Virtual Kidnapping A New Twist on a Frightening Scam

“Law enforcement agencies have been aware of virtual kidnapping fraud for at least two decades, but a recent FBI case illustrates how this frightening scam—once limited to Mexico and Southwest border states—has evolved so that U.S. residents anywhere could be potential victims.

Although virtual kidnapping takes on many forms, it is always an extortion scheme—one that tricks victims into paying a ransom to free a loved one they believe is being threatened with violence or death. Unlike traditional abductions, virtual kidnappers have not actually kidnapped anyone. Instead, through deceptions and threats, they coerce victims to pay a quick ransom before the scheme falls apart.

Between 2013 and 2015, investigators in the FBI’s Los Angeles Division were tracking virtual kidnapping calls from Mexico—almost all of these schemes originate from within Mexican prisons. The calls targeted specific individuals who were Spanish speakers. A majority of the victims were from the Los Angeles and Houston areas.

“In 2015, the calls started coming in English,” said FBI Los Angeles Special Agent Erik Arbuthnot, “and something else happened: The criminals were no longer targeting specific individuals, such as doctors or just Spanish speakers. Now they were choosing various cities and cold-calling hundreds of numbers until innocent people fell for the scheme.”

This was significant, Arbuthnot said, because the new tactic vastly increased the potential number of victims. In the case he was investigating, which became known as Operation Hotel Tango, more than 80 victims were identified in California, Minnesota, Idaho, and Texas. Collective losses were more than $87,000.

The incarcerated fraudsters—who typically bribe guards to acquire cell phones—would choose an affluent area such as Beverly Hills, California. They would search the Internet to learn the correct area code and telephone dialing prefix. Then, with nothing but time on their hands, they would start dialing numbers in sequence, trolling for victims.

When an unsuspecting person answered the phone, they would hear a female screaming, “Help me!” The screamer’s voice was likely a recording. Instinctively, the victim might blurt out his or her child’s name: “Mary, are you okay?” And then a man’s voice would say something like, “We have Mary. She’s in a truck. We are holding her hostage. You need to pay a ransom and you need to do it now or we are going to cut off her fingers.”

Most of the time, Arbuthnot said, “the intended victims quickly learned that ‘Mary’ was at home or at school, or they sensed the scam and hung up. This fraud only worked when people picked up the phone, they had a daughter, and she was not home,” he explained. “But if you are making hundreds of calls, the crime will eventually work.”

“The scammers attempt to keep victims on the phone so they can’t verify their loved ones’ whereabouts or contact law enforcement. The callers are always in a hurry, and the ransom demand is usually a wire payment to Mexico of $2,000 or less, because there are legal restrictions for wiring larger amounts across the border.

Although victims were typically instructed to wire ransom payments, two individuals in Houston were coerced into paying larger amounts—totaling approximately $28,000—that could not be wired. The victims were directed to make money drops, and they believed they were being watched as they were directed to the assigned location. When the drops were made—in specified trash cans—a Houston woman, 34-year-old Yanette Rodriguez Acosta, was waiting to pick up the ransom money. After taking her portion of the payment, Acosta wired the rest in small amounts to several individuals in Mexico to transfer to the Mexican prisoner believed to be running the virtual kidnapping scheme.

Acosta was taken into custody for her involvement in the scam, and in July 2017, a federal grand jury in Houston returned a 10-count indictment against her. Among the charges were wire fraud and money laundering.

Arbuthnot noted that the Mexican prisoners who carry out virtual kidnappings use the ransom money to pay bribes and to make their lives behind bars easier. “And sometimes they use the money to buy their way out of jail. That’s the ultimate goal.”

He added that virtual kidnapping cases are difficult to investigate and prosecute because almost all of the subjects are in Mexico, and the money is wired out of the country and can be difficult to trace. The charges against Acosta represent the first federal indictment in a virtual kidnapping case. In addition, many victims do not report the crime, either because they are embarrassed, afraid, or because they don’t consider the financial loss to be significant.

Regardless, Arbuthnot said, “victims of virtual kidnapping scams are traumatized by these events, because at the time, they believe that a loved one has been kidnapped and is in real danger.”

