What is GPS Tracking?
The Global Positioning System (GPS) trackers that we use for investigative surveillance are different from the GPS devices on your dashboard or windshield that makes sure you don't get lost. These investigative GPS trackers show you exactly where a vehicle, asset, or person is located and will track and document the historical position of that vehicle, asset or person over time. Most GPS Trackers have software that allows Investigators to generate a detailed GPS Tracking Log of the vehicles historical location(s).
How does GPS tracking work?
GPS trackers receive signals transmitted by satellites in Earth's orbit and use these signals to triangulate their exact location. Trackers vary in how they process the location information, but quality GPS trackers are typically accurate to within 5 to 15 feet.
What are the advantages of using a GPS tracker in an investigation?
The biggest advantage is cost. Before GPS trackers were available, in order to know where someone was going, they had to be physically followed by an investigator. To effectively follow or conduct a roving surveillance, (subject is on the move) you would need to assign least three investigators. Sometimes surveillance will go on for 24 hours a day, sometimes for weeks or months at a time. Sometimes, the subject may not even engage in any suspect behavior. The client will be charged an hourly rate, plus expenses like gasoline and tolls, for each hour the surveillance is conducted. Surveillance can get expensive very quickly.
With GPS trackers at a fraction of the cost, we can learn a lot of intelligence about the subject’s movements and behavior over time at a greatly reduced cost. An analysis of the data will tell us the best times and locations at which to conduct "live surveillance" with Investigators. This approach can often save the client a substantial amount of money.
Are there different types of GPS Trackers?
Yes, the two most common types of trackers used in investigations are Loggers and Real-Time Trackers
Loggers will store the location data to their internal memory to be retrieved by connecting the device to a computer at a later date.
Real-Time Trackers will transmit their location as it is received, usually by sending messages through a cellular data network.
Because real-time trackers use cellular communication to transmit data, there is a monthly subscription charge. With real-time trackers, we will access an online investigative tool that allows us to securely log in and access the up to the minute data. In most cases, we can generate a report and export the information to a computer.
Where do investigators typically hide GPS Trackers?
Device placement is one of the most common concerns when trying to track a vehicle. There is no one best location to place a device covertly. It can vary wildly based on many factors, including the design of the vehicle, what materials it is made of, and interference caused by other vehicle components.
Most devices have weatherproof magnetic cases available as accessories, allowing a device to be placed on the undercarriage of a vehicle. This will slightly impact accuracy; usually the reported location will be within 30-60 feet, as opposed to being within a few feet, but this is usually adequate for most investigations.
A battery-powered device allows us to move the tracker from one car to another car, because it is not hardwired to the car's battery and is typically used in most investigations. Generally small and easy to conceal, a battery-powered GPS tracker can be placed in multiple locations within a vehicle.
A battery-powered device doesn't only track a car. You can place it in someone's pocket or briefcase. Or, if you want to track a package, you can. Most GPS trackers are designed for outdoor use and may not be as effective when whatever you're tracking is indoors.
Hard-wired devices that are wired to the vehicles electrical system are also available, but can take some time to install. They are generally not used or necessary for most investigations and are typically used by companies for tracking their vehicle fleets.
Is it legal to track a car with GPS?
GPS tracking law is determined at the State level and each State’s laws are typically different. It’s part of the private investigator’s responsibility to know the law and ensure that the device is being used in compliance with the law. Both the client and the private investigator could be liable if the GPS tracker is not used appropriately.
The legality of secretly installing a GPS tracker is a very fact-sensitive issue and needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. Just like checking a person’s email, the legality of secretly planting a GPS tracker depends on who owns the vehicle. For example, spouses can legally access their spouse’s email in scenarios where there is a jointly owned computer or a computer that is used by the entire family.
The key issue in the planting of a GPS tracker is whether the person who was tracked had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Most courts have yet to rule on the use of GPS trackers and as such, there is some gray area, as the law is typically five years behind technology. However, the short technical answer to the above question is, that if you own the vehicle or have joint ownership of it, then it is perfectly legal to use a GPS system to monitor it.
Most private investigators, including MSA Investigations, will require the client to show proof of ownership and sign an authorization that grants the investigator permission to install the tracking device.
How long does a tracker battery last and can you use an extended battery?
Most devices have a default battery life of about 10 days with what is considered average use, which would be about 2 hours of continual driving each day. If we have weekly or even daily access to a vehicle, we can simply switch batteries as needed.
If we need the device to report for longer periods between charges, we have extended battery kits available. Some devices with an extended battery can give us up to six months of battery life. These kits will sometimes double the size of the base device, but can allow a device to track over 10 times longer than their standard batteries would.
We also have battery-powered GPS trackers have a motion sensor so the tracker is only on when the car is moving. Allotting one hour of usage a day, they can last up to 30 days on a single charge.
When is a GPS data logger right for me?
GPS loggers store location data to an internal memory source. Generally speaking, GPS data loggers are the smallest of GPS trackers, making them easy to hide and virtually undetectable by GPS detectors. They have longer battery life than battery-powered trackers. Plus, there's no monthly fee.
However, loggers don't allow us to remotely track the vehicle on our computer or Smartphone and don't let us set up email or text alerts. To get tracking data, we need to take the logger out of the car, connect it through a USB cable to a computer and download the data. A data logger is great for a parent who wants to check on their child but doesn't need to do it in real time.
What are the advantages of GPS loggers?
Adjustable tracking intervals - You choose how often a device records its location. Generally, the more often the device records, the shorter the battery life.
Motion activation - Many devices contain a motion sensor, so that they can conserve battery life by only reporting while moving.
Custom reports - These can vary by device and software, but most often include Stop Reports, Speed Reports, Drive Time Reports, and Mapping Reports
International use - Most loggers can be used internationally without any special programming.
Can tracking information be remotely viewed on a computer or Smartphone?
Yes, if we use a Real-Time GPS tracker. Depending on the device and platform you choose, Real-Time GPS trackers allow us to track the vehicle in real time at our office or in the field as we can access the activity anywhere we can access the Web, including on a Smartphone.
How do I get email or text notifications when the car is outside a designated area?
Real-Time trackers let us set up many different types of alerts:
Up-to-the-Minute reports - Most devices create reports that provide real time information up to and including the last reported location of the vehicle.
Geofencing - Geofencing allows you to mark an area on a map. We can then choose to receive a text message or email when the device enters or leaves that area.
Motion Alerts - Many devices can be set to send text message or email alerts any time the vehicle begins moving. Some alerts can be customized to only send during certain hours.
When does a wired tracker make sense?
A hardwired tracker is wired directly to your car's electrical system and gets power from the car battery. Obviously, you need to own the car to use a wired tracker and moving the tracker from vehicle to vehicle can be difficult. Wired trackers are excellent if you're sending a child off to college with a car or if you have a fleet of cars or trucks you want to track. All hardwired trackers support remote viewing on your computer, and some from your Smartphone, and email or text alerts. They also have a monthly fee.
How often does the tracker report the vehicle's position?
Reporting intervals vary by tracker and platform. Some, like the track every few seconds while others, like the will provide information only every few minutes. While some devices' tracking interval can be adjusted "on the fly" from the server's user interface, others have a fixed tracking interval that cannot be changed.
Can I track a device that will sometimes be indoors?
GPS generally functions only when the device is outside. Some devices can back up to Assisted GPS, or AGPS, using cellular triangulation to provide a device's position. AGPS is not available on all devices, and is not as accurate as true GPS, sometimes being off by 300 feet or more.