Decide what you want the PI to do. Private investigators can track down all kinds of people and information, but their skills will vary. Some are good at following people or digging up information, while others can track down someone or something. Before you start looking, you need to be clear about what kind of work you want the PI to do so you can find someone with the right skills and equipment.
- PIs can provide a variety of services, including background checks, tracking down child support or custody, providing electronic and video surveillance, or tracking down individuals. You can hire a private investigator to help with legal proceedings, including gathering more information for use at a trial, or to provide you with information that may lead to legal actions
Look for someone. Once you know what you are looking for, start looking for names. Start with referrals, people who have used a PI in the past. If you don’t know anyone who has hired a PI before, start by flipping through a phone book, or searching for investigators in your area using an Internet search engine or service like PI Now.
- Once you have some names, take a look and see if they have websites, which will allow you to learn more than just seeing a line in the phone book. Most sites will list the business’ skills and services, which should help narrow down your list of people to consider.
- PIs who are good at looking for information will do much of their work in an office, using the Internet and telephone to track people down. This can be a useful service, though less so if you want a PI to follow someone for surveillance.
- Make sure you also consider your location. If you want to track down someone you think is in California, hiring a PI near you in New York will be less helpful than contacting one already in California
Check references. Once you have found a PI, make sure to ask him for references. These are people that you can trust who will vouch for the investigator’s skills and ability. Once you have some references, follow up and check. Hiring an investigator isn’t something you should do lightly, so make sure you know the person you are talking to.
- Good references to talk to include the duty agent of your local FBI office, a clerk at your county’s police department, the watch commander of the sheriffs department, investigators working in the District Attorney’s office, and criminal defense lawyers
Ask for a license. Most states require that PIs be licensed by the state. Each state has different rules and requirements for a license, so the standards will vary. Still, if your state requires a license, the PIs you look at should have them.
- License information is available through your state’s licensing board, so it should not be difficult to track down. Additionally, when you call the PI, they should be able to give you the licensing number. This licensing body should also be able to provide you with information about any complaints against the investigator.
- Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Mississippi, and South Dakota do not require licensing for private investigators. Colorado has a state license, but it is voluntary, so your PI may not have one
Check for insurance. You should check to make sure your private investigator carries insurance to protect you and him should anything happen during the course of the investigation. Some states require it as part of the licensing, or for other aspects of the business such as carrying a firearm. Insurance is there for your protection, to make sure you are not liable should something happen during the PI’s work on your case
Watch for warning signs. When you start to talk to PIs, you’ll need to make sure the investigators you talk to are people you will be comfortable working with. You will need to provide this person with sensitive information, and trust that he will treat it confidentially. If you do not feel comfortable sharing this type of information with this person, you aren’t going to work well with the PI.
- In addition, you should take notice of where and how the investigator interacts with you. People you interview should have a professional office that you can visit, and will clearly spell out the fees for their services. If a potential investigator isn’t giving you this information, don’t hire him
Bring as much relevant information as possible. When you go into meet with the investigator, be sure to bring any information relevant to the case you want him to work. These will vary depending on what you want the PI to do, but can include a variety of documents, photographs, or general information.
- For example, if you want the PI to conduct surveillance on someone, make sure you are prepared to give a picture of the person, a list of his address and other significant places he goes, his typical schedule, and a picture or description of his car.
- As you talk to the PI about your case, you may have forgotten something. That is fine, as this is just a first meeting to get a sense of the case and what it might take to solve it. The investigator should be able to tell you what more he will need from you to do his job properly
Ask about experience. When you talk to the PI, make sure you ask how long they have been doing the specific type of work you are asking them to do. Discuss their specialties, the length of time they have been working, and if they have been deposed or testified in court. Some states will even require that PIs have several years of experience in law enforcement as part of their licensing.
- Another thing to look for is formal education. It isn’t necessary, but a degree in a field like criminal justice, criminology, sociology, or psychology is a big benefit. Several other professional certifications like Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) and Certified Protection Professional (CPP) are offered by reputable trade organizations, and require good work to receive.
Be prepared to answer questions. Your first consultation will also involve the PI asking you a few questions. He will want to clarify what you are asking him to do and learn more details about the information you have provided to make sure he can provide the best service possible. He will also need to cover himself, and make sure that you aren’t asking him to do something illegal.
- If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. Lying or making something up will not help you or the PI, and might make your situation worse. Remember, you are hiring him to find information you don’t know, so don’t be afraid of not knowing something
Discuss payment. You won’t have to pay any money right away, but investigating can cost time and money, and you should have a clear understanding of what your investigation will cost. In most cases, the PI will charge an hourly rate, which will vary depending on the service you are asking for and the length of time it will take. You may also be charged for additional job-related expenses like airline tickets and long-distance calls.
- Remember that you are paying for the service, not the results. If you hire a PI to track your girlfriend, and it turns out she isn’t having an affair, you’re still on the hook
Schedule a follow-up meeting. If you feel comfortable with the investigator, and are prepared to go forward, call again to schedule a follow-up meeting and begin your case. This meeting will need to be more thorough, as this is no longer a consultation, but an actual case. Be prepared to provide any additional information the PI asked for in your original meeting.
Be patient. Once you have hired your PI, let him have a few days to get started on the investigation. If the information was that easy to find, you probably wouldn’t have needed to hire him in the first place. A good PI will contact you every couple of days to update you on what is going on.
Be honest. It is vitally important that you are honest with your PI when he asks you questions. Some of the information you give may be compromising or embarrassing. If you aren’t willing to share it, though, your PI might not be able to find all of the information you are looking for.
- You should be able to trust your PI with private information. If you start to feel uncomfortable sharing that information, you may consider hiring a different investigator, one you feel more comfortable sharing with
Don’t ask for illegal actions. There are some limits to what a PI can do when investigating. A PI cannot wire tap, obtain cell phone toll records, obtain financial records without a court order, pull credit reports without a signed authorization, or hack into someone’s email or social media accounts. These are illegal, and if your PI offers them as part of your investigation, you could get in a lot of trouble.