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Woman arrested on suspicion of battery, hate crime against security officer

“Davis police arrested a 24-year-old woman Thursday night following an alleged assault that initially has been classified as a hate crime.
Lt. Paul Doroshov said officers responded shortly before midnight to Red 88 Noodle Bar, 223 G St., to investigate a report of an intoxicated woman assaulting a security employee.

“Security personnel told officers the suspect made comments directed toward the officer’s race,” which is African-American, Doroshov said. “The suspect grabbed the victim by the face, and attempted to strike her. The suspect was overpowered by security staff and subsequently arrested.”

Jessica Garza-Herrera was booked into the Yolo County Jail on battery and hate-crime charges, though Doroshov said detectives will conduct further investigation into whether race was a motivating factor in the incident.”

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Albuquerque Fingerprint Backlog Increases to 6,000 Cases

“Three Albuquerque Police Department forensic scientists have a daunting task – closely examine and match thousands of collected fingerprints to suspects in order to help solve crimes.

At the Albuquerque Metropolitan Forensics Science Center, 6,000 latent fingerprint packets are waiting to be processed.

The backlog has increased 20-fold since 2014, according to APD data. In 2014, there were five forensic scientists and approximately 300 backlogged cases. Back then, prints took one to two months to process.

Now, latent fingerprints can wait anywhere from one week to 16 months to be processed depending on the Bernalillo County Case Management Order.

The CMO was created to clear up the Bernalillo County District Court case backlog and to prevent pretrial detainees from waiting in jail for months for their cases to be tried.

Instead, Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez has said that the CMO has unintentionally put an undue burden on the public because defendants – sometimes repeat offenders – are often released with no bond before their trial.

Though the Albuquerque City Council approved funding to train and employ civilians to be property crime scene specialists in order to help police, the rate at which the civilian specialists have been collecting prints and dropping them off at the metro lab is greatly outpacing its ability to process them.

“We’ve increased our staff to get reports done and collect the evidence, but we haven’t been as proactive in increasing the lab staff to do the backend work,” APD Commander Jeff McDonald said.

‘I GUESS THEY DON’T CATCH ANYBODY’

Criminals have targeted Aragon’s Lawn and Wood Center in northeast Albuquerque more than 30 times over the past decade, according to the owners. It’s gotten to the point where Owner Richard Aragon has slept at his business armed.

The marine veteran was a sniper in the Vietnam War.

“They’re all fully loaded,” Aragon said.

That isn’t the extent of the precautions he has taken. The lawnmower business is surrounded by motion detector lighting, surveillance cameras and concertina wire.

“We can catch them with the infrared (cameras) and we can get good images at night. Some of the pictures that we’ve taken with our surveillance show us the same guy,” he said.

Aragon and his wife, Kathy, are just two of the thousands of property crime victims in the city waiting for justice.

“Nothing that we know of, or at least they don’t tell us anything and I guess they don’t catch anybody,” Kathy Aragon said.

McDonald has a message for the Aragons and others in their situation.

“Be patient. We’re trying,” he said. “We’re trying to get everybody’s cases solved.”

McDonald said there are currently plans to hire two more forensic scientists. Two retired in 2015, but were never replaced.

Still, the hiring process could take anywhere from two to four months. If the applicant is a recent college graduate with limited experience, he or she will have to be trained for a year.

“I joined the police department to help people,” McDonald said. “(It’s) just not at the fastest rate I’d like.”

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Woman posed as lawyer, duped immigrants and filed petitions

“A Lynwood woman who allegedly stole the identity and bar license number of an attorney is expected to face a federal judge today on charges she filed immigration petitions on behalf of foreign nationals who believed she was a legitimate lawyer.

Jessica Godoy Ramos, 36, was arrested late Wednesday pursuant to a criminal complaint that charges her with mail fraud and aggravated identity theft, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

According to the criminal complaint, Ramos accepted thousands of dollars from several dozen aliens who sought her services in an attempt to obtain legal status in the United States. The complaint affidavit alleges that Ramos filed immigration petitions on the behalf of some aliens, but in other cases she never performed any services for her clients.

In at least one instance, Ramos created counterfeit immigration parole documents which a client was able to use to enter the United States, the government alleges.

