You may be considering hiring a private investigator (PI) to help with a personal or professional matter. Traditionally, this meant finding a local PI agency and meeting with an investigator in person. However, the internet has opened up new options for hiring PIs remotely. This guide will compare the typical costs and fees of using an online investigator versus an in-person, traditional one.
Traditional In-Person Private Investigators
For decades, the standard way to hire a PI was to meet with them in their office. This allowed you to vet him in person, explain the case details directly, and establish an ongoing working relationship.
The downside of this approach is it limits your options to PIs within driving distance. Depending on where you live, there may only be a handful of qualified investigators nearby. Their fees also tend to be higher due to the hands-on time required for in-person meetings and staffing a physical office.
Typical Fees and Cost Structures
Traditional PIs typically charge an hourly rate, daily rate, flat fee per case, or a combination of these. Expect rates in the range of:
- $50-$150+ per hour
- $300-$500+ per day
- $500-$5,000+ per case
The hourly rate applies to time the PI spends actively investigating, like conducting surveillance or interviews. The daily rate may cover time spent on research and analysis. Flat case fees are less common and usually only for very simple cases.
Keep in mind the PI’s time and expenses are both billable. Expenses may include travel costs for stakeouts, database searches, camera equipment, etc. These fees can add up quickly.
It’s a good idea to get quotes from at least 2-3 local PIs before hiring one so you can compare. But generally expect to spend $2,000 or more for an in-depth investigation.
Online Private Investigators
Thanks to the internet, a fairly new option is now available: hire a PI completely remotely, without ever meeting in person. Online investigators leverage advances in technology to provide services at lower prices.
Reputable online PIs conduct the same intensive investigations as traditional ones. The difference is they operate virtually, keeping overhead costs low. Communication is handled by phone, email, and through client portals. Case evidence is shared digitally in online reports.
Benefits of Online Private Investigators
More options – You can access PIs across the state or country, not just locally. This increases your chances of finding someone ideal for your case.
Lower fees – They have less overhead without a physical office. Their rates are usually 30-50% less than traditional PIs.
Convenience – Everything can be handled remotely at your convenience, without disruptive in-person meetings.
Faster turnaround – With lower case volume than larger local agencies, they can start investigating your case almost immediately.
Easy communication – Client portals provide a centralized place to exchange messages, sign contracts, share documents, and more.
As long as you vet an online PI properly, they can provide the same quality work as an in-person one for less.
Typical Fees and Cost Structures
Online PIs offer more flexibility in their fee structures. Common options include:
Flat monthly fee – Unlimited investigation hours for a fixed monthly rate, typically around $1,000-$2,000 per month. Best for cases requiring frequent, ongoing investigation over a longer period.
Hourly rate – Usually charged in 5 or 10 hour increments at $40-$90 per hour. Good for short-term investigations.
Flat case rate – A fixed price per case, such as $800-$2,500, depending on case complexity. Simple cases only.
Membership plans – Prepaid plans that offer discounted hours or cases per month. Can yield best value for multiple investigations.
Many offer free consultations to review your case and provide exact pricing options. Expect to pay at least 25% less than traditional PIs on average.
What Does a PI Investigate? Comparing Services
Private investigators offer a wide range of services, both online and in-person. While specialties vary, there are some core services they commonly provide:
One of the most requested services is a full background check on an individual. This includes identifying and verifying:
- Full legal name and aliases
- Current and past addresses
- Criminal history
- Civil court records
- Employment history
- Educational background
- Professional license verification
- Drug testing history
- Sex offender status
- Social media activity
- Digital footprint analysis
- Credit and financial history
- Public records
- and more…
Thorough background checks require expansive database access and investigative expertise to piece together a complete profile. Both online and traditional PIs offer full background checks.
Suspecting a spouse or partner of cheating is an unfortunate common reason for hiring a PI. Infidelity investigations involve:
- Surveillance of activities and locations
- Identifying people the subject meets with
- Finding dating site profiles
- Checking phone and social media activity
- Snapping photographic evidence
- Asset searches identifying hidden accounts
- Gathering audio/video proof if legally permissible
Infidelity investigations must be handled delicately and discreetly. An experienced investigator can obtain proof while avoiding illegal or unethical methods.
Asset searches aim to uncover any undisclosed assets someone may be hiding. This is important for divorce cases, inheritance disputes, judgements requiring payment, and other situations where full financial transparency is needed.
A skilled PI can dig up:
- Hidden bank accounts and investment accounts
- Property deeds
- Business ownership records
- Tax return data
- Cryptocurrency holdings
- Offshore account activity
- Credit card records
- Cash transactions
- Lifestyle patterns indicating undisclosed income sources
Businesses hire PIs to conduct internal corporate investigations when improper activities are suspected, such as:
- Employee theft/fraud
- Policy violations
- Workplace misconduct
- Substance abuse issues
- Cybersecurity breaches
Sensitive investigations require discretion, surveillance savvy, undercover work, and legal expertise.
