How To Hire a Private Investigator
AKA: Five Ways To Spot a “Fake” vs. a Pro – UPDATED 2017
As professional private investigators in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego, we know that making a decision about hiring the right investigator can be difficult. Who do you know to to trust? Do reviews matter? How do you know if it’s a scam or not? What about “Online Backgrounds?” Do those really work?, etc.
While many PI’s have some form or another of the “How to Hire a Private Investigator” page on their website, they often overlook some of the more important factors of not only hiring a PI, but also how to spot an unprofessional one. Maybe because they don’t think much of it, but maybe…some of those factors might hit a little too close to home. We’re here to set the standard in this arena, once and for all, and that’s why we created this guide
P.S. – To all of our other “Investigator” colleagues, we’re sorry if any of this makes you uncomfortable, but the truth is the truth. This is how we make things better in our industry.
1. Are they licensed, and more importantly, does that license have issues?
Late in 2016, we discovered a licensed private investigator from a very well known company who had organized and staged a fake protest outside of our client’s home and offices to disrupt their lives and try and paint a negative public image of our client, one which was completely untrue, libelous and frankly….in the poorest of taste. This was not only unprofessional behavior, but directly against the BSIS code of conduct.
Not good. What’s next, are we going to send Johnny Knuckles to “teach em’ a lesson?” This isn’t mobster-LA in the 20’s. Those antics aren’t how business is done. Fortunately, those clowns get weeded out eventually, and thanks to the internet, there is a way to check.
This short tale should serve as a warning to the public that while licensure is not only required by the State of California and it is a serious crime to operate as an unlicensed investigator, even a licensed investigator may have been censured by the state and suspended or revoked for illegal or unethical behavior. You can check any investigator’s license by visiting the BSIS website. Our license number is CA187785 and you can check our history here.
The Bottom Line: Make sure they are licensed, and check their license for actions more suited for gangsters or circus clowns than professionally licensed private investigators.
2. How do they do business? (Payments and Contracts)
Unless the client requests to pay by wire, check or cash, all of our payments are taken securely by credit or debit card through LawPay, a highly trusted credit card processing agency specifically designed for attorneys doing business in the legal world. You must have a strong track record of payments and no chargebacks to be a part of the LawPay system.
If the private investigator you are hiring only takes cash, or asks you to use a less-than-professional payment system such as PayPal, Venmo, Square, or only takes cash, you are likely not dealing with a professional firm, and possibly even an unlicensed scam artist, with no access or experience to help you.
Contracts are another area where you can quickly spot a less-than-professional private investigator. First off, a private investigator MUST have a contract, and it must state what they are doing for you. If your private investigator offers to complete work on a “handshake deal” or “email confirmation”…run. That is not how any professional in the legal world does business. Also important to note is how are they engaging you with that contract? In 2017, every investigator worth their salt should be operating in the digital landscape, and getting contracts signed with a professional digital signature company.
Our firm, Justice Solutions Group, uses DocuSign, which has been around for many years and is the #1 recognized secure digital signature platform. It is accepted in nearly every legal business and contractual setting, and is the gold-standard for digital signatures. If a private investigator is not using a reputable digital signature company to have you sign your contract, and is instead asking you to print them out from your email, sign them, scan them, or even worse…FAX them (what year are we in again?), again…it’s probably time to run. Quickly.
If they are not using digital signatures it’s generally for one of two reasons.
A. They are cheap and don’t want to pay for it.
B. They don’t know how they work and are afraid of them, or worse, don’t know that they exist.
Either scenario should make you generally uncomfortable, as we suspect that no one woke up this morning and exclaimed “You know, I really want to hire a professional investigator who is out of touch, doesn’t understand technology, and cuts corners wherever they can.”
Sad, but true. The lesson?
Be cautious of those who have not taken the time to operate in the open with integrity and.or obtain the correct payment system or that don’t have the right contract system in place for their business. It should tell you a lot about who you are working with.
The Bottom Line: Don’t do business with anyone who only takes cash, know where/how you are giving someone your credit card information, and make sure they have a contract and they are getting it signed with a digital signature company, not smoke signals.
3. What is their experience and expertise with the type of case you need help with?
Many investigators are former police officers from agencies such as LAPD, Orange County Sheriff’s, San Diego PD or other local agencies. But will that help you? One of our owners, Josh Chandler is a former police officer with the Department of Defense, and that gives him some amount of depth of knowledge as well as connections that are important to clients, but it’s also important to know that he has investigated civil claims and family law investigations for a majority of his investigative career.
Why does that matter?
Because a retired police officer that spent thirty years on the force may be great at criminal law and may have some solid life advice, but may or may not have a serious depth of understanding of civil liability or family law or the evidence rules surrounding both if they spent their career putting people in jail. It’s not a slight against him, but background is important. Take time to ask questions of an investigator’s background and make sure that the experience matches up with what you need.
Also: A smart investigator asks for help when needed.
Every private investigation company in Southern California is going to have specialties, and if they are good private investigators, will have partners within the industry they can call on to help their clients when it is outside of their specialty scope.
Networking is critical in this business.