The complaint alleges that Ramos’ clients initially believed she was a legitimate immigration attorney, but several became suspicious when Ramos directed them to appear at U.S. Citizenship and
Immigration Services offices for interviews — but they did not have any scheduled appointments.

“The crimes alleged in this case victimized dozens of immigrants who were attempting to realize the American dream by paying someone they thought was a lawyer,” said acting U.S. Attorney

Sandra R. Brown. “This type of scam, which unfortunately targets new immigrants too often, undermines our immigration system and can shatter dreams of obtaining legal status to remain in the United States.”

If convicted, Ramos would face up to 20 years in federal prison for the mail fraud count and a mandatory consecutive sentence of two years for the aggravated identity theft charge.

“Unscrupulous immigration practitioners not only exploit the trust of their often-unwitting victims, but by filing fraudulent immigration applications they create a security vulnerability and potentially rob deserving immigrants of benefits they rightfully deserve,” said Joseph Macias, special agent in charge for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security
Investigations in Los Angeles.

Federal authorities began investigating Ramos in February after the HSI- led Document and Benefit Fraud Task Force received a tip from USCIS about five of Ramos’ clients who went to USCIS offices in downtown Los Angeles expecting to pick up their non-existent “green cards.”

“People who wish to file for benefits with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services have a right to proper representation,” said USCIS Los Angeles District Director Donna Campagnolo. “This
case is a good example of all agencies involved working together to ensure that the integrity of the program is preserved and individuals are able to retain proper representation to aide them through the process.”

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Surveillance leads to profit in Washington

In a small office in Ashburn, Va., ensconced among the government contractors that make up the Dulles Technology Corridor, a start-up called Babel Street is bringing government-style surveillance to an entirely new market.

The company’s Web crawlers, offered under a subscription called Babel X, trawl some 40 online sources, scooping up data from popular sites such as Instagram and a Korean social media platform as well as inside “dark Web” forums where cybercriminals lurk.

Police departments investigating a crime might use the service to scan posts linked to a certainneighborhood over a specified period of time. Stadium managers use it to hunt for security threats based on electronic chatter.

The Department of Homeland Security, county governments, law enforcement agencies and the FBI use it to keep tabs on dangerous individuals, even when they are communicating in one of more than 200 languages, including emoji.

The firm, staffed by former government intelligence veterans, is part of an insular but thriving cottage industry of data aggregators that operate outside of military and intelligence agencies. The 100-person company said it is profitable, something that is rare for a tech start-up in its third year. (It declined, though, to release financial details.) It recently took on $2.25 million from investors, bringing its total capital raised from investors to just over $5 million.

A U.S. subsidiary of the European software giant SAP is its largest institutional investor.

Businesses like Babel Street have to tread an ethical line to avoid igniting privacy concerns, even though the data they access is generally publicly available on the Internet. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) regard the industry’s growth as a worrying proliferation of online surveillance.

“These products can provide a very detailed picture of a person’s private life,” said Matt Cagle, an ACLU lawyer who studies the issue.

Last year, Chicago-based social media aggregator Geofeedia was thrust into the national spotlight when the ACLU published a report alleging it had helped police departments track racially charged protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo.

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22 indicted in ICE-led probe into multimillion dollar theft ring

SAN DIEGO – A San Diego federal grand jury has indicted 22 defendants following a long-term probe spearheaded by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) into a highly organized, often violent theft ring suspected of stealing more than $20 million worth of merchandise from upscale shopping malls in the San Diego area and nationwide.

Twelve of the defendants named in the indictment were arrested Wednesday morning during a carefully coordinated operation in the San Diego area involving more than 250 federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel. Three of those charged in the cases were already in custody. The other seven individuals named in the indictment remained at large as of early Wednesday afternoon. The defendants who are in custody are scheduled to make their initial appearances in federal court Thursday morning before U.S. Magistrate Judge Barbara Lynn Major.

As part of Wednesday’s enforcement actions, investigators searched three homes in Lemon Grove, Chula Vista, and San Diego. The searches resulted in the confiscation of approximately $30,000 in cash, along with about a dozen large trash bags filled with new clothing, the merchandise tags and security devices still attached. The goods included items from Victoria’s Secret, Hollister Co., Guess, Express, and Abercrombie & Fitch, and brands such as Calvin Klein, Hurley, Armani, Adidas, Kenneth Cole, and Puma. Agents also recovered piles of new Louis Vuitton shoes and boxes of security sensors that had been removed from clothing.

