Researching Private Investigators? Read this First (2024)

You may be considering hiring a private investigator for a variety of reasons – whether it’s to investigate a potential cheating spouse, find a long lost relative, perform background checks on potential employees, or gather information for a legal case. With so many options for private investigator agencies available online, it can be overwhelming trying to determine which one is reputable, experienced, and able to provide you with the results you need. Follow this guide to learn what to look for when vetting and choosing the right online private investigator agency for your specific needs.


Define Your Needs

an investigator capturing images through a curtain

The first step is to clearly define the services you require from a private investigator. Knowing the specifics will help narrow down the agencies that have expertise in those particular types of investigations. Consider aspects such as:

  • Type of investigation – Do you need surveillance of a person or location? Background checks or computer forensics? Asset searches? Each agency specializes in different areas.
  • Location – If you need boots on the ground where the subject is located, choose an agency with investigators near that area. For online investigations, location may be less relevant.
  • Timeframe – What is the timeframe for completing the investigation? Shorter timelines may limit options.
  • Budget -Fees can vary greatly depending on the nature of the work. Define your budget needs to match with an agency’s rates.
  • Skill sets – Do you need investigators trained in performing surveillance with high-tech equipment? Or data analysts and computer experts to trace online activity and unearth records? Identify necessary skills.
  • Credentials – Certain types of investigations require licenses, bonds, insurance, and other credentials. Verify an agency has the proper credentials before hiring them.


By defining the parameters you need performed, you can better filter the choices down to firms that fit your criteria.


Research Companies

Once you know what you need, start researching agencies. Here are some tips for vetting them:

  • Browse online review sites – Don’t just rely on the agency’s own website. Look for third party review sites like Yelp or the Better Business Bureau to see impartial reviews from past clients. This can reveal potential red flags to avoid.
  • Check for licenses and credentials – Private investigators should have all required licenses and bonds for operating in their state. Make sure they have active, up-to-date credentials in good standing.
  • Look up their experience – Scan their website or ask the firm directly about specific experience with the type of investigation you need, as well as overall years in business. More experience is better.
  • Verify reputation – Search online to see if any complaints, lawsuits, or disciplinary actions have been filed against the agency. News reports can also reveal scandals if any.
  • Consider membership in associations – Many reputable firms belong to professional associations such as a state private investigators association or the National Association of Legal Investigators (NALI).
  • Compare rates – Compare rate structures from a few firms to gauge fair market prices. Beware unusually low fees which may indicate corner cutting.


Ask the Right Questions

a detective checking into another individual

Once you’ve narrowed your choice down, it’s time to ask direct questions to the investigators before making a hiring decision. As you can guess, key questions to ask:

  • How long have you performed this specific type of investigation? Look for expertise directly related to your particular needs.
  • Are you licensed for this work? Confirm they have the required licenses and credentials in your state to perform the work legally.
  • What are your fees and how do you structure billing? Get quotes in writing and find out what is included and not included in the fees.
  • What is your process for this investigation? Understand their methodology and process from start to finish.
  • How is confidentiality handled? Vet their processes for keeping your information private and secure throughout the investigation.
  • Can you provide references from past clients? Speaking with past clients can provide insights into their experience.
  • What differentiates you from competitors? Learn what sets them apart in experience, skill, and approach to investigations compared to others.


The responses to these will help determine if they are the right fit for you in terms of expertise, professionalism, and abilities to handle your specific investigation properly. Trust your instincts in choosing someone you feel confident in.


Understand the Contract Agreement

Before officially hiring, carefully review their contract agreement detailing the terms of service. Look for:

  • Clearly defined scope of work – The contract should specify exactly what services the investigator will perform for you. Leave no room for assumptions.
  • Service fees/Billing – Hourly rates, retainer fees, or flat project rates should be clearly spelled out. Understand what expenses are covered or billable.
  • Timeframe – Agree to a specific timeline for completing the work whenever possible, while allowing some flexibility.
  • Confidentiality clause – The contract should include non-disclosure agreements to protect your privacy.
  • Limited liability clause – This limits your liability in the event the investigator performs any illegal actions.
  • Termination rights – Understand conditions in which you or the agency can terminate the contract if needed.


Never sign a contract you are uncomfortable with.


Protect Your Interests

a detective using his phone while driving a vehicle

While most investigators conduct legal, responsible investigations, it pays to protect your own interests just in case. Here are some tips:

  • Don’t hire illegally – Avoid hiring an investigator to perform illegal actions like unauthorized wiretapping. Know your state laws.
  • Get status updates – Require regular progress reports so you can monitor the ongoing investigation.
  • Review documentation – Request to see documentation, photos, videos, or other evidence the investigator collects for your records.
  • Keep correspondence – Maintain records of all written and verbal communications with the investigator.
  • Ask about data privacy – Ensure any digital information provided to the investigator will be kept secure and deleted after completion.
  • Trust but verify – While necessary to trust him, verifying some aspects of their work helps you oversee the process.


Taking the right precautions will help ensure it is a smooth, legal, and successful engagement.


