Private investigators, also known as private detectives or PIs, are hired professionals specializing in research, surveillance and other methods of investigation. Although PIs are not police officers, many have a criminal justice background and certain states even require this experience to be able to work as a licensed private investigator. PIs will work for private individuals or companies and attorneys may hire private detectives to find out information for a case.
Angie's LIST Guide to
Hiring a private investigator
Private investigators can cover a wide range of work. Not all PIs do all these things, so its important to find an investigator who has experience or expertise that matches the job you are wanting to have done. Common work for a private investigator includes:
- Investigating an individual such as a spouse or partner suspected of cheating or a person suing you for an injury that you aren’t convinced is injured.
- Finding an individual such as a long-lost relative or someone who owes you money and left town.
- Locating objects such as stolen property.
- Investigating crime such as in-house theft for a business or a home invasion of an individual when the client feels regular police attention isn’t enough.
- Background checks for potential new employees or others.
- Setting up surveillance equipment and monitoring including GPS monitoring.
- Case research for attorneys.
For certain services such as background checks, looking up a vehicle registration or identifying a cell phone number, private investigators may charge a flat fee. Most commonly, though, private investigators charge an hourly rate. Depending on your location, complexity of the work and expertise of the private investigator, fees can range from $40 to over $100 per hour with the average somewhere around $50 an hour in the United States.
Be aware that depending on the work being done, there may be cost to hiring a private investigator beyond the hourly rate. You may need to be prepared to pay expenses such as plane tickets, hotel rooms, long-distance phone calls, equipment costs or gas milage. Some private investigators may require a deposit or retainer upfront to cover potential expenses.
Be sure to have a written contract upfront that outlines all potential costs. Your private investigator should inform you beforehand if something changes and will require an increase in the cost. Always ask for an itemized list of expenses and specific records of activities you are being charged for to be given to you at the end of the job.
Finding a trustworthy and qualified private investigator can be an intimidating task so here are some tips to help you know how to hire a private investigator.
1. Get a referral. It is likely that you will be sharing personal information with this person and so it important to find someone reliable. Do as much research on the investigator as possible. Ask trusted friends for recommendations and if you are an Angie's List member, you can search for any local consumer reviews on private investigators. You can, and should, also ask your potential private investigators for references you can call.
2. Check their license. The only states that don't require licensing for private detectives are Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota and Wyoming, and licensing is voluntary in Colorado. A professional private detective will be able to give you their license number immediately and you can check it with your local municipality to make sure it’s valid, has a matching name to your private detective and if any complaints have been filed against them.
3. Make sure they have an office. If your private detective only works out of restaurants and over the phone, that is a sign you should get out now. You need to know where to find this person if they don’t follow through on their obligations.
4. Ask about their experience and education. To make sure your job gets done right, find a detective who specializes in the task you need. Ask about how much work they have done similar to what you want in the past and how those jobs worked out.
5. Consider whether they have insurance. Most serious private investigators are insured up to a few million dollars. While it’s not necessary for all jobs, if something were to happen during the course of the work, you, as the hirer, would be held liable if there was no insurance coverage.
6. Talk about confidentiality. You are very likely dealing with sensitive information when you are working with a private investigator and you need to be sure your PI will be discreet and respectful of information shared between the two of you.
7. Feel comfortable with the private investigator. If you don’t feel like the private investigator communicates well with you or if they pressure you or make you feel uncomfortable in any way, you should probably choose a different private investigator to work with.
8. Get a contract. Your initial consultation with a private detective should be free and from there, they should be able to outline anticipated cost. If you choose to follow through with the work, make sure all fees and expectations are clearly outlined in a contract.
9. Be sure you are prepared for what a private investigator may uncover. You are hiring a private investigator to uncover something for you and especially when it involves people close to you, be sure you are ready to for whatever the PI may find. You may hope the private investigator will prove your fears wrong, but be sure you can handle what they may turn up to prove your fears right before you hire their services.