If you're wondering how to hire a private investigator, the process is much easier than spy movies make it seem. You don't need to sneak around in dark alleys or learn any secret passwords. In fact, ordinary people use private investigators to help make their lives easier, safer and more secure. A private investigator can help you look for a birth parent, locate a long-lost love, find a cell phone number or simply give you peace of mind about someone you'd like to know about. Hiring a private investigator can be a good investment if you are involved in legal matters. You can hire a private investigator to gather evidence for your attorney regarding adultery, hidden assets and child custody. Attorneys can also hire private investigators to help them gather evidence for their cases. You might hire a private detective to locate a missing person, to do surveillance or to perform an intensive background check. If you are concerned about your safety you can hire a private investigator to debug a home, office or vehicle, or to help protect you against theft or threats. As a business owner, you might hire a private investigator to research a key employee before making a hire or to gather evidence of insurance fraud. If you're concerned about theft in your business, a private investigator can provide photo or video surveillance of a site to monitor activity and document suspicious behavior.
Some of the things you can hire a private investigators to do include:
- Perform background investigation on people
- Interview people and provide notes to you as their client
- Take surveillance video and photos
- Monitor activity at designated locations
- Track a person's activity and movement
- Resolve issues of identity theft
- Gather evidence of insurance (or other) fraud
- Locate people
Private investigator costs will vary by location, services, experience and training. Some private investigators come from lengthy careers in law enforcement and also provide bodyguard and security guard services; they may charge higher rates than investigators who solely provide informational services or who do not have law enforcement experience. 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, depending on the professional and the complexity of the job. You can expect to pay additional fees for mileage expenses, background checks and other details. When taking your case, your private investigator will also alert you to added fees if your case requires air travel, hotel stays or other unusual activities. Situations that are more challenging or dangerous could require higher rates. Ask for an itemized list of any additional costs, and make sure you discuss your maximum budget upfront. If you have decided it's time to hire a PI, here are the cost factors involved.
Type of investigation services
Before looking for a private investigator, it's important to start by setting aside your emotional motivations and find out whether 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. The No. 1 thing a PI does is gather facts and find information for people. They usually 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 relevant to your situation. It's also important to look at their track record. Check their reviews on Thumbtack.
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 your case is legal and ethical. This meeting also allows the pros to let you know whether or not it's possible to solve it. If the case can be easily resolved by the client, says Curtis Moore, he'll let them know and send them on their way without charging them. When setting up your initial consultation, make sure you understand whether there is a fee for this first meeting.
Many 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 average hourly rates:
- Curtis Moore Investigation in Annapolis, Maryland: $55-$75. Fieldwork (anything out of office) incurs 45-55 cents per mile in addition to the hourly rate
- 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. Typically they take place in the office setting and do not require the private investigator to do fieldwork. 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 Krollpfeiffer & Co. in Benicia, California, and Pennington Elite Investigations in Boyce, Virginia, each require a $1,500 retainer before beginning investigative services.
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 that requires travel, long hours and overnight stays.
It's a good idea to have a written contract that outlines what services will be provided. You can include any specific deadlines, which can be important if you are filing court papers or other legal documents with the information you intend the private investigator to track down. The written contract should also include a breakdown of different fees and other estimated costs. Having a clearly outlined budget will help 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. Private investigators may charge mileage rates for fieldwork. Fieldwork is any kind of reconnaissance performed, from in-person interviews to surveillance of an area to tracking a missing person.
Private investigator dos and don'ts
You may think that private detectives are above the law, seeing as how they have access to information that the general public often does not. But they are not. The most important thing to know about a private detective is that they are required to follow laws. Contracting the services of a private investigator means you are hiring a licensed professional to legally gather information and facts on your behalf. They may be able to take video or photographic surveillance, monitor activity at a location, and more. Private investigators cannot threaten or intimidate people. They can't sneak into your ex's house at night and steal photos off a computer or break into a car to plant a bug. They should not falsify records or impersonate another person to gain information. Be respectful of your private investigator's professional integrity, and if you are unclear about what they can and cannot do, don't assume; ask.
How to hire a private investigator
Pros have some suggestions to help you hire a legitimate private investigator who will treat your case with courtesy and respect. Definitely make sure they have liability insurance, recommend the experts at Krollpfeiffer & Co. Also, determine what regulations and licensing your state requires for private investigators. In California, to qualify for a license, private investigators must pass a written exam, pass a background check by the California Department of Justice and the FBI, and have completed "at least three years (2,000 hours each year, totaling 6,000 hours) of compensated experience in investigative work; or have a law degree or completed a four year course in police science plus two years (4,000 hours) of experience; or have an associate's degree in police science, criminal law, or justice and 2 ½ years (5,000 hours) of experience," according to the California Department of Consumer Affairs. But not all states have these rules in place. For example, Mississippi requires only a business license, not a private investigator's license. If there is no regulating body in your state, it's important to research the private investigator and make sure you can trust them with private information about your personal or professional life. States that have a regulating body will have a website where you can confirm their license. Krollpfeiffer & Co., which operates in California, recommends you verify a private investigator's credentials before moving forward with the hiring process. Once you have determined that a private investigator is legitimate, contact them to discuss your case.
Private investigators may specialize in different kinds of cases. For example, Pennington Elite Investigations specializes in domestic investigations such as adultery, child custody and other domestic matters. The company also performs background checks and insurance fraud investigations. Look for someone with experience and expertise in your area of need. Read customer reviews and don't hesitate to ask for references.
Be clear when discussing payment. Some private investigators require a retainer to begin work, while others will send a bill once work is complete. Ask for a written contract that outlines exactly what type of work the professional will be performing for you, the expected number of hours on the job, and the estimated cost for services to be rendered.
Be wary of anyone who does not want to share their licensing information with you or is unable to share client reviews. And be on the lookout for private investigation services that offer package deals such as surveillance with photos and videos. Photo and video surveillance should typically be included at no extra cost.
- Read client reviews and follow up with references to make sure you're choosing the right private investigator for you. For more, check out these tips for smart hiring.