Factors to Consider When Hiring a Private Investigator
Similar to when you decide to renovate a home, it’s important to understand the fee structure in which you will be transacting under. There are services that are of fixed fee nature, and those that command hourly billing. Fixed fee activities are those of a repetitive nature and often considered common services whereby the amount of effort and resources required can easily be estimated. These are activities such as background checks, vehicle registration searches, reverse phone number identification and bugging and de-bugging a location of choice. Services that depend on a varying degree of effort or involvement from investigators will often be charged hourly. Time spent on activities such as locating missing persons, compiling data on hidden assets, video or audio monitoring for legal or domestic cases, will often depend on the availability of information and sometimes, the luck of timing. Some missing persons may be easily located whereas others could be hiding under aliases.
Hourly rates are not standardized across the industry and each investigator can demand what they believe is a fair price for their time, expertise and quality of service. Here at Investigation Hotline, for example, we charge $85 per hour plus travel expenses for most services with the exception of forensics, which we charge $200 per hour. It’s important to recognize that lower hourly rates do not necessarily equate to lower billings or similar quality of findings. Those with lower rates could and usually do take longer to deliver on the same request as others charging a higher rate. Take the time to read reviews and understand the services and level of expertise each investigator is offering. Are you getting the experienced investigator in the agency or the guy that started last week because COVID caused him to be unemployed? Know what you are getting yourself into before you agree to hand over your hard-earned cash because hourly projects can quickly add up.
In addition to the rates whether directly through hourly billings or indirectly through fixed fee arrangements, private investigators will often charge for incidentals such as flights, accommodations, court appearances, administrative costs, equipment fees where applicable. Set aside a budget for these costs and ensure you understand the involvement of the services when you hire your investigator.
Another factor in determining fees, is the deliverable of the project. Are you paying a video that shows your partner committing an act of infidelity? Are you looking for a written report summarizing an employee’s fraudulent acts at the office that can be used in court? Are you expecting to receive an address of a former loved one in an email? The level of effort involved in putting together the deliverable can also increase the billable hours involved in the project.
It is important to set expectations ahead of a project before the final bill is delivered. Are you comfortable to be billed up to a certain amount only? Or do you want to be notified and approve each expense ahead of when they are incurred? Have these conversations before the project starts to avoid billing negotiations after the fact because not paying up for a private investigator is probably not the route you will want to take, since it’s not like you can hide from them well.
Depending on the source of the request and the size of the project, private investigators may have different payment arrangements. Some will demand a retainer be paid upfront to cover costs that will be incurred as part of the process, others may just issue one bill at the end if the project is small enough or the request came from a reputable source. It is also important to understand whether any retainer collected upfront is consumable or not. Consumable retainers are those that will be used against any time or effort incurred and will offset the final billing whereas non-consumable retainers are more like startup fees, or fixed fees for which anything over the agreed upon services will be billed at a later time.
Ahead of any project, understand what you are paying for. Ensure you have a thorough understanding of the following:
- Investigator’s expertise and reputation;
- Form of the deliverable at the end of the project;
- Fee structure – is it fixed or hourly?
- Estimate of total billings;
- Payment structure – how much upfront and how do you prefer to be notified of overages and expenses?
Ensure you understand what you are paying for. Unless you were in the mask or hand sanitizer business during 2020, money likely didn’t come easy to you and you should know how you are spending it.
Other Factors to Consider
1 – Are they licensed to work as a private investigator?
When seeking out private investigation agencies, it’s important to ascertain what licenses they have to operate in their respective province or state. You can check with the governing authority in your area to confirm if the investigator is actually licensed to work. Do not take a picture on a business’ website as truth – ensure they are legally licensed and up to the task.
2 – Is the company part of the Better Business Bureau (BBB)?
Most reputable organizations will be listed on the Better Business Bureau’s website. Check to see if your prospective investigation agency is listed and if so, see what other customers have to say about the business. If they are not listed, be wary and cautious to avoid being scammed by an illegitimate investigative company.
3 – What does the private investigator specialize in?
Many organizations claim they are capable of delivering on a whole spectrum of assignments and different types of services. Although this could be true, most agencies have specific skill sets and are better equipped to handle certain types of cases over others. Pinpoint what your prospective agencies’ sweet spots are and ensure they are aligned with the type of case you are bringing to them.
4 – Does the agency have experience in the kind of work you’re seeking?
Similar to the previous bullet point, learn what type of experience the detective you are speaking to has in the type of work you need completed. It isn’t a deal breaker if they have limited experience, but it is definitely something to consider.
5 – Are they interviewing you?
Early on in your interaction with your private investigator, it is crucial that they take time to interview you to learn about your unique situation and desired outcome. Sometimes you may be asking for something that is illegal without you knowing it. Other times, your desired result might not be in your best interest. Be wary of agencies that do not take time to do discovery with you before agreeing to take on your case.
Private investigators with the best interest of the client at heart may actually advise you against hiring an agency. Sometimes there are alternatives that are more appropriate to the customer and the best private detectives will advise you accordingly.
6 – What are the objectives of your private detective?
Make sure that you set clear expectations with your private investigator about what type of work you want completed and what it will take them to complete the job. For example, if you want your partner followed because you suspect they are cheating on you, specify how much time you want to have them followed. After defining clear goals for your PI, make sure what they are doing is legal. If not, do not enter into a contract with them.
7 – Avoid hiring private investigators off of Craigslist.
Unfortunately, many shady businesses list ads on Craigslist in an attempt to dupe the public. These are more often than not fake investigators who are not qualified to do private investigative work. Instead of relying on sites like Craigslist, Google “Private Investigator (enter your city)” to find the most reputable businesses.
8 – Make sure you sign a contract.
It is important to stipulate terms in a written contract before agreeing and paying your detective agency. The contract should spell out the work that will be done, the objectives of the case, how much you will be paying per hour, if there will be a retainer involved and what your expectations are. This protects you in the event that your private detective does not perform the agreed upon services.
9 – What associations do they belong to?
Inquire what associations the private investigator is a part of. Reputable PIs have a network of associates in the business. If they are a part of associations, reach out to the organization and confirm that they are a practicing member of that community and how long they have been involved.
10 – Meet the private investigator in person.
Although this can be more worrisome during a pandemic, we recommend that you meet your private investigator in person to vet them. If they have an office, meet them there. If not, meet them in a public place and size them up based on the research you’ve already completed online.
11 – What customer reviews and references do they have online?
Ensure that your private investigative agency has a reputable website that is backed by trusted Google reviews. Customers are the bread and butter of every business so take a look at what other clients have said about your prospective PI. If they do not have any reviews available online, find a more reputable organization.
12 – Hire a local private investigator in Toronto or your area.
No one knows the local and cultural nuances of your region like someone who lives in that area. When looking for a private investigator, search locally to find a reputable agency in your region. The easiest way to do this is to Google private investigators in your hometown.