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In today's world private investigators are not found in dingy lit bars or all night diners. Modern day investigators do not resemble Hollywood characters like Jim Rockford, Joe Mannix, Frank Cannon, or Barnaby Jones (if you are too young to remember these characters, just Google them). When the situation calls for it, a good private investigator will don a disguise or pretend to be someone they are not, but in most cases a good modern day private investigator prefers to be inconspicuous and blend in with the surroundings. After all, who would suspect that the portly middle aged guy in Crocks and carrying a grocery bag that looks like it is about to break open, or the lady pushing a baby stroller, is actually a private investigator armed with a miniature surveillance camera?
As a licensed private investigator and someone who has been conducting investigations for more than 30 years, I will attempt to provide not only advice on how to select a good investigator, but information on how you can control the costs associated with an investigation and ensure that you get the best value for your money.
Here are some things you should consider when selecting an investigator:
With the exception of Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Wyoming, all states require some sort of license before someone can solicit business as a private investigator. In my home state of Oregon, all private investigators must be licensed. To obtain a license the applicant must pass a state administered competency test, have professional recommendations, be free from disqualifying criminal history, and pass a thorough background and fingerprint investigation.
Before you do anything else, first check to make sure that the investigator you are considering has a current valid license issued by the state they are working in.
You can ask to see a copy of the investigators license, but in most states you can verify an investigator's license online. In Oregon this can be accomplished by visiting: http://dpsstnet.state.or.us/IRIS_PublicInquiry/PrivateInvestigator/smsgoperson.aspx. In many states, like in my home state of Oregon, a licensed investigator is also required to display their license at their primary place of business. While not required in many states, if the investigator has a website, their license should be displayed on the website for all to see.
Private Investigation is a Business
People become private investigators for many reasons, but understand that every private investigator is operating a for-profit business. They depend on paying clients to make a living and some private investigators do everything they can to "sell" a client and maximize their profits. You should be leery of private investigators who talk like a salesperson or who make enthusiastic promises. Because, in the investigation business, few things can be "guaranteed" and there are very few absolutes.
In Oregon, where I am licensed, state law (Oregon Revised Statute 703.450(8)) requires private investigators to offer a written contract to all potential clients. Even if you are not in a state that requires the investigator to offer a written contract it is a good idea. A written contract lets each party know what to expect and holds all parties accountable. If the investigator you are considering does not offer you a written contract, ask for one. If the investigator does not have one to offer or does not think it is necessary, you may not want to do business with them. In Oregon you should not even have to ask for a written contract - it should be proffered by the investigator right from the start.
When the investigator provides you with a written contract look it over carefully. Especially look to see if all costs are clearly spelled out. Some things to look for include:
Is the hourly rate clear?
Are investigative objectives adequately defined in the contract?
Will the investigator be billing you for conferences, emails, or telephone calls? If it appears there is no charge for conferences, emails, or telephone calls, is there a limit on the number? You want to be free to contact your investigator at any time and have your investigator respond in a timely manner and not be charged extra for this.
Will the investigator be billing you for working more than eight hours in a day?
Is there an extra charge for working on weekends or holidays?
If the contract says you will be billed for "expenses" are the expenses adequately explained?
Can you stop the investigation at any time?
If you have paid a retainer and you stop the investigation, is the balance of the unused retainer completely refundable?
A written contract for services should clearly delineate the rights of both parties. If you feel the contract is designed to protect the rights of the investigator over your best interests, do not sign the contract and find a different investigator.
If the investigator does not give you plenty of time to review the contract and think everything over (days or weeks if that is what you need), seek out a different investigator. If you feel the investigator is trying to "slick-talk" you into getting started "right away," think twice before signing a contract. ALL investigations should be started when you are ready - not when the investigator wants to start making a paycheck.
If you tell the investigator you need some time to think about it, and the investigator keeps calling you like a used car salesman, you know that the investigator is either very desperate for any business or the investigator is trying to pressure you into hiring them so they can start making money. Neither of these scenarios are a good sign.
