We Know: How to Hire a Private Investigator

What Do Private Investigators Do?

A private investigator (PI) investigates things that you can't. Many of them work for attorneys, for insurance agencies, or for individuals looking for information. The old cliche is the PI trailing the husband or wife to see if they're having an affair. Private investigators should be professionals, licensed with adequate oversight, and with appropriate experience for the job they contract to do.

What Qualifications should a PI have?

Any private investigator you consider should be licensed, and if they carry a firearm they should be licensed for that as well. Often, private investigators are retired police officers, military police officers, or other officers of the law. They should be prepared to keep detailed notes, and have experience testifying in court as to their observations. A good PI should have a clean criminal record, and he or she should be prepared to work any hours necessary to settle your case.

There is not necessarily an educational requirement to being a PI; in theory, anyone able to pass the licensing test and experience requirements can get a private investigator's license in any given state. Many PIs do specialize in a specific area, such as following spouses, doing extensive background checks, or tracking down missing persons.

What Questions Should I Ask?

Because it's easy to claim specialization in any area (most states do not license PI specializations), you should always ensure that your licensed PI is going to give you what you have been promised. And because they work by the hour, you should be certain they'll get the job done as quickly as possible. Here is a suggested list of questions to ask:

  1. What experience do you have with cases like mine?
  2. How long have you been a PI? How did you become a PI?
  3. Are you licensed in all the states you'll be working in?
  4. What credentials did you need to have to get your license?
  5. Are you insured and bonded?
  6. Are you the investigator I'll be working with? If not, what are the credentials of the investigator who'll be working on my case?
  7. How do you guarantee my confidentiality?
  8. How much will this case probably cost me? You should expect to pay a fee up front that may or may not be refundable if the case takes less time than anticipated. Expenses should be specified as billable or not. Hourly rates vary from private investigator to private investigator, but they usually fall around $50 - $85 per hour. Count on a retainer of about four to ten hours of surveillance or other work.

What Should I Tell MY Private Investigator?

In short, everything. The more facts your private investigator has on your case, the easier it will be for him or her to determine the truth in your case. Who, what, when, where, why, and how are crucial; even things you think may be unimportant should be mentioned. If your investigator doesn't ask questions trying to get all this information from you, perhaps you should think twice about hiring him. Your investigator should also give you ways that he or she intends to go about resolving your case and discuss the pros and cons of each method, so you'll know exactly what to expect.

A good investigator should also ask if you're represented by counsel in this case, and if your attorney is aware you're considering hiring a PI. If you have an attorney, your PI's report should go to him and not to you to maintain what's called "work product privilege." And your attorney and your PI should be aware of one another at the very least.

What Else Should I Know?

Ask who, specifically, will be handling your case. The person you're talking to is not always the lead investigator, or you may have a case they consider routine and that will be handed over to a junior member of the investigational firm. That isn't necessarily bad; but you need to know who you'll be working with and what their background is.

Be certain you set a deadline, and let the investigator know how and how often you want them to communicate with you.

Get an idea of costs up front, not after the fact. The investigator, if he or she has handled similar cases before, should be able to give you a good idea of how much it's going to cost you. Get your budget in writing, and instruct the investigator that they are not to exceed it without getting permission from you in writing first. Never pay an invoice until you have a written report describing the work performed, especially where billable expenses are concerned. Along with the contract, get a copy of the investigator's state license, their insurance, and proof that they are bonded. Their E&O insurance should have a limit you're comfortable with.

Don't be impressed by gadgets; generally, good old fashioned patience and knowing what to look for are more valuable than any number of surveillance vans. And don't let an agency sell you on two investigators when you think one will probably be able to do the job.

You're not hiring Columbo; your PI should look well-groomed and professional. The appearance of your investigator probably reflects the kind of attitude he or she takes toward work, and sloppy is not what you're after.

Only hire an investigator who, after your interview process, you feel comfortable with. Your instincts are usually correct, and if you feel the slightest bit uneasy about an investigator, you should trust that feeling and go with someone else.

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