Online Private Investigators vs. DIY Online Searches: Who Solves Cases Better?

You’ve got a mystery to solve or information to uncover. Maybe you need to find a long lost friend, do a background check on someone new in your life, or get evidence for a legal dispute. When you need investigative services, you have two options: hire a professional online private investigator or do it yourself with online searches. Which route should you take? Here’s an in-depth comparison of online private eyes versus DIY online detective work to help you decide.


Online Private Investigators

four detectives chatting in a blue-lit room

Professional PIs have access to proprietary databases and investigative techniques that aren’t available to the average person. Here are some key advantages to hiring one:


Expansive Database Access

Online investigators benefit from expansive databases that assemble records from various sources. While much is available through public records online, the most in-depth reporting is found through access to non-public records and aggregated sources.

For example, a PI can pull credit reports, employment verification, professional license checks, and criminal record checks. They also use databases that compile various public records in one report, saving the legwork of piecing together information from disparate sources.

Some databases include:

LexisNexis – Contains over 45 billion public records including DMV records, deeds, licenses, judgments, addresses, phone numbers, and more.

TLOxp – Over 150 million records from sources like utility connections, marriage/divorce filings, bankruptcies, liens, and business registrations.

CLEAR – Billions of data points on individuals and businesses from public and proprietary sources. Includes risk scores and identity verification.

Accurint – Aggregates data from over 10,000 data sources. Good for finding relatives, aliases, assets, professional licenses, voter registration, and more.

Microbilt – Specializes in alternative credit data, payday loan histories, and other specialty financial information.


Specialized Investigative Techniques

Private investigators are trained in particular techniques that the average person doesn’t have the skills or experience to leverage. For example, they may:

Conduct in-depth social media scans – Experienced investigators know how to dig deeper and uncover social media activity that the average user might miss. They use tools to analyze connections, map networks, and surface deleted posts.

Perform skip tracing – Finding someone who has gone off the grid requires skills like reverse phone lookups, database cross-referencing, and other skip tracing methodologies. Investigators have access to up-to-date contact data.

Go undercover – They can assume false identities or pose as prospective customers to gain insider information when appropriate. They know how to avoid raising suspicions.

Conduct interviews – Investigators are skilled at extracting further details from witnesses or contacts through tactical interviewing approaches.

Engage in surveillance – They can monitor subjects in public settings using appropriate photographic, video, and tracking techniques when warranted to gather visual evidence.


Objective Insights

a detective reviewing paperwork

As neutral third parties, PIs provide an objective perspective your research. Their unbiased viewpoint lends credibility to the facts they uncover. They have no personal stake in the results, so you can trust their insights and conclusions.


Reputable investigators know how to gather information ethically and legally. They avoid inappropriate activities like unauthorized access or misrepresenting themselves to gain information. Rather, they use above-board techniques to uncover details while protecting your best interests.


Case Experience

Veteran PIs have worked on hundreds or even thousands of cases covering the full range of investigative needs. Their wealth of experience gives them better instincts for solving mysteries and filling in informational gaps.


Contacts and Resources

Seasoned investigators have cultivated extensive networks of relevant contacts. They have access to inside informants and industry experts they can leverage to aid investigations when needed.


DIY Online Searches

Zoom in on two people working on a computer.

Thanks to the internet, you can now take on some investigative work yourself from the comfort of your home. Here are some perks of a DIY approach:



Hiring a PI costs $50-$100 per hour on average. If you have limited funds or are on a tight budget, doing your own online investigating is essentially free. All you need is an internet connection and some time.



When you conduct your own searches, no one needs to know about your inquiries besides you. Your activities are confidential. If you hire an investigator, you must share details about your case with them.


Learn Investigative Techniques

By doing your own online sleuthing, you pick up valuable skills in finding and assessing digital information. The investigative techniques you gain transfer to future searches you need to undertake.


High Accessibility

You can pursue online investigative leads whenever it’s convenient since you’re managing the process yourself. You don’t need to accommodate someone else’s schedule or availability.


Emotional Connection

You may feel a deeper emotional investment and connection to solving the mystery yourself rather than handing off the search to a dispassionate third party. The legwork can be more rewarding.


When to Hire a Private Investigator

A man points at what appear to be transparent icons

Given the trade-offs, when does it make sense to pay for a professional rather than taking a DIY approach? Here are some sound instances:

You need to uncover in-depth, non-public records like cell phone records, concealed assets, or undisclosed criminal records that require access to proprietary databases.

Discretion is paramount, so you want an objective third party rather than inserting yourself into the investigation.

You need to find someone who has gone off the grid and can’t easily be located through basic online searches.

