Private investigators are hired to gather evidence for attorneys around issues of adultery, hidden assets, child custody, missing persons, surveillance, background checks, debugging, and theft or crime. They can also be helpful when looking for a birth parent, finding a cell phone number or simply for giving you peace of mind about people you’d like to know. Some private investigators perform background investigation on people, interview people and provide notes to their clients, take surveillance video and photos, monitor activity at designated locations, track a person’s activity and movement, locate people, and more. Private investigator costs vary by location, services, experience and training. For some services, such as background checks or "bug sweeps" of a home or car, investigators usually charge a flat fee. Hourly rates tend to range from $40 to $100, but some charge additional fees for mileage expenses, plane tickets, background checks and other details. Ask for an itemized list of any additional costs, and make sure you discuss your maximum budget upfront.
Type of investigation services
Before looking for a private investigator, it’s important to first figure out if a PI can actually help with a particular situation. Many people assume that actual private investigators can do anything that the private investigators on television can do, but that’s just not the case. Many people hiring PIs have never hired one before and have emotional reasons for wanting to get the information they’re seeking, but it’s important to use common sense and have reasonable expectations. The No. 1 thing a PI does is gather facts and find information for people. They can’t get private information, such as health records, but most investigators do have access to information the general public can’t obtain. Items such as marriage licenses, birth certificates, phone records and adoption information require a court order to obtain, and a good private investigator can help find a reason to get a court order.
It’s important to remember that a private investigator must obey the same laws as any ordinary citizen. Still, private detectives can do a lot—find addresses, uncover improper relationships, analyze documents for potential fraud, locate missing persons and more. Many private investigators specialize in particular types of cases, so it’s a good idea to look for one with experience related to your situation. It’s also important to look at their track record. Check their reviews on Thumbtack or reach out to a consumer assistance group.
Clients should meet with private investigators and any of their partners who might be working on the case to thoroughly discuss the situation and the expectations for hiring them. This meeting is also the time for clients to discuss how much they can afford to spend in total. Many private investigators offer a free initial consultation before they start to work on a project. The consultation allows private detectives to determine whether a case is legal and ethical, as well as whether or not it’s possible to solve it.
Some private investigation firms provide quotes for services, depending on the complexity of the case. Potential danger, equipment required, travel fees and administrative concerns are all included in a job estimate. Variable rates for a case can range from less than $100 to tens of thousands of dollars for an extensive job.
Many licensed private investigators charge an hourly rate that covers all of their investigative services. Other firms offer one hourly rate for some services (surveillance) and a higher rate for other services (interviews, etc.). Here are two companies' examples of hourly rates:
Curtis Moore Investigation in Annapolis, Maryland: $60–$70, depending on current gas prices
- Sky Investigations in Plano, Texas: $65
Some services are offered at a flat rate every time. These tasks are generally straightforward, one-time efforts that the professional can confidently set a rate for. For example, Sky Investigations offers comprehensive background investigation services for a flat fee of $100.
Private investigators often require a retainer for services. A retainer is typically a nonrefundable deposit toward future work to be done. By paying the retainer, clients are putting a down payment on services to be rendered. For example, both Krollpfeifer & Co. in Benicia, California, and Pennington Elite Investigations in Boyce, Virginia, each require a $1,500 retainer before beginning investigative services.
It’s a good idea to have a written contract that outlines what services will be provided, deadlines, fees and other estimated costs to avoid any misunderstandings or surprise charges down the road. After all of the work has been completed, clients will make a final payment at which time the private investigator should provide a case report outlining everything that was found and determined during the investigation.
Most private investigators who need to travel to another state to work on a case charge expenses for plane tickets, gas and other transportation costs back to the client. Be sure to get these details in writing before you hire a private investigator.
Always watch for private investigation services that offer package deals such as surveillance with photos and videos. These items should be included at no extra cost.
- Be sure to confirm that any investigator you hire is current with the state licensing authority.