The indictment alleges the defendants formed crews of thieves to steal merchandise from retail stores throughout the U.S. The stolen items were then transported across state lines and sold in Mexico. According to the indictment, on Oct. 23, 2013, defendant Maria Angelica Mendez Valdivia had more than $480,000 worth of merchandise stolen from at least 57 retailers. The indictment states the goods were then transported to Mexico and sold to an alleged “fence,” defendant Sara Portilla, who is accused of selling the merchandise from a store she operates in Tijuana.

The highly organized ring, which investigators believe has been in operation for over a decade, assigned members of its theft crews specific roles. Team leaders selected the stores to target, scouted the locations, and choreographed the actions of other team members using cell phones and hand signals. The team’s so-called “mules” smuggled the stolen merchandise out of stores in “booster bags” fitted with metallic linings designed to defeat anti-theft sensors. And finally, the team’s “blockers” prevented store employees from seeing the ongoing theft, either by obstructing their view, distracting them, or by physically preventing the employees from responding.

When necessary, court documents state, the teams used force against store employees, customers, and law enforcement to escape. For example, the indictment alleges that in November 2009 defendant Sergio Manuel Montano Nava knocked over an infant in its stroller and injured the child’s father to avoid being arrested for a theft at a Hollister store in Schaumburg, Illinois. In November 2012, defendants Jose Damazo Herrera, Robin Macias, and others allegedly drove vehicles through a crowd while fleeing a theft from a Hollister store in the Fashion Valley Mall in San Diego. In yet another incident in March 2013, one of the defendants allegedly grabbed a loss prevention officer by the throat and threw her to the ground while running from a theft at Abercrombie & Fitch at the Plaza Bonita Mall in National City.

“The mall is supposed to be a safe place for families to shop, eat and enjoy themselves,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Alana Robinson. “Instead, a prolific and violent group of thieves has stolen millions of dollars in merchandise as well as peace of mind from mall employees and customers. With today’s action, we are protecting customers and businesses both physically and economically, and we are restoring and preserving the safety of our community gathering spots.”

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The Law and Science of Eyewitness Identification

“Several years ago, I sat in a tavern in a city of abandoned textile mills with a client who had been exonerated of several rape convictions by DNA testing. Like the city itself, my client saw better days ahead. The police investigations into the crimes were riddled with errors, and he would later reach a multimillion dollar settlement in his civil rights case. Yet, as we met for the first time to look over the case file, another disturbing aspect became clear: the sheer number of times witnesses had misidentified our client during the investigation.

One area of law in need of profound change is the process by which courts and investigators collect witness identification evidence. Eyewitness identification plays a fundamental role in criminal cases, and also plays a part in civil cases and internal business investigations. But this critical tool is often plagued with reliability problems. While it is important to use identification procedures to solve crimes, it is equally important to exclude innocent people from prosecution.

According to the Innocence Project, since 1989, there have been 349 wrongful convictions overturned via DNA testing. In those cases, eyewitness misidentification was a factor in over 70% of those cases—far more than any other factor.

Last year, I attended the 2016 National Symposium on Eyewitness Identification Reform along with other lawyers and investigators. We studied and discussed the latest research. Historically, many procedures for testing eyewitness identification were not validated in a scientific manner before being implemented by investigators. As a result, many of us have been trained using eyewitness identification techniques that are outmoded and flawed—and those methods have led to innocent people being implicated in an investigation.

However, forward-thinking investigators throughout the country are making changes in their techniques based on new scientific research in this area. Below, I summarize some highlights of the research and provide a link to free training materials.

The Law

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, Neil v. Biggers (1972), was one of the first cases where the court made extensive recommendations on evaluating eyewitness testimony. In somewhat of a departure for Supreme Court decisions, the court delved into the facts:

“The assailant directed the victim to ‘tell her [the daughter] to shut up, or I’ll kill you both.’ She did so, and was then walked at knifepoint about two blocks along a railroad track, taken into a woods, and raped there. She testified that ‘the moon was shining brightly, full moon.’”