Insurance Claim Investigations
Insurance providers often hire investigators to look into suspicious claims and identify potential insurance fraud. Common investigations include:
- Surveillance of claimant activities to check injuries claimed
- Reviewing medical records for pre-existing conditions
- Assessing fire/property damage for cause
- Checking policyholder background and records for red flags
- Interviewing third-parties for additional information
- Finding exaggerations or inconsistencies in the claim
Missing Persons Searches
PIs are routinely hired to assist with finding missing persons. Searches begin with:
- Gathering details about the disappearance
- Interviewing the family and known associates
- Researching locations the person frequents
- Accessing phone, email, banking records
- Checking local hospitals/morgues
- Broad database searches for current contact details and addresses
- Surveillance of places the individual may be
Trial Preparation and Court Support
PIs help build strong legal cases by:
- Collecting witness statements
- Locating evidence and documents
- Performing comprehensive background checks on all parties involved
- Investigating claims and generating detailed reports
- Providing testimony explaining investigation findings
Their work can uncover critical facts and winning case strategies.
Key Differences: Online vs. In-Person Private Investigators
While they offer clear cost savings, there are some differences in capabilities compared to traditional in-person PIs:
In-person PIs have a stronger capability to perform prolonged on-site surveillance with multiple investigators staking out locations around the clock. This can be critical for infidelity cases or insurance claims requiring evidence of physical activities and capabilities.
Online PIs rely more on surveillance technology and shorter on-site visits to reduce costs for clients. For cases requiring extensive in-person surveillance, a local PI may still be preferable.
Local Presence and Resources
A respected local PI has the advantage of deeper connections and knowledge in the community they operate in. They can tap into local public records and their personal network to aid investigations through relationships built over many years.
Online PIs have access to many of the same databases and resources, along with national-level connections. However, clients looking for one entrenched in their specific area may favor an established local investigator.
In-Person Rapport and Meetings
With a traditional PI, you’ll meet at their local office initially to explain the case details and get to know each other. This can provide greater confidence through facetime and direct interaction. You may also meet periodically in-person to review progress.
Online PIs emphasize responsiveness and availability instead through live chat, video calls, screen sharing, and secure online portals. However, the in-person rapport of a neighborhood PI is a benefit not easily replicated online.
Brand Reputation and Years in Business
Veteran in-person PIs are able to showcase longevity and reputation gained over decades solving local cases, with extensive reviews and word-of-mouth referrals. This engenders significant trust in their capabilities.
As a newer model, online PIs have less history to highlight, although client reviews on their websites help demonstrate competence. When hiring any PI, checking reviews, credentials, and references is advised.
Vetting and Hiring
Once you’ve decided to hire a PI, it’s important to vet them thoroughly first. Some key factors to evaluate:
Relevant Experience and Specializations
Look for an investigator with specific experience handling cases similar to yours, such as divorce, insurance fraud, corporate investigations, etc.
Verify any claimed professional affiliations, certifications, and specializations. Licensed PIs demonstrate competency by passing rigorous testing.
Ask about their typical caseload and clients to assess the breadth of their experience.
Investigation Approach and Capabilities
Does the PI describe a detailed, tailored approach to investigating your type of case? Look for systematic methodology.
Make sure they have full availability to dedicate to your case when needed.
Do they use up-to-date investigative tools? Things like surveillance cameras, asset databases, digital forensics software, and more.
Ask how evidence and reports will be presented to ensure you can understand and act on the findings.
Security and Confidentiality
Vet their data security practices for protecting sensitive client information, including encryption, anonymity services, and physical security.
Make sure evidence is gathered legally and ethically. Some cut corners gathering data which can damage cases down the road.
Ask about confidentiality policies, non-disclosure agreements, and handling of evidence post-case. Any exposure risks should be minimized.
Reputation and Reviews
Search online for client reviews and feedback. Look for consistent praise across multiple review sites.
Check for complaints filed against them with licensing boards and organizations like the Better Business Bureau.
Ask for 2-3 past client references you can contact directly to discuss their experience.
Protect yourself by confirming qualifications, security standards, and reputation.
Signed Contract and Retainer
Before starting an investigation, the PI should present you with a contract detailing:
Exact fees and structure (hourly, flat fee, etc.)
Security and confidentiality provisions
Deliverables like reports, photos, videos, digital files
Any constraints on using evidence collected
Carefully review before signing to ensure agreement on scope, deliverables, and costs. Also pay any requested retainer to cover initial fees.
Ongoing Communication and Updates
Make sure the PI explains their ongoing communication process. You should expect:
Regular case status updates on progress and findings
Quick responses to questions and availability by phone/email
Meetings by video chat to discuss the investigation and next steps
Secure access to a client portal or app for exchanging messages, documents, and evidence
Clear, prompt communication prevents frustrations and keeps cases moving forward productively. Don’t settle for hard-to-reach or unresponsive PIs.
Following these steps protects you when hiring any investigator, whether local or online. Taking the time to vet and communicate expectations upfront ensures a smooth investigation and successful outcome.