Assuming that you've already researched the kinds of things that private investigators do and have determined that you need an investigator for your particular situation, the next step is choosing one. Finding a good private investigator can be a very difficult task, because the qualifications and experience of these individuals can vary so greatly.
Before you can go about evaluating the credentials of a private investigator, you first have to locate one. There are many ways to do this. If you know of any friends who may have had a similar investigative need, you might try getting the name of the investigator that was used, provided the friend can give a favorable recommendation. You could also go the licensing organization for private investigators in your state and find the names of several possible private investigators through the contact information obtained from their directory. Of course, if your case will likely involve an attorney, it might be best to get a recommendation for an investigator from the attorney since the investigator may need to be working under the direction of an attorney depending on the type of case. Spies Online
also has a PI Directory and a directory of PI directories, but remember that anyone can list a business in an online directory. Just because a business is listed in a directory somewhere online does not mean that you do not have to verify credentials.
One thing that you should know is that the very best investigators are
usually all members of the top investigative discussion groups online. Spies Online's e-mail discussion group is arguably one of the best of them all. While
being a member of an online discussion group is no guarantee of fitness for a particular
investigative task, you want your private investigator to be someone who is well-connected in the
industry. It doesn't hurt to make a few inquiries. It will ultimately be up to you to gather information and make an informed decision. To assist you with this ominous task, Spies Online has put together this checklist for you to use when evaluating the suitability of an investigator.
1. Most importantly, you should find out what the licensing requirements are for an investigator in your state. Is your candidate properly licensed? You should call the licensing board directly, as sometimes online databases are not up to date. Is the person's license displayed in a conspicuous place in his/her office?
2. Just because someone is licensed doesn't necessarily mean clear sailing. Have any complaints been filed? Ask the state licensing board. Remember that sometimes if there are complaints pending against an investigator, it may take time between the time a complaint is filed and the time it takes to get the license revoked or have the complaint registered.
3. Does the private investigator have a college degree? Although this is not necessarily required, it is certainly a plus.
4. How many years of experience does the private investigator have? How much experience does he have relevant to your particular type of case? How many cases like yours did the private investigator handle in the past year? You should ask.
5. Will anyone other than the private investigator you are interviewing be working on the case (i.e. assistants, other investigators)? It is important to check out anyone who will be working on your case.
6. Does the investigator have any references from people whom he has worked for on cases similar to your own? You should definitely ask.
7. Is the candidate a member of any professional organizations for investigators? This is a plus.
8. Will the private investigator provide references from several colleagues and/or attorneys who have used his services?
9. If you have a need for an investigator to trace an e-mail for some reason (i.e. perhaps you are being stalked), you have to be very careful about whom you hire. Some investigators say that they offer e-mail tracing service, but when you ask them what a Unix shell account is, they have no clue, pardon the pun. Obviously, you want to hire a computer expert for something like this, in most cases. Some investigators without an extensive computer science background may be able to trace an e-mail where the sender has not taken steps to send the e-mail anonymously. However, if the perpetrator is one whom you suspect has some degree of computer proficiency (and many times this is the case), the investigator will need to know what to do. So, come right out and ask the investigator questions like, "If the person who is sending me these anonymous e-mails is using multiple Unix shell accounts, are you still able to trace that person?" If the investigator seems at all befuddled by this question, you might want to think twice about hiring the person. Or, to make it simpler, ask him if he is familiar with any operating systems other than Windows. If yes, this is a definite plus. If the answer is no, it is an indication that the investigator is not a real computer geek. There are some investigators who are quite proficient with a computer, and you're really better off with someone who specializes in this area. You want someone who can determine who the end user was on the computer that sent the email, not just what ISP the end user was using when he sent the email. Of course, if an e-mail tracer claims that he can do this accurately all of the time, you should be very suspicious. If this were possible, there would not be so many virus writers out there who don't get caught by the authorities!
Provided that you are satisfied that you have located a qualified private investigator, you are now ready to ask about his fees and billing procedures.
Fees and Billing Procedures
1. Is a retainer required? What will the fee structure be? You should not be surprised to hear that most private investigators charge an hourly rate of at least forty dollars an hour (as of the date of this writing) and do expect to be paid a retainer fee.
2. Will he give you an estimate on the total charges for the case?
3. Will he charge you for disbursements (photocopying fees, telephone calls, travel expenses)?
4. Does he offer you a written contract that is easy for you to understand?
5. Have you set a cap on his fees and expenses?
6. Will he give progress reports at certain times?
7. Does he have any rules about what he will do with the information he gets? For example, some investigators will agree to locate someone for you, but they will call that person first and ask if it's ok for them to give you the information. If that person says no, you still pay. Make sure you know the deal in advance.
