Top 10 Mistakes to Avoid When Hiring a Private Investigator (2024)

So you’ve decided to hire a private investigator (PI). Maybe you suspect your spouse is cheating, or you need help tracking down a long-lost relative. Whatever the reason, it is a big decision that requires care and planning. Make the wrong choice, and you could end up wasting time and money or even compromising your case.

a detective taking pictures from his car

To help you avoid common pitfalls, here are the top mistakes people make when hiring a private investigator and how to steer clear of them:


Hiring the First PI You Find

The temptation can be strong to go with the first investigator you come across, whether it’s from a quick online search or a recommendation from a friend. But hiring the first one without doing your due diligence is a recipe for disaster.

Each PI and investigation agency has different backgrounds, skills, and areas of expertise. While one may excel at surveillance for infidelity cases, another may be better suited to financial investigations or tracking down missing persons.

  • Take the time to research PIs in your area, looking at their specific experience, credentials, specialties, and case studies.
  • Vet several potential candidates before deciding. Compare factors like their time in business, reputation, and pricing.
  • Ask for referrals from attorneys, business owners, or friends who have hired PIs before.
  • Go with your gut; choose someone you feel comfortable with and can trust. Don’t just default to the first name on your list.


Not Checking References and Reviews

Always ask for references from past clients and reviews from independent consumer sites. A truly reputable investigator will have a long trail of positive references and reviews that back up their claims.

Some warning signs when checking references and reviews:

  • Their references are sparse or nonexistent.
  • The few reviews you find are mostly negative.
  • They seem reluctant to provide references.
  • They only provide references from people you can’t verify are real past clients.


An investigator who skimps on the reference front likely has something to hide, whether it’s shoddy work or lack of experience. Find one who is proud to show off their satisfied customers. Speaking directly to past clients can give you invaluable insight into their work ethic, discretion, and success in resolving cases similar to yours.


Not Asking About Their Background and Qualifications

a magnifying glass decorated with many icons

Dig into a prospective PI’s professional background, training, and qualifications. Being licensed in your state is a must, as is bonding and insurance. Look for membership in professional associations like the National Association of Legal Investigators or ASIS International. Formal education in criminal justice or investigations is a plus.

Ask specifically about:

  • Years of experience conducting the types of investigations you need.
  • Their license number and standing—verify it’s active and in good standing.
  • What professional standards and ethics guidelines they follow.
  • Ongoing training and education.
  • Specializations and certificates.
  • Which types of cases they commonly handle.
  • Background in law enforcement, military service, or related fields.


Their answers will help you gauge if they have the right mix of formal training and real-life experience for your case. Those with the deepest knowledge and qualifications will give you confidence they can handle the twists and turns of a real investigation.


Not Being Clear About Your Goals and Expectations

To get the best results, you must be crystal clear about what you’re hiring them to do. Define your specific goals and expectations upfront before signing any contract.

  • Explain exactly why you need a PI and what questions you need answered.
  • Discuss what evidence you hope to obtain.
  • Outline what your budget constraints are.
  • Ask what methods they will use so you understand their approach.
  • Set clear timelines for reports and updates.
  • Confirm what is within bounds legally and ethically.
  • Keep an open line of communication.


Setting explicit expectations avoids confusion down the line. It also ensures the PI focuses their time and resources efficiently on the information you actually need. Being opaque about your goals means you are more likely to be disappointed with the end results.


Hiring a Jack of All Trades PI

A female investigator takes a photograph behind a parked car.

Some investigators advertise themselves as a jack of all trades, able to expertly handle every type of case imaginable. But having such broad expertise across all areas, from infidelity to corporate fraud, is unrealistic at best.

Instead, look for a PI experienced specifically in cases like yours, whether it’s:

  • Marital investigations: – An expert in surveilling spouses suspected of cheating.
  • Background checks – Focused on thoroughly vetting individuals and companies.
  • Financial crimes – Trained to follow paper trails and uncover hidden assets.
  • Missing persons – Equipped with databases and contacts to track people down.


Their niche experience translates to deeper knowledge of the best practices and approaches for your type of case.


Choosing the Cheapest Option

This isn’t the time to bargain hunt. The lowest hourly rate or flat fee estimate likely signals a PI who is:

  • Inexperienced
  • Uses subpar tools and methods
  • Takes on too many cases, spreading themselves thin
  • Cuts corners that compromise cases


A top-tier PI has earned their higher rates through hard-won experience, cultivation of professional contacts, and investment in state-of-the-art equipment and proprietary databases. They focus on quality over quantity.

Evaluate cost against expected value, not just price. The most reputable one delivers expertise, rigor, and discretion that outweigh sticker shock. In investigations, you often get what you pay for; the cheapest option is rarely the best.


Not Using a Written Service Agreement

Always – always – use a written service agreement when working with a PI. Verbal agreements leave too much open to interpretation and problems down the line.