Be cautious when using credit cards to pay for investigative services. Credit cards are convenient and a legitimate way of paying for almost everything, but if an investigator seems over anxious to get your credit card billed, this is not a good sign. Some very successful investigators, especially those with corporate clients, do not even accept credit cards.
A good investigator will discuss your investigative needs upfront and give you several options to achieve your goals. The investigator should be candid and give you straight-talk. As the client you should feel like you are always in control of the investigation - after all, you are the "employer." If a full investigation is not warranted, instead of taking your money the investigator should propose less expensive options or no investigation at all.
If you ever meet an investigator who says he or she can conduct your investigation but the odds of accomplishing what you want done is low and they recommend against a full scale investigation, you know you have found an honest investigator who is not just interested in billing you for a lot of hours. This does not mean that you should not investigate things that have a low probability of success, because one never knows where an investigation can lead. It just means that you are making an informed decision and know what you are getting into.
How experienced is the investigator? Where did the investigator get his or her experience? Is the experience they are claiming easily verifiable? Former law enforcement investigators are often highly sought after as private investigators because most of them (especially those who worked for larger departments as opposed to small cities where major crimes are infrequent) have extensive training and real life day-to-day experience doing the things that private investigators frequently do. They are experienced in collecting and analyzing fragmented data, identifying, collecting, and evaluating evidence, interviewing and taking statements from individuals, conducting surveillance, working undercover assignments, cultivating informants, searching databases, interacting with diverse individuals - often under difficult and emotional circumstances, etc.
This does not mean that everyone who has ever worked in law enforcement automatically makes a good investigator and that someone without law enforcement experience cannot be a good investigator, but why take chances? Why spend your hard earned money letting someone "learn-on-the-job?" If a person has a successful record in Federal or local law enforcement investigating major and minor crimes, day-in and day-out, there is a very good chance he or she is well qualified to handle your case.
Additionally, persons with a law enforcement background know the criminal justice and legal system. They understand human nature. They know how to approach people and how to talk to them so that often the person does not even realize the real reason they were questioned.
Most experienced law enforcement investigators also have extensive experience testifying in court. Through training and experience they have learned how to write comprehensive investigative reports that will withstand the scrutiny of opposing counsel and they can confidently and persuasively present evidence to a judge or jury. This is not important in every private investigation, but if there is any possibility that your case could end up in the courts someday, your case will be much stronger if the investigator is experienced and skilled in court testimony.
Do not be shy about asking what type of formal education the investigator has. Scholastic credentials alone do not make someone an outstanding investigator, but it does count for something. There is a reason the FBI, considered to be the world's premier investigative agency, requires a minimum of a Bachelors degree and seeks out recruits with law and other advanced degrees. Persons who have formal education, especially in the field of law, have demonstrated that they possess good analytical skills, know how to assimilate large amounts of information, know how to manage deadlines, and understand the nuisances of the law and how it relates to investigations. An investigator who has a good balance of academic achievement and practical experience gives you the best of both worlds. That is one reason many former FBI agents have been very successful in the private investigation business.
So you find someone who is licensed, has considerable training and real-life investigative experience, has demonstrated academic acumen, offers clear and reasonable and fees, and does not give you the high-pressure sales pitch. But there are also the intangible qualities.
How well do you connect with the investigator? Do you feel the investigator truly understands your situation and genuinely wants to help? Are your conversations with the investigator free of any denigrating or patronizing remarks? Do you feel comfortable sharing your most sensitive and personal information with this person?
When you hire an investigator the investigator should always treat you with empathy and sensitivity. After all, you are sharing personal and confidential information, often under a stressful situation, and you are trusting that the investigator will ALWAYS keep the information discovered confidential.
Look for an investigator who understands his or her position in the community. While not many investigators perform Pro Bono work or offer services based on one's ability to pay (remember, this is a for-profit business), some do. Some of the best investigators understand that being a licensed private investigator is a privilege - not a right. They understand that sometimes providing pro bono services or offering reduced fees for people who truly have an important investigative need and have limited ability to pay is just the right thing to do.