You have a complex mystery to solve or large volume of online data to sift through that demands skilled expertise.

You anticipate needing the investigative findings for legal proceedings, so professional credibility carries more weight.

You want to leverage specialized investigative techniques like covert surveillance, background interrogations, or extensive social media scanning.

You require consultation on an unfamiliar area – investigators can provide guidance on niche topics based on their experience.

You have limited time to devote to investigating and need someone who can work efficiently.


When to Investigate Online Yourself

Here are situations where you may want to handle the online investigating on your own:

You have a simple informational need like finding old friends or classmates, researching properties, or verifying professional credentials. Public records and social media sites can often provide these basics.

Cost is your primary concern. If you have limited funds, DIY online searching is the most affordable option. The access fees for paid databases add up quickly.

You want to maintain complete confidentiality without involving an outside person.

You have the free time required to devote to digging up information yourself. Be aware this takes significant effort.

You want to gain experience conducting online investigations to build your skills. Hands-on practice helps you become a better “detective.”

It’s a personal matter you want to take ownership of rather than handing over to an outsider. You may feel greater emotional investment.


Tips for DIY Online Investigations

Zooming in with a magnifying glass on the word investigation

If you elect to take the DIY route, here are some tips to make your web searches as fruitful as possible:

Dig beyond surface details – Don’t stop at the initial information you find on Google or social media sites. Click through profiles, runner deeper searches, and uncover connections.

Consult multiple data sources – Cross-reference details you find across databases, social networks, public records, and web archives.

Note inconsistencies – Keep track of any contradictions, omissions, or discrepancies you uncover. These may be useful clues.

Browse anonymously – Use incognito browser mode, VPNs, or socks proxies to keep your online searching confidential.

Screenshot evidence – Save copies of any online evidence you find in case it gets deleted later. PDF print outs also create permanent records.

Stay organized – Keep a diligent record of searches performed, data points uncovered, and remaining gaps. Careful notes keep you on track.

Follow paper trails – Search for legal documents, tax records, deeds, business licenses, or other paper documentation for additional clues.

Consult online communities – Discussion forums focused on investigative techniques can provide guidance on maximizing your web searches.


Key Differences

Now that you understand the basic pros and cons of each option, here is a recap of some key differences between private investigators and DIY searching:


Depth of Information

Online PIs access more in-depth information from non-public records and proprietary databases. DIY searches rely solely on public records and basic online data.

Objective Viewpoint

A private investigator offers an unbiased, neutral perspective. Your own involvement in a case makes it hard to be objective when doing your own sleuthing.

Time Investment

You’ll need to devote extensive time to do a thorough investigation yourself. A professional leverages skilled efficiency to uncover information faster.

Specialized Skills and Tools

Investigators possess specialized skills and industry tools you lack. Their expertise and technological resources yield better insights.


Additional Differences

  • Investigators have access to large networks of insider contacts and informants they can leverage for information. DIY searching relies solely on your own sleuthing efforts.
  • They are licensed and bonded professionals. There are no qualifications for doing your own searches.
  • Hiring a PI provides legal protection if questions arise later. You’re more legally vulnerable investigating on your own.
  • They have worked hundreds or thousands of cases. Most individuals lack comparable investigative experience.
  • They can provide expert consultation on the specifics of your case type. DIY searching requires figuring it out yourself.
  • Private investigators can take over if you hit dead ends in your own searching. If you get stuck, you either give up or start over.


Which Path is Best?

a wooden stamp with the word solved

In the end, choosing between hiring an online investigator versus taking a DIY approach comes down to your specific needs. Assess whether you require access to extensive databases, objective insights, and specialized skills. Or if you simply seek basic information you can uncover yourself with enough time and effort. Weigh cost and confidentiality considerations as well. With this detailed comparison as your guide, you can determine the ideal route to get the answers you need and crack your case. Trust your judgment to make the right call.


What kind of cases do online private investigators handle?
Private investigators take on all kinds of cases, from background checks to finding missing persons to gathering evidence for lawsuits and more. Their diverse expertise covers the full range of mysteries and information needs.
Look for investigators with backgrounds in law enforcement, forensic investigation, law or criminology. They should highlight Continuing Professional Education to showcase ongoing training.
Expect to pay $50-$100 per hour on average. Costs vary based on experience level, specialty, and case complexity. Define the scope upfront to estimate costs.
Experienced full-time private eyes can dig up intel within 24 hours in many cases. But complex investigations take more legwork and surveilling over time.
Yes, skilled investigators have access to databases and methodologies like reverse phone lookups to track down people who have gone off the grid, changed names, or relocated.
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