Biggers was later identified during a live showup at the police station, where the victim viewed Biggers. He was made to repeat the threat uttered by the rapist. Finding the showup here met the criteria for reliability, the court listed five factors for evaluating the accuracy of eyewitness identifications:

“As indicated by our cases, the factors to be considered in evaluating the likelihood of misidentification include the opportunity of the witness to view the criminal at the time of the crime, the witness’ degree of attention, the accuracy of the witness’ prior description of the criminal, the level of certainty demonstrated by the witness at the confrontation, and the length of time between the crime and the confrontation.”

The Neil v. Biggers factors were confirmed in a 1977 case, Manson v. Brathwaite, in which the Supreme Court set a low barrier to admitting shaky evidence, holding that if the circumstances of the identification procedure were suggestive, the Court must then weigh the “totality of the circumstances” to determine whether the identification is still reliable. The law of the land for over three decades now, Manson v. Brathwaite has come under increasing criticism that its holding is inconsistent with recent scientific studies into witness identification and memory.

The Supreme Court has noted the unique power of witness testimony; Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.’s dissent in the 1981 case Watkins v. Sowders summed it up best:

“[E]yewitness testimony is likely to be believed by jurors, especially when it is offered with a high level of confidence, even though the accuracy of an eyewitness and the confidence of that witness may not be related to one another at all. All the evidence points rather strikingly to the conclusion that there is almost nothing more convincing than a live human being who takes the stand, points a finger at the defendant, and says, `That’s the one!’”

The Research

What do we mean when we refer to eyewitness identification?

Eyewitness identification can occur in several formats: a showup, live lineups, or a photo lineup. Showups—where a suspect is apprehended and shown “live” and in-person to a witness, close in time to the event—have been demonstrated to have higher percentages of both correct and incorrect identifications as compared to lineups. Showups tend to be have heightened problems with suggestibility, given the fact that they involve just one person who is surrounded by multiple police officers.

Lineups occur at a time somewhat removed from the event, but because they are planned and staged, a process exists to minimize contamination by suggestive elements (for example, a suspect standing closer to the victim than all lineup fillers; police clapping after a successful identification of a suspect).

How often are witnesses successful in their identification? In one study of 11 peer reviewed studies and over 6,000 actual police lineups, witnesses selected the suspect 41% of the time; witnesses selected a lineup filler 37% of the time (i.e., they selected a person who was known to be innocent of the crime).

Several phenomena have been observed in studies where a crime is staged—say, a person enters a classroom in front of student “witnesses” and steals a purse—and the students/witnesses later are interviewed in a controlled setting about their observations.

Here are a few key findings:

1. Proper eyewitness instructions can reduce false positives.

Research has demonstrated that eyewitnesses tend to identify the person from the lineup who, in the opinion of the eyewitness, looks most like the culprit relative to the other members of the lineup. The problem became readily apparent when experiments were run where the actual culprit was not present in the lineup. Under controlled conditions, a concept called the “relative judgment process” will often yield a positive identification—even when the true culprit had been removed from the lineup. While this may seem to be an obvious, simple observation, research shows the effect is incredibly damaging to accuracy.

But research has demonstrated that this problem can be partly remedied with a simple instruction to the witness that the true culprit may not be in the lineup. Some state courts have adopted a set of instructions to be given to eyewitnesses—such as a caveat that the witness need not feel compelled to make an identification, and that police will continue to investigate this incident, whether or not the witness makes an identification.

“These instructions can reduce pressure on the witness to feel as if they must pick a culprit, and this leads to more accurate results.

2. Double-blind identification procedures can prevent information “leaks.”

A double-blind eyewitness identification is one in which neither the administrator nor the eyewitness knows the identity of the suspect. Research has shown that witnesses were adept at picking up clues from the person administering the lineup when that administrator knew the identity of the suspect. The lineup administrator tended to “leak” information about the suspect in subtle (and not so subtle) ways: leaning forward at certain times; raising his hands; making a comment like “take another look at the third guy;” smiling or nodding in agreement when a positive identification was made; or conversely, frowning when the wrong person was chosen. These kinds of cues lead to inaccurate identifications, as well as false levels of confidence in the witness.