Ensure the agreement spells out:

  • Clear scope of work
  • Itemized fee structure – hourly, flat rate, or retainer
  • Expenses that will be billed – databases, mileage, etc.
  • Timelines and payment schedules
  • Usage rights for any reports, videos, or other evidence collected
  • Confidentiality and data privacy stipulations
  • Non-compete clauses
  • Key contacts and points of contact


Treat this as an enforceable legal contract; have an attorney review it if needed. A reputable Investigator will ensure professional standards are adhered to through a solid service agreement. No paperwork means no accountability if things go south.


Micromanaging Every Step of the Investigation

a man using his phone while driving a vehicle

A common mistake clients make is trying to control or observe every move during an active case. But constantly looking over their shoulder can seriously hinder their work and effectiveness.

  • Avoid calling for constant status reports. Give them room to work.
  • Don’t insist on being copied on emails/texts or viewing surveillance in real-time.
  • Don’t accompany them on stakeouts or interviews.
  • Let them follow leads as they see fit without second-guessing every step.


You are hiring an experienced professional; trust their methods and allow them to work independently. If you lack confidence in their competency, you may have the wrong investigator. Mutual trust is key, so communicate your goals and requirements upfront, then take a step back.

Of course, expect regular case updates and reports based on your service agreement. But don’t demand a blow-by-blow account of their process. Focus on outcomes and let them focus on executing a sound investigation strategy.


Withholding Vital Information

For your PI to succeed, you must be totally upfront about all details relevant to your case, even if embarrassing or sensitive. Withholding or lying about pertinent facts hamstrings their ability to investigate effectively.

Be open about:

  • Why you suspect your spouse is cheating or embezzling. What led to those concerns?
  • Where you think a missing person may have gone. Their known contacts or hangouts.
  • Addictions, mental health issues, or past crimes that may be factors.
  • Financial situation: assets, debts, expenditures, income sources, and more.


You are entrusting him with sensitive aspects of your personal life. Being forthright allows them to pursue the most fruitful avenues using their best judgment. Dishonesty results in time wasted chasing dead ends or drawing inaccurate conclusions. Tell the full truth, or the investigation will likely fail.


Wanting Guaranteed Outcomes

Clients often want ironclad guarantees of specific investigation outcomes—a smoking gun video of their spouse’s affair or bank records proving embezzlement. But legitimate PIs will never promise particular results or evidence beforehand. Investigations are inherently unpredictable.

Their role is to pursue every legitimate avenue available to get to the truth, wherever that may lead. While they may estimate the likelihood of uncovering certain information based on experience, making definitive guarantees is unethical and counterproductive.

Focus discussions on their capabilities, strategies, and track record with similar cases. Then let them apply their expertise as situations develop on the ground. If guarantees are given, that’s a huge red flag about their integrity. Face the uncertainty and hire someone ready to diligently work to uncover the truth.


Understand Restrictions Around Surveillance

an investigator capturing images through a curtain

Surveillance laws vary between states and locations. Be clear on legal limitations including:

  • If two-party consent is required for recorded conversations.
  • When a warrant is needed for video monitoring or tracking devices.
  • Restrictions on placing cameras in non-public areas like backyards.


An ethical PI only uses above-board practices. Ensure you agree on boundaries so surveillance yields admissible evidence.


Define Deliverable Standards Upfront

Leave no question as to what the PI owes you in terms of reports, media, documentation, and other deliverables. Requirements may include:

  • File formats, organization, and detail level of written reports.
  • High-resolution settings, discreet angles, and time stamps on photos or video.
  • Regular case updates by phone, email or in-person meetings.
  • Affidavits swearing to the authenticity and chain of custody of evidence.


Don’t Forget About the Follow-Up

Their job doesn’t end once the findings are delivered. You may need them to:

  • Testify at hearings or trials down the road if a case goes to court.
  • Conduct follow up interviews to clarify or expand on evidence.
  • Tie up loose ends that emerge as the case progresses.


Discuss their role, if any, after the initial investigation concludes and expectations are met.


Final Thoughts

a wooden stamp with the word solved

Hiring a private investigator is a major decision that requires care and discretion. Without the right partner, you risk wasting time, money, and confidential information or even jeopardizing your case. By avoiding the common mistakes outlined here, you can find the most qualified investigator to partner with on your sensitive case.

Do your homework to identify someone experienced specifically in your type of investigation. Vet them thoroughly, align expectations, and let them do their job without micromanagement. Be transparent about the details they need to succeed. And realize that while guarantees are impossible, an expert PI will tirelessly pursue every lead and piece of evidence possible.

Your chances for a successful outcome rise exponentially when you steer clear of these pitfalls. With the right professional on the case—one who earns your trust and proves their capabilities—you gain the insights and peace of mind that come with knowing you have a skilled specialist dedicated to progressing your investigation and uncovering the truth.


Does licensing guarantee a PI is reputable?
Licensing sets a minimum standard but doesn’t guarantee quality. Vet background, experience, and reputation carefully.
You can agree on regular case update timing in your service agreement, but avoid constant micromanaging.
Ask about years in field, types of cases handled, specific training, certifications, and investigative specialties.
Being fully transparent with your PI about details and suspicions is vital, even if embarrassing or sensitive.
PIs must adhere to laws on areas like trespassing and recording consent that vary between states.
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