How to Find the Perfect Private Investigator for Your Case (2024)

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

Private eye checking his notebook

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:


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

A private investigator looking at findings after a long day

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.


Screening a Private Investigator for Strong Written Reports

For many cases, the PI’s final written report detailing findings, evidence, analysis, timelines, recommendations, etc. is the most critical work product. Screen investigators thoroughly on their writing skills:

  • Ask to review a sample redacted report from a similar case during interviews. Assess writing quality.
  • Inquire about their report-drafting process. Do they use templates? How are complex findings organized into coherent narratives?
  • Look for experience synthesizing large volumes of evidence into succinct reports tailored to clients’ key questions.
  • Ask if they have processes to ensure reports are error-free. Do they leverage anti-plagiarism software?
  • Verify they are capable of writing reports that will withstand legal scrutiny if cases lead to court proceedings.
  • Discuss options to receive draft status reports throughout lengthy investigations rather than just a final reveal.
  • Explore report format options – digital, printed, video, audio, graphical – and clarity of pricing for each.


Taking time upfront to thoroughly vet a PI’s report writing skills will ensure you receive well-structured findings and analysis to inform important personal or business decisions down the line.


Check References

Detective equipment layed on a table


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?


Additional Questions:

  • What specific methods did the investigator use in your case (surveillance, interviews, database searches, etc.)? Were they effective?
  • How would you describe the investigator’s manner when conducting sensitive interviews? Compassionate? Firm? Intimidating?
  • For surveillance cases – did the investigator remain undetected while following targets and gathering video/photographic evidence?
  • How technically savvy is the investigator? Do they utilize current technologies and databases efficiently?
  • How well did they document and present the evidence gathered in your case? Was the work product comprehensive?
  • If you went to court, did the investigator’s testimony positively impact the outcome? Were they credible?
  • Overall, did you feel the investigator was transparent about the realities of what could be accomplished? Or did they overpromise?


Questions to Ask About a Private Investigator’s Surveillance Capabilities:

For cases requiring surveillance, ask detailed questions to assess the PI’s skills:

  • Do you personally conduct surveillance or utilize staff/subcontractors? Get details on their training.
  • What types of cameras and lenses do you use for static and mobile surveillance? High-powered zoom lenses are ideal to avoid detection.
  • How do you minimize disruption of subjects’ normal patterns during surveillance? Discretion is key.
  • What concealed locations do you use to observe subjects without being spotted? Vehicles, structures, disguises?
  • How many hours can you realistically conduct continuous surveillance of a subject? Fatigue leads to mistakes.
  • Do you surveil subjects at night or only during daytime? Round-the-clock tracking provides fuller evidence.
  • What backup plans do you have if a subject unexpectedly changes routines or locations? Adaptable tracking is important.


Questions to Ask About a Private Investigator’s Digital Forensics Capabilities:

For cases requiring hacking investigations, digital asset searches or encrypted data recovery, ask:

  • What specific certifications do you have in digital forensics examination and cybersecurity? Qualified experts should have CFCE, EnCE or GIAC certifications.
  • What data extraction tools and techniques can you utilize? They should have access to professional-grade forensics software.
  • How do you recover and preserve fragile digital evidence like emails, text messages, erased files, and smartphone or cloud data? State-of-the-art tools are a must.
  • Can you crack or bypass encryption technologies consumers commonly use? Experience with tools like AccessData’s PRTK is ideal.
  • Are you trained to testify in court regarding the forensic techniques used and integrity of recovered evidence? Credibility is critical.
  • Do you leverage AI technologies like predictive coding when sifting through massive volumes of data? This can expedite relevant discoveries.


Asking nuanced surveillance questions reveals if a PI has the skills, tools and work ethic needed for discreet, effective monitoring of investigation subjects.

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.


Signs You May Need to Work With a Private Investigator Outside Your Local Area

Sometimes it is prudent to hire an out-of-town private investigator rather than a local PI for certain cases. Consider an investigator from another area if:

  • It is a high-profile case in your community involving influential local figures who may sway a local PI.
  • You need surveillance done on someone who is likely to recognize most PIs working locally. An outsider can monitor them more discreetly.
  • The case requires interviews with members of an insular community who are distrustful of outsiders. Someone seen as neutral may elicit more candor.
  • A distant PI can conduct public records searches in another region more cost effectively than someone local.
  • The target of your investigation lives part-time in a different city that your local PI does not have easy access to.


Though distance can complicate logistics, the right non-local investigator is worth it for their objectivity and anonymity when dealing with tight-knit local networks.


Red Flags to Watch Out For When Interviewing Private Investigators

Some concerning indicators that should raise red flags about a PI during preliminary interviews include:

  • They are vague or evasive about their specific methods and qualifications.
  • They promise unlikely fast turnarounds for complex cases.
  • They cannot provide references from past clients.
  • Their quoted rates seem unrealistically low.
  • Their website appears hastily built or unprofessional.
  • You find concerning complaints or violations in background checks.
  • Their office gives off a fly-by-night vibe.
  • You don’t connect well interpersonally.
  • They pressure you to sign a contract and pay fees very quickly.


Stay alert for any of these red flags when vetting investigators. Reliable PIs will answer questions directly and make reasonable promises about case timelines and deliverables.

distinct, identifying characteristics among private investigators that signal Green Flags:

  • They have an established bricks-and-mortar office, not just a PO Box.
  • Their website conveys professionalism and extensive qualifications.
  • They clearly explain their rates and billing practices without hesitation.
  • They are understanding about a client’s budget limitations.
  • They focus questions on gathering case details, not pushing sales.
  • They suggest realistic scopes and timelines based on case intricacies.
  • They readily provide client references related to your type of case.
  • They maintain industry certifications and continuing education.
  • They carry adequate professional liability insurance for investigative work.
  • They avoid “too good to be true” claims in marketing materials.


Sign a Formal Contract

To investigators going through fingerprints to look for matches

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.


What's the best way to find private investigators that handle my type of case?
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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