Studies have shown there is far less chance of contamination of the process when double blind testing is implemented.

3. Confidence statements from the witness are most reliable at the time of initial identification.

The role played by eyewitness mistakes in the DNA exoneration cases has helped to create a growing impression that eyewitness memory is inherently unreliable. I have heard several witnesses tell me this on recent cases, in essence doubting their own ability to remember accurately. But this overstates the case. Researchers have discovered—perhaps surprisingly given the general trend— that when eyewitnesses are questioned using proper identification procedures, the confidence they have in their initial identification usually is a highly reliable indicator of accuracy.”

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Security officer helps recover 13 year old girl missing for a year

“A 13-year-old girl who has been missing for a year was found in Ohio, according to police.

Aireona Smith was reported as a runaway to the Flint Township Police Department on Aug. 1, 2016, according to a statement from police.

Police asked the public’s help in locating the missing girl and while numerous tips flooded in, investigators were not able to find the girl.

On Thursday, Aug. 3, Smith walked into a public library in Toledo, Ohio, according to police.

A security guard recognized the girl from a missing person’s poster and called 911, police said.

Responding officers confirmed the girl’s identity and notified Flint Township police.

Police said the girl ran away on her own, was not being held against her will and was in good health.

Smith was brought back to Flint on Monday, Aug. 7, and will now receive assistance from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the statement said.”

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Security officer finds woman critically injured in hit and run crash

“Philadelphia Police have released the identity of the woman who was struck and killed in a Center City hit-and-run early Sunday morning.

As officials continue to search for the driver of a newer model white Jeep Wrangler Rubicon with a white top and front-end damage, last seen traveling eastbound on Race Street.

Police say the victim 53 year-old Ann Broderick, from the Kensington section of Philadelphia was hit about 3:15 a.m. Sunday near Broad and Race Streets.

She was pronounced dead at Hahnemann University Hospital around 3:45 a.m.

Broderick is believed to be homeless and was reportedly sleeping nearby when she got up to cross the street and to use the restroom.

That’s when police say the car struck her.

Police say there were no witnesses and that it was a security guard patrolling the area that found her with trauma to her skull on the street and notified police.

“Ann was vibrant, a beautiful soul even though her situation was her situation,” said Abby Anderson, who volunteers with the homeless and says she met Broderick six months ago. “She was a human being. It broke my heart that had happened to her. She was family. I thank God I had the opportunity to give her a hug on Saturday.”

There is no description of the driver at this time, but police say surveillance images in the area captured a newer model white four-door Jeep Wrangler Rubicon with a white top, large tires and a spare tire attached to the back of the vehicle.

Investigators say the vehicle should have front end damage.

Anyone with information is asked to call police at 215-686-TIPS.”

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Foot Surveillance: Keeping Your Cover

Vehicular surveillance and foot surveillance each have their challenges, but they share a common objective: to be invisible by hiding in plain sight. I’ve done plenty of both and tend to enjoy foot surveillance the most—mainly because I like the freedom of not being confined to a car.

The success of any surveillance operation relies heavily on preparation. And a good surveillance operative should be ready to go from mobile vehicular to foot surveillance at a moment’s notice. You might be riding along with another investigator as a passenger, ready to jump out and follow on foot. Or you might be following a subject by public transport—which means that surveillance on foot is your only option.

If you suspect that you’ll be on foot for all or part of the job, plan accordingly. Choose clothing that blends well into the places you’re likely to go (and is weather-appropriate), carry lightweight recording equipment that won’t attract attention (including your smartphone), and review the local transport system thoroughly.

Once you arrive at the initial assignment location, canvass the area for surveillance cameras, security guards, or anyone who might notice your activities (such as a doorman). Check for all possible exits from the location under surveillance, and choose the best possible observation post.

From there, don’t just watch the exit(s); keep assessing the whole area, and planning how you might follow your subject(s) once they appear. Is the area busy enough with foot traffic for you to follow closely on the same side of the street, or should you stay further back, or even cross the street to follow? You may be in a busy area, but if there aren’t many pedestrians, you’ll have to maintain your distance. You don’t want be too close, as illustrated in figure 1, without any cover.

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