How to Find the Perfect Private Investigator for Your Case

It can be challenging to choose the best private investigator. You likely have sensitive issues that need discreet handling by a professional. Where do you even begin to look? And how do you go about vetting potential candidates to ensure you choose someone qualified?

This guide will walk you through the key steps to take when searching for and selecting a private detective. Follow these tips to find the perfect PI to handle your sensitive case.


Define Your Needs

a person sneakily photographing a couple from his car

First, get clear on why you need to hire a PI. This will help narrow your search criteria and identify the ideal skills and background you need them to have.

Some common reasons include:

  • Infidelity investigations – You suspect your spouse or partner is cheating and want evidence to confirm or put your suspicions to rest.
  • Child custody cases – You’re involved in a child custody dispute and need to prove facts about the child’s living situation and well-being.
  • Workers compensation claims – You were injured at work but your employer disputes your claim. A PI can prove or disprove claims by conducting surveillance.
  • Missing persons – A loved one has mysteriously disappeared and you want help tracking them down.
  • Background checks – You want to learn more about the history or activities of a potential business partner or someone new in your life.
  • Insurance fraud – An insurance company suspects a claimant of exaggerating or falsifying details of an insurance claim.
  • Asset searches – You need help locating bank accounts, property deeds, stock holdings or other assets tied to an individual or company.
  • Process serving – You need court documents or notices delivered to an unwilling recipient.


Once you determine the specific reasons, note down the type of services you expect them to provide. This will be key to finding someone with relevant skills and experience.


Search Private Investigator Directories

Now that you know what you need a PI for, start your search by consulting industry directories. These provide lists of detectives in your state or metro area.

Some directories to check include:


Scan the listings for investigators whose advertised services match your needs. For instance, if you need help with a child custody case, look for PIs who list familial investigations as an offering.

Create a shortlist of promising candidates for further vetting.


Verify Licensing

Zoom in on two people working on a computer.


Any private investigator you consider should be properly licensed in your state. This ensures they have met the required training and background checks.

You can verify license in a few ways:

  • Check your state government’s website. Most maintain searchable databases of licensed professionals. Search to confirm the PI has an active license with no complaints or disciplinary history.
  • Call your state’s licensing authority directly to ask about a PI’s status.
  • Ask the PI for their license number, then verify it yourself through official channels.


Interview Candidates

Once you’ve identified a few properly licensed PIs you could work with, conduct preliminary interviews to further vet them. This gives you a chance to assess their professionalism, expertise and fit for your case.

Below are some key questions to ask:

  • How long have you been a private investigator? Look for ample experience conducting investigations similar to yours. Someone brand new may not have the skills.
  • What’s your background and training? An ex-police officer or military investigator often make the best PIs. They’re familiar with conducting investigations and handling sensitive issues.
  • What types of cases do you specialize in? Ensure their niche aligns with your needs, whether it’s infidelity, fraud, asset searches, etc.
  • Are you licensed in this state? May I see your license? Double check their standing.
  • What are your rates? Get quotes from multiple PIs to compare costs. Beware unusually low fees.
  • What is your availability? Confirm they can dedicate adequate time to your case. You don’t want someone juggling too many clients.
  • How will you keep me updated during the investigation? Agreement on regular check-ins is essential.
  • Can you provide references from past clients? Speaking with prior clients offers the best insight into their work.


Pay attention to how knowledgeable and forthcoming they seem regarding your questions. Do you feel confident placing your sensitive case in their hands? Take notes after calls to compare all prospects.


Check References

four detectives chatting in a blue-lit room

Speaking with a prospective PI’s past clients offers valuable insight into their work morality, investigative skills and client rapport.

When checking references:

  • Ask for 3-5 client references – The more the better to notice any patterns or anomalies.
  • Talk to references from similar cases – The insights will be most relevant to your needs.
  • Ask open-ended questions – This prompts references to provide details rather than just “yes or no” answers.
  • Consider using an anonymous email or phone number – This may prompt more forthcoming responses about sensitive investigations.


