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How Do Private Investigators Do Surveillance and How Much Does Surveillance Cost?

There is no standardized rate for private investigators in Canada. Costs are at the private investigator’s discretion and are dependent on a number of factors. Some factors that influence price include level of experience of the private eye, complexity of the job, time required for the task and incidental fees such as travel expenses. In general, surveillance detectives charge by the hour and fees can range anywhere between $75-$150. The most important consideration when hiring a private investigator is to find one that is experienced and trusted by their respective community.

Shopping for lower rates will end up costing you more in the end… trust us, we see it every day. Use the experts the first time!

Stereotypical depictions of private investigators and how they surveil are based on a collection of books, TV shows and movies in our popular culture. People have a clear mental picture in their heads of a private detective that works in a dimly lit, messy and smoky office in a discrete part of town. He greets and talks to clients face to face who have been wronged and are seeking justice.

Typically, the surveillance detective must find proof of wrongdoing and fix the client’s situation. In order to do this, he interviews witnesses to gather intelligence often under the guise of false pretenses or a fake ID. He stalks individuals, captures images, searches premises and keeps a keen eye out for things that look out of place. He may occasionally find himself in trouble, being in places that he should not be. In almost all cases, the private investigator ends up victorious, fixing the customer’s issue and re-establishes the status quo.

Many fictional detectives and stories have contributed to the creation of this stereotype including Sherlock Holmes and many other heroes from the 40s and 50s. Today’s version of these figures take shape in Adrian Monk and Veronica Mars who happen to be quirkier than their older predecessors. Unlike those depicted decades ago, they do not wear fedoras or work in shady neighbourhoods but they are still heros that uncover information at the most pressing of times.

But how does this stereotypical image hold up to reality? Is this depiction accurate? Can a private investigator do all of these things in a legal manner? We’ll aim to unpack these questions below.

Surveillance is one of the key ingredients that private detectives do on a daily basis. However, the way surveillance is depicted and clients are chosen varies immensely from how its shown in popular culture. As a matter of fact, private investigators will go through a series of steps before he or she even accepts a case from a potential client:

  1. Is the customer’s purpose moral, ethical and legal? The first thing that a surveillance detective must take into consideration are the ramifications of taking on the client’s situation and addressing their issues. As you might expect, a private investigator comes into contact with a large number of people ranging from all walks of life. Most people are well intentioned and are just looking for help. Unfortunately, some people do have ulterior motives such as wanting a PI to stalk a person for no good reason. Because of this, an ethical and experienced private detective will vet their client to ensure that there is a legal purpose for following through on their request. This can be difficult at times because some clients can be extremely deceptive and play the victim card quite well.

    For those that are the target of surveillance, it can be quite invasive to their privacy. Surveillance detectives may access personal information such as driver license information, vehicle records, friends and colleagues, addresses, email, etc. All of this information may be helpful to an investigation. This same type of rigour may be applied to the client as well. For example, surveillance investigators may run criminal background checks to ensure that the customer does not have a history of stalking behaviour or domestic violence.

  2. Gathering information from a customer. Although this step may seem rather obvious, it is very important and if not done right, can have dire consequences on the result of a case.

    Some typical pieces of information PIs ask their clients for include:

    1. Their place of residence?

    2. Where they work?

    3. What type of car they drive?

    4. How do they commute to work?

    5. What they look like?

    6. What do they do for fun?

    7. What’s their typical daily routine?

    8. What is their marital status?

    9. Who is in their immediate family?

Although these questions may seem tedious to clients, it is necessary for surveillance detectives to do their job properly. In many cases, this step could mean the difference between success and failure. When contacting a private investigator, it’s very important to be open and honest. All information shared will be kept strictly confidential so you should not spare any seemingly inconsequential detail.

  • Outlining a surveillance schedule. This can be a difficult step for private investigators. In order to surveil most effectively, private detectives and clients must align on when it may be best to surveil the subject. Ideally, the customer shares as much information as possible about the target of the investigation and the surveillance detective uses his experience and best judgement to determine when and how surveillance should be conducted. This step can save clients money in the long run.


  1. The surveillance detective’s investigation. In order for this step to be completed, it’s imperative that the former three steps have been thoroughly followed. At this point, the surveillance investigator has obtained lots of relevant information from the client, they’ve agreed upon a surveillance schedule, the client has paid the retainer fee, and now the private investigator sets off to work and determine what the subject is up to. Regardless of whether the case involve infidelity, criminal matters or potential fraud, an experienced PI will approach each case similarly.