Make an intelligent choice

Choosing an agency finvolves careful research, asking the right questions, and reviewing contractual agreements. But ultimately, you have to rely on your judgment in making the decision. Pay close attention to these:

  • Do they have a professional manner, asking questions to fully understand my needs?
  • Does the investigator explain their process and pricing clearly with no high-pressure sales tactics?
  • Do I trust this person to handle sensitive aspects ethically and legally?
  • Do I feel confident this agency will conduct the investigation thoroughly and discreetly?


Understand Available Investigation Tools

a magnifying glass decorated with many icons

A benefit of hiring a professional is their access to in-depth tools you likely don’t have on your own. When interviewing firms, get an understanding of the types of resources they use. Some standard tools include:

  • Public records access – Investigators have paid subscriptions to databases not available to the public for obtaining records like vehicle registration, criminal records, litigation records, phone records, and more.
  • Specialized search engines – Specific search engines scour the deep web and dark web that normal search engines can’t access, useful for background checks or tracking online activity.
  • Social media monitoring – Investigators use fake profiles and specialized software to monitor social media activity while staying undetected. Useful for infidelity or child custody cases.
  • Surveillance cameras – Small, discreet cameras placed in strategic locations can silently record video evidence of subjects. Available as handheld, security cameras, drones, etc.
  • GPS tracking – Global positioning system trackers attached to a vehicle or carried by a subject allow remote monitoring of movements and location.
  • Communication interception – Under certain circumstances and following legal procedures, they can intercept phone calls, text messages, or computer activities.
  • Asset searches – Investigators use resources to research, locate and document a subject’s assets, useful in fraud or divorce cases.
  • Forensic analysis – With legal authority, digital devices can undergo forensic analysis to recover deleted data for evidence.


While you likely don’t have authorization to use invasive tools like phone tapping or GPS tracking, licensed PIs have the credentials and resources to employ them legally. Understanding their full arsenal will give you reasonable expectations.


Define the Final Deliverables

Discuss with your PI exactly what reports, documentation or other materials they will provide at the end of the investigation. Clearly defined expectations ensures you receive all the details you need:

  • Written reports summarizing findings
  • Collated public records such as criminal records, court documents, vehicle registrations, etc.
  • Transcripts of pertinent interviews conducted
  • Photographic evidence from surveillance activities
  • Video or audio recordings if legally obtained
  • Relevant pieces of correspondence such as emails
  • Forensic analysis reports from digital devices
  • Statements from testimony or affidavits
  • Assessment of strengths and weaknesses if case is going to court
  • Copies of investigator’s notes
  • Chains of custody for any evidence collected


Outline exactly what materials you expect to receive as well as the file format, print or digital. Verifying these means you get all relevant case files the investigator gathers during surveillance, searches, and other activities.


Understand Legal Limits

an image of a man using a computer with a warning icon on top

While seeking information, it’s important to be aware of legal limits on certain activities, even if their intentions are good. Some are unethical or outright illegal. A few key guidelines:

  • No wiretapping or bugging without a court order
  • No tracking vehicles without the owners consent
  • No physical trespass onto private property
  • No harassing or threatening to obtain info
  • No misrepresenting themselves to get confidential info
  • No searching privileged information between doctor/patient, attorney/client etc.


Additionally, evidence found through illegal means may be inadmissible in court. Beyond just ethics, violating these laws can open you up to criminal or civil charges for illegally obtained information. Make sure your investigator only follows above-board practices.


Maintain Ongoing Communication

Throughout the investigation, maintain an open channel of communication to get updates on progress, developments, or any obstacles.

  • Set a preferred frequency for updates such as weekly
  • Provide clear instructions on the channels to use – phone, email, etc.
  • Bring up any questions or concerns quickly
  • Give clear guidance if any change in scope or direction is needed
  • Avoid micro-managing details so investigator can work independently


Ongoing communication ensures both you and the investigator share expectations and handle challenges in a timely manner. It also builds transparency into the process so you aren’t kept in the dark on progress or setbacks.

By understanding the process, setting clear deliverables, outlining communication practices, and maintaining reasonable expectations, you can maximize the likelihood of a successful investigation that uncovers the details you are looking for. Go with your gut instinct when evaluating investigators. Knowing you’ve done thorough research and vetting provides added confidence you’ve made the right choice. With a reputable investigator on the case, you can get the answers, information, evidence, and results you seek.


Should I hire a local or national private investigator agency?
It depends on your needs. Local may provide better on-site boots-on-the-ground surveillance. National provides wider geographical resources. Discuss options with firms.
Review scope of work, fees, timeline, deliverables, confidentiality clauses, liability limits, and termination conditions before signing.
Reputable investigators will only operate within the law. Be wary of unethical tactics like unauthorized wiretaps or trespassing that could jeopardize your case.
You can terminate according to contract terms. But thoroughly vetting them upfront minimizes the chances of issues down the road.
Reputable investigators have access to certain databases not publicly searchable that can legally aid investigations when used properly.
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