There is no one-size fits all private investigator that knows everything about all types of cases. Our firm focuses on five main categories: civil law and liability, family law and child custody, asset investigations, background checks, surveillance and difficult locates/missing persons. Often, we can help with many other areas of investigations, but if the case requires expertise in something we are not deeply familiar with, or a certification that we don’t have, that is when we bring in a partner from another firm to help.
The Bottom Line: Make sure you have the right investigator with the right experience for the job. One size does not fit all.
4. Can they show you an example of their work?
This is as they say “where the rubber meets the road”.
It is critical that when hiring a private investigator, they are able to provide clear examples of their work product. This is especially important when the evidence and reporting they may be providing will be going to court to defend you and your position before a judge or jury.
If you are going to be spending a significant amount of money on a private inves investigator, don’t hesitate to ask for a sample work product that has been redacted for privacy. If an investigator cannot provide a sharp-looking report free of spelling and grammatical errors, it’s probably time to get a second opinion from another investigator.
If an investigator says that they cannot provide a sample report because of privacy, that is inaccurate and/or misleading. Almost any report can be redacted, edited, and re-written without any kind of identifying information to ensure the privacy of their clients or exposing them to liability.
The Bottom Line: Spelling is important in court proceedings. Grammar is important must in court proceedings. Details are critical. Being able to cobble together a coherent report isn’t a nice “extra” it’s a necessity.
5. Do they understand technology, and have the right equipment (and access) to handle the job?
Every good private investigator should be a little bit of a nerd.
There, we said it. It may not be popular with those who want to continue to provide the perception that we are all silent disgruntled old cops wearing trenchcoats and lurking in a dark alleyway, but let us explain:
Good private investigators are gearheads. What do we mean by that? They obsess about their craft and the leverage that good “gear” AKA technology gives them to do their job and get results for their clients. Everything from cameras to computers, to stuff you have never even thought of.
Trust us: being a bit of a nerd/gearhead and knowing what’s in your bag and how to deploy it properly can make all the difference.
Cameras. Your private investigator should have cameras. Lot’s of them. All shapes and sizes and zoom lengths, etc. They should have low light ones and long range ones, and fixed ones that can be left and video cameras galore.
Never mind GPS devices (we have three kinds) or Drones. (And yes, I said DroneS, plural…we have a family of them.) Binoculars and rangefinders and bluetooth gadgets galore. Yes….they are amazing, and we can tell you about each one and how they may help you in your case.
This gear will have cost your investigator thousands of dollars. It should be able to be listed off to you at the drop of a hat with an excitement that is only usually reserved for speaking about one’s children, because to the investigator…gear is gold. We’re stoked to use it, and love talking about it.
Now on to information:
Equally important is access to proprietary databases and human intelligence. This again, is one of those things that we are going to explain in simple fashion.
Good databases aren’t cheap. And human intelligence is even less-cheap.
So if you get a P.I. whose price continues to plunge as you say no, beware. We know our margins and what it takes us to run a GOOD business, and that means paying for information. Quality information is our lifeblood, and where and how we get it is the difference between success for our clients and failure on the mission.
PI’s can get access to databases if they apply for them, and meet certain requirements. There are some traditional ones out there that make sense for PI’s to have, and others that are useless…being practitioners of our craft, we know the difference. And we pay for the premium stuff.
Let’s also be very clear: Good PI’s are spies. Good spies don’t tell you what you don’t need to know.
That means we have ways of getting information and sources others don’t because…information is our mission. That’s the only ‘cloak and dagger’ nonsense you will get from us, but it’s true. Connections are everything in life, and in this business…that rule applies ten-fold.
But don’t let any other PI tell you they have a bunch of connections to get things that sound impossible, just to separate you from your money. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Other Technology Warning Signals (In no particular order)
If a PI’s website looks like it was built during the Clinton administration, and has things like a spinning logo of a magnifying glass, they are likely cheap, don’t care about their business, and/or are asleep in their lazy-boy with a warm beer in their hand. In either case, it’s a no-go.
If they don’t have some kind of video or at least decent pictures of themselves on said website, they may not own a camera or how to operate one…usually a prerequisite for PI’s.
If they don’t have a toll-free number, they probably have no clue they can get one, or are too cheap to have one.
If the owner touts his/her tv appearance from a million years ago on “Geraldo” or some cable news show, they are probably no longer running the business. Even scarier, they actually still may be running the business….
If they go by a nick-name of “Chip” or “Doc” or “Bloodhound” or some other moniker from an 80’s sitcom, it is likely they don’t have a clue what they are doing. Just take it from us.
If they use an @yahoo or @gmail address as a professional address, they don’t know how to get email for their business, or again…are too cheap.
And last but not least….
Pictures of them in actual trenchcoats and fedoras. (we haven’t seen this in years, but if you find one, please let us know)
The Bottom Line: If your PI using VCR Camcorder from 1989 for surveillance, or the newest news-reel footage you can find of them is from 1989…maybe take a second and shop around. Technology is critical, and an understanding of it is critical as well. PI’s need to keep up.
So That’s It.
Congratulations, you made it to the end. We hope this guide helped, and entertained a bit. We want you to make the best decision possible when hiring a private investigator, and we hope this guide was a valuable part of that decision.
Questions? Comments? Concerns? Send us a note anytime by using our contact form below.
We would love your feedback on this article and how we can make it better.
The Boys at Justice Solutions Group