8. Does the private investigator accept credit cards? An attorney once advised me to always pay for such services with a credit card. Why? Well, simply put, you can dispute any fees on a credit card bill by writing to the credit card company according to the instructions on your bill. It gives you some leverage over the investigator if he does an unsatisfactory job. If you give him cash and you don't like his work, you are stuck, as most won't refund your money. Btw, this isn't to suggest that you should not pay an investigator for delivering bad news. Many times, you'll be getting news that you won't like to hear. That does not absolve you of your responsibility to pay the investigator for the information. Remember, too, that some very fine, reputable private investigators have experienced unreasonable chargebacks when they have practiced due diligence in completing a case and do not accept credit cards anymore for this reason. However, from the consumer's standpoint, using a credit card gives you a little more protection.
If you are satisfied with the investigator's fee structure, the next step is to ask about bonding and insurance information.
Bonding and Insurance
1. Is the private investigator bonded and insured? In the state of Maryland, for example, all investigators must be bonded for a minimum of five thousand dollars. Does the investigator carry liability insurance? If so, how much? Get policy information so that it can be verified.
2. Has the investigator ever had to make a claim on his malpractice insurance? Ask him. If so, get details.
If you are satisfied with the above, it is time for the most important part of your investigation of the investigator! Now, it is time to check out the investigator's character, credibility and reputation.
Character, Credibility, and Reputation
1. You can bet that an investigator will likely check you out a bit before doing any work for you. You should do the same to him. What do public records say about the investigator? Does he have any DUI offenses? Has he ever declared bankruptcy? Does he have a criminal record? Not everyone feels comfortable looking into these kinds of things, but if you do, you should.
2. What does the investigator's office look like? How does he look? Would he look good if he had to testify in a court of law? It's always a good sign to see someone who is well groomed and wearing a suit. If the investigator is female, she should also be appropriately dressed (i.e. professional attire, not knee socks and mini skirts, etc.). Does the investigator have a secretary? Does she look professional (i.e. not wear her clothes so tight that the buttons of her blouse look like they are going to pop, etc.)? If the secretary is male, does he look professional? It is usually a very good sign to find businesses that are concerned with details and appearances.
3. Is there a computer in the office? Will your personal data or facts pertaining to your case be kept on offline storage media that is not accessible via the Internet? Will the information be encrypted? You need to ask. Most private investigators are not computer security experts. How will your information be handled when the case is closed (i.e. shredded if it's paper, erased securely if stored on computer media)? You don't want dumpster divers or hackers getting ahold of your information.
4. Does the private investigator have a website? Does it look professional (as opposed to looking like one that could have been put together by your middle school daughter at some free site)? What do his business cards and brochures look like? Is any of this stuff riddled with spelling errors? If the private investigator requests personal information on the site (like the SSN of a subject that you are trying to find, birthdate information, and other personal stuff like that), is it done via a secure form on a secure server? It is
always best to provide this type of information in person after you have met with the investigator and are convinced that you are going to hire him. However, if you do decide to provide this kind of information over the Net, please make sure you are doing it safely. Sadly, there are numerous PI websites on the Net that request private information on insecure forms.
5. Have you gotten the names of folks who have used this investigator's services? What did they have to say?
6. Have you asked for people to offer you opinions (privately only, please) on major investigative e-mail discussion groups like Spies Online? Ask members of the group privately what they think of the individual you are considering hiring. Has the person ever been thrown out of any major professional associations? Has the person been banned from any major investigative e-mail discussion groups? Do you see any postings made by this individual? How does the person appear to treat others online (i.e. full of foul language or thoughtful and respectful of others, etc.)? Do the postings look professional? Since most e-mail discussion group moderators of reputable professional groups will not allow flaming of individuals, the best way to ask about an individual is to post something to the group that says something like, "If anyone here can provide me with a reference for so and so, please e-mail me privately." You may want to ask how well the person respects people in positions in authority. This speaks volumes about character.
7. What does Google turn up about the person you are considering hiring? You may be surprised! If you are really brave, you can look on newsgroups like alt.private.investigator and see what the investigator you are considering hiring has been posting there. To search all newsgroups, click here and type in the name of the investigator you are considering hiring. You might want to try variations on the spelling of the name. You can also try typing in a company name. Please note that sometimes pranksters will spoof e-mails from investigators; however, you may find some interesting reading here.
Hopefully, you will find this article helpful in your search for a private investigator. Of course, there are no guarantees that your experience with a particular private investigator will be a good one even if you do your homework; however, there is no doubt that you can definitely save yourself a lot of grief by doing a brief investigation of your own before hiring an investigator.
-- J.W., Spies Online