Here are some sample questions to ask client references:

  • How did you find this investigator?
  • What type of case did they handle for you?
  • How well did they explain their investigative methods and fees upfront?
  • How frequently did they provide updates?
  • Did they maintain discretion and confidentiality around sensitive information?
  • Were you satisfied with the level of evidence and work product they delivered?
  • Did they adhere to timelines and budgets set out in your contract?
  • Would you recommend this investigator to others with similar needs?


Watch for any hesitancy, lack of specifics or questionable endorsements. Make sure feedback aligns between references. Also consider asking the PI for 1-2 professional references like lawyers or police officers who’ve worked with them.


Compare Providers

By now, you’ve identified 2-3 promising PIs to choose from. Compare them across important criteria to determine the best fit. Consider:

  • Methods and technology – Do they use adequate methods like databases, surveillance, interviews?
  • License – Double check all are properly licensed.
  • Cost – Weigh rates against their experience and specialty.
  • Availability – Ensure they can dedicate adequate time to properly investigate.
  • Personal connection – Who did you feel most comfortable with during the interview process?


Once you determine the best PI for the job, it’s time to formalize the agreement.


Sign a Formal Contract

an investigator capturing images through a curtain

Before any investigating starts, sign a written contract with the PI outlining everything involved in the engagement. This protects both your and the investigator’s interests.

Key points the contract should cover include:

  • Basic contact information – Names, addresses, phone, email.
  • Case background info – Quick summary of the situation and your goals.
  • Detailed scope of services – Exactly what the PI will do, step-by-step.
  • PI’s methods – Surveillance, interviews, public records access, etc.
  • Timeline – Deadline for completing key milestones and final report.
  • Billing structure – Hourly or flat rate, invoicing frequency, expenses, etc.
  • Confidentiality clause – Non-disclosure protections and limits.
  • Updates to client – Frequency and methods of communication.
  • Ownership of evidence – Who retains notes, photos, videos, records, etc. after case completion.


Review the contract thoroughly before signing to ensure you understand and agree to all terms. A detailed contract protects both parties should any disputes arise later. Now you can confidently hire your PI and collaborate closely with them as they investigate your case.


Working Successfully With Your PI

a wooden stamp with the word solved

Once you’ve contracted, build a strong working collaboration to help yield successful results. Here are tips:

  • Communicate expectations clearly – Be very clear about what evidence you need to achieve your goals.
  • Provide complete background info – The more context the PI has, the better. Share all documentation.
  • Facilitate access – Provide keys, passwords or introductions if needed.
  • Notify of any developments – Update the PI on any changes that occur during the investigation.
  • Respond promptly to requests – Delayed responses from you can hinder their progress.
  • Stick to the agreed timeline – If you fall behind on payments or information it can stall the PI’s work.
  • Stay in touch – Communicate regularly for updates but don’t micromanage the process.
  • Be patient – Investigations take time, so avoid unreasonable expectations.
  • Trust your PI’s methods – Don’t question their approach without cause or interfere in the process.
  • Pay promptly – Only pay for work done but don’t delay payments as progress is made.


By choosing the ideal PI, defining the engagement expectations in a contract, and collaborating effectively, you can achieve your investigative goals as smoothly as possible. Do your due diligence upfront and develop mutual trust, and your private detective will become a valuable ally.

Search industry association directories like PISPA and TALI to find PIs specializing in your needs, whether that’s infidelity, child custody, fraud investigation, etc.
Local PIs can more easily conduct surveillance and in-person interviews relevant to your case. However, for things like online background checks and database searches, a PI’s location doesn’t matter.
Avoid PIs who won’t provide an exact license number, push you to sign vague contracts, insist on full payment upfront, make unrealistic promises, or refuse to detail their methods.
While referrals can be a good starting point, still independently vet any recommended PI through steps like license checks, interviews and reference checks. Don’t assume a referral alone makes them qualified.
You can certainly negotiate price, timelines, and contract specifics. But be wary of any investigator who is willing to veer into unethical territory like illegal surveillance just to win your business.
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