and putting all their findings into the case’s records. Surveillance investigating takes someone who is resourceful and inquisitive and who can spot details quickly. This career also requires significant travel and irregular work hours to perform observations when and where investigators can find the suspect.
Surveillance Investigator Duties and Responsibilities
Surveillance investigators work in a variety of organizations. Specific duties and responsibilities may vary, but there are several core tasks associated with the job, including:
Conduct Case Research
When assigned a case, surveillance investigators consult with the client to clarify the case’s objectives and specific research needs. They then use online databases, websites, public records, and phone calls to learn about suspects. This can include finding out where they live, what vehicles they drive, and any other information the client requests.
Perform Video Surveillance
They travel to their suspect’s location and set up video recording equipment in a hidden place to monitor the area. Often operating the equipment remotely from a vehicle, they watch the video feed to identify suspicious activities and behaviors relevant to the case. As the subject moves, surveillance investigators may relocate their equipment or follow the subject directly on foot.
Collect Evidence at Scene
In addition to video recordings, surveillance investigators take pictures of suspects at the scene, make notes about what they witness, and get recorded statements when requested. They upload this evidence to a case management system for use in legal proceedings and formal reports.
Review and Analyze Evidence
Coordinating with the client, surveillance investigators review and analyze their written observations, interviews, video recordings, and photographs to look for evidence that supports the investigation’s objectives. They also determine what evidence they can successfully use in legal proceedings if necessary.
Surveillance investigators regularly call or email their clients to share progress on the case. They also write detailed daily summaries of all activities related to the case and include any documentation, such as pictures or videos, that backs up their statements.
Surveillance Investigator Skills and Qualifications
In addition to having patience and persistence in challenging situations, surveillance investigators benefit from a background in criminal justice or law enforcement. Employers prefer an associate’s or bachelor’s degree along with at least one year of investigation experience. They also seek these skills:
- Video surveillance – surveillance investigators use covert methods to record suspects secretly and clearly, and have strong technical skills to operate different video equipment and software
- People observation – having an eye for detail to observe a person’s movement and behavior helps surveillance investigators stay focused and alert during fieldwork and obtain the evidence they need
- Research skills – conducting interviews, looking up information online, and searching for documents in public databases all require strong research skills
- Decision-making skills – surveillance investigators make important decisions when choosing appropriate surveillance methods, anticipating a person’s next moves, and making conclusions from available evidence
- Communication skills – strong writing skills help investigators write detailed reports that clearly communicate their findings, while speaking skills assist with interviews and communication with clients
Tools of the Trade
Surveillance investigators often use these tools:
- Surveillance tools (digital cameras, video equipment)
- Productivity software (Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Outlook)
- Image and video software (Adobe Photoshop, Gimp, Adobe Premiere, Apple QuickTime)
Surveillance Investigator Education and Training
Individuals can qualify to work as a surveillance investigator with prior experience in the military, security, private investigation, law enforcement, or security industries. However, many employers like to see an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. Common topics in criminal justice programs include criminal law, corrections, research, criminal procedure, and policing. Most surveillance investigators also need a state license in private investigation, and each state sets different requirements for education, experience, and background checks.
Surveillance Investigator Salary and Outlook
The median salary for surveillance investigators and other private investigators is $50,700 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The 10th percentile makes about $28,900 annually, and the highest-paid surveillance investigators receive more than $86,700 a year. Benefits for full-time jobs can include mileage and equipment reimbursement, profit-sharing and retirement plans, insurance benefits, and paid time off.
The BLS expects 11 percent job growth for surveillance investigators through 2026, which is faster than average. An increased need for investigative services and background checks leads to more opportunities, although applicants can expect competition due to high interest in this field. Experienced individuals with computer and interviewing skills have an advantage.
Does working as a surveillance investigator interest you? Here are some helpful resources to review:
The National Council of Investigation & Security Services – this organization represents all private investigation and security professionals and advocates for their interests. Surveillance investigators can obtain membership to access networking opportunities, meetings, news bulletins, awards, and advocacy resources
The Everything Private Investigation Book – designed for anybody who needs to perform investigations on others, this guide offers strategies for online research, surveillance, identity theft protection, and background checks. Author Sheila L. Stephens has a background in criminal justice and offers tips on working on an investigation team, handling abuse cases, and following the law
United States Association of Professional Investigations – people who have worked for at least one year in private investigation can join the USAPI to get access to dispute resolution services, attend conferences, network on the forums, and receive discounts for tuition and publications
Open Source Intelligence Techniques: Resources for Searching and Analyzing Online Information – author Michael Bazzel’s background in government and computer crime has taught him how to use advanced techniques to uncover hard-to-find information about suspects using search engines, browser extensions, databases, social networks, and online government records. This guide gives surveillance investigators a strong toolkit for their initial case research
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