How to hire a private investigator

magnifying glassThe chances are good that you'll never need the services of a private investigator, but if you ever do, hiring a good one is essential to getting the desired results. I have found that definitive guides on the matter are virtually nonexistent, so based upon my rather extensive elbow rubbing with the men (and ladies)in blue, I have created the following guidelines for hiring a private investigator to serve your investigative needs.

Define your need. Understanding the type of services that you need an investigator to perform will aid in finding your ideal detective. As with all other fields of endeavor, PI's each have their own specialties. I suggest that you draw up an outline of what services you seek, a rough time line within which you'd like to see specific results and the final resolution that you are seeking. Creating a mental picture of the experience as you would like it to turn out can help you to make it become a reality. Be realistic however, effective investigations can be extremely time and labor intensive. Define your needs, then begin your search.
Draw up a list of candidates. If you live in a large urban region, creating a list of potential PI candidates should be no problem. Your best source for local investigator names will probably be the phone book yellow pages. Look over the advertisements for indications of investigative specialties and years in the field. Make up a list of candidates to call, leaving spaces for notes between the names. You might also consider contacting your local chamber of commerce, local law firms or even your local police for the names of private investigators they might recommend. You can try to find a local PI by using the Internet, but I wouldn't recommend that. Any investigator that you'd want to work with will be in the phone book. Conversely, the Internet is ripe with fly-by-night operators.

Set up initial consultations. Use the process of phoning your candidates for an initial consultation as your first phase of investigative screening. You will be conducting a mini-investigation of your own. First, any investigator worth you time will meet with you for an initial consultation without charge. When you call, pay attention to some particular things. Is your call answered by a receptionist or secretary? Is your call answered by a machine? Are you sent directly to voice mail? Does the investigator answer his or her own calls? If you do have to leave a message, be brief, stating only that you need an investigator. Don't reveal details of your case. Make a note of when you left the message and pay attention to how long it takes for your call to be returned. Only make appointments for initial consultations with investigators who leave you with a positive impression on that first call.

Meet at their office. You always want your first meeting with an investigator to be in their own office. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, never have this initial consultation in your home. You want to get a good look at where your prospective hire operates. You want to get a look at the condition of his surroundings, his level of organization and to get a feel for his (or her) history and level of success. Former police officers generally make prime private investigators. Normally, if your candidate was a cop, you'll usually see clear evidence of that hanging on their walls. Look for plaques, certificates, citations, ribbons, patches and medallions. A picture of your interviewee shaking hands with the Governor can also be a very good sign. Take a look around their office for active computers. A good investigator will usually have one or two computers up and running at all times during working hours. If your prospective investigator seems to want your initial meeting to take place somewhere other than in front of their own desk, be very cautious about them.

Start by asking questions. Remember that at this stage you are the investigator. You are the prospective client and your needs come first. Many investigators will wrongly begin questioning you about the nature of your case at your initial consultation. Make it clear that you want to know about them before disclosing specifics about your case. Ask about the type of cases they deal with the most. Ask about cases they have successfully resolved. Ask about their connections within their field and with law enforcement. Ask them what they do all day. All good investigators are proud of the valuable services they provide and they will be happy to share their successes with you. Ask for a current list of references. A good investigator should have one ready for you even before you ask.

Judge their conduct. Look for direct eye contact, complete and concise answers, a forward posture, relaxed actions and controlled hands. Stay away from the investigator who leans back in their chair, throwing one leg over the other while breezily rattling off vague answers to your questions with their hands clasped behind their head. You want the person who leans forward on their desk with hands in front, while outlining exactly how they've helped people. Watch for open hand gestures with palms up. This can be the signal of a person who wants to serve you. Only after your potential investigator has truly impressed you as a person who can and will do the job, should you begin disclosing your details in a subsequent meeting.

Inquire about their fees. There are three general fee structures which private investigators use. The first is the straight hourly rate. This can be a dangerous scenario. Charges at hourly rates can be difficult to analyze to determine if you're getting proper service. If your prospect indicates that he bills by the hour, get clear and concise information about how he applies his time and how he itemizes this charges.

Many good investigators use what could be called landmark billing or task billing. Because investigations can often be taken many directions, some investigators will only charge you for prearranged tasks as they are completed. For instance, if you wanted to do a background check on a potential spouse, your investigator could just perform a credit check and criminal background check, and then bill you for those services. Then, if you decided that you wanted a disclosure of assets done, that could be handled and billed as a separate service. These types of billing schemes can work well and can be very cost effective by allowing you to tailor your service requests as you go.

The third billing service I'd look into is a flat fee for a stated goal. Let's say that your spouse made a hasty exit from the state with your Dodge Viper and you hire an investigator to get it back because you dearly loved that car and it's titled in your name. You and your investigator simply agree on a fee for recovering the car. When the Viper is back on your driveway, you cut him a check. If he can't recover the car, you owe him nothing.

In Conclusion: Most instances when you may need to hire a private investigator are stressful enough. Don't add to your burden by hiring someone who's not fit for the task. If you are in a position where you need the help of an investigative professional, be sure to put in the time and effort it may take to find the right one. Be diligent about the details and get plenty of input from friends, family and associates. Good investigators can sometimes be tough to find, but they're out there and they're nearly always worth the investment.

Gary Sattler is a freelance blogger and a former Wisconsin state certified humane officer.



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