Private Investigation
Do your own investigation. Avoid scams. Live free.


Steps to Hiring a Private Investigator.

Need criteria by which to hire a PI?

Here's how to find one you can trust.

Steps to Hiring a Private Investigator

If you need to hire a PI, start with personal referrals from people you know who have used PI agencies in the past. If you don't know of anyone, ask for referrals from the duty agent of your local FBI, a clerk at your county's police department, the watch commander of the sheriffs department, investigators working at the District Attorney's office, or with criminal defense lawyers.

The difference between a good private investigator and a bad one is the difference between working with an ethical person who conducts business professionally and someone who may rip you off. The Yellow Pages directory is thick with PIs who will promise to conduct a marital surveillance on your partner. But once they have your money, they head straight to your husband or wife and offer to fabricate a "good report card" for $500.

The best way to find a PI is by referral. Has a trusted friend recently hired an investigator and was she happy with the results? If not, you'll have to start by preparing a list of prospective PIs. These sources are good starting points:

  • the duty agency of your local FBI;
  • a clerk at your county's police department;
  • the watch commander of the sheriffs department;
  • investigators working at the District Attorney's office;
  • criminal defense lawyers;
  • your state's association of private investigators. But this suggestion comes with a qualifier: State associations tend to recommend only members; PIs aren't obligated to belong to these associations and many of the good ones don't.

“Are you prepared for the truth the PI might uncover, the bad as well as the good news? Are you ready to follow through with the next step?”

A Checklist Of Qualities

A list of names is only the first step. Make sure they meet these criteria:


Since it's easier in some states for a person to call himself a private investigator, you don't want to rely merely on the title as a final qualification. A few states have no requirements-anybody can call himself an investigator and try to make a living at it. Other states demand very little to qualify; some allow people to be identified as a PI if they work exclusively with one attorney.

The majority of states, however, have specific requirements. In these states, PIs must have investigative experience. The amount of time required varies and may be reduced based on education.

Strict states, for example, may require 6,000 hours of field work, such as working with the police force, the FBI or another investigator. Also, the applicant must pass a state-administered test and pass a thorough background and fingerprint investigation. California is one of the most demanding states when it comes to approving private investigators.

Contact the licensing division of your state's Department of Consumer Affairs to learn your state's requirements and confirm that the PIs you're considering are indeed licensed.


What type of educational background do they have? In law enforcement? Private investigation? Do they have technical skills, such as computer savvy? In what area is their specialty? Are there areas in which they're inexperienced, such as computer security or polygraphs? Will this affect your needs?

Find out how many years they've been practicing and how many of their cases were like yours. How did those cases turn out?

Clean Record

Contact your state association of private investigators to see if any complaints have been registered or disciplinary actions filed against the investigator.

Good Character

What overall impression do you receive from this person? Is his first concern money? (Your needs come first.) Can you trust him? What are his thoughts on confidentiality? Has this person shown an ethical nature, a sense of decency?

While private investigators are not officially held to an attorney-client or doctor-patient level of confidentiality, a good PI will honor this. He will never surrender an informant or information, and will keep private everything shared between the two of you.

Some clients worry that their identities may be revealed if a PI is confronted by the person being investigated. A good PI would never disclose his client's name. This protects you. If the surveillance fails, you at least haven't suffered any repercussions because of it.

There are times, however, when a private investigator would want to let subjects know they're being investigated, such as in a pre-employment screening. This technique discourages applicants who have something in their backgrounds that would disqualify them.

Can Testify In Court

People with a law enforcement or federal agent background know the system and how to work within it. They can produce evidence or other legal materials that will hold up in court. They also are prepared to testify in support of it. Make sure the investigator you choose has this background. Ask if he is prepared to come to court if the situation requires it. Also find out if he has ever testified in a similar case and if there is anything in his past that could prevent him from taking the stand.

Remember, if your situation ends up in the court system, your case will be that much stronger if your PI is adept at testifying and presenting the information he's uncovered.

To be considered an expert and eligible to testify, a private investigator will be asked a series of qualifying questions by the judge that may focus on his background, education, experience and anything else that may determine if he's an "expert."

As in other situations, appearance is important. Is he well-groomed and professional looking? Would he command respect from a judge or jury?

Martin Investigative Services

Knows Human Nature

Knowing how to anticipate people, how to question them, and how to strategize based on what you learn are effectively valuable PI tools. While this experience in human nature may not compensate for a private investigator skilled with a computer, a good "people sense" makes a PI more effective III gathering and relaying information.

Works Out Of An Office

Scratch a PI off your list if he conducts business only at restaurants, by phone or through a mailbox address. Once you've handed him a payment, how do you know you'll be able to find him again?

An orderly office can also be a window into the degree of his professionalism.

Clearly Spells Out Fees

Right off, tell him what you want done and find out how much it will cost. He should be able to provide you with an accurate estimate and should ever exceed this amount unless you're notified beforehand.

Remember from Chapter Two that it's not expensive to locate people and assets. Many private investigators will have an office computer ready to tap into various databases. Their time and expertise may raise the fee, but locating people should generally cost around $70. A background investigation is about $300 to $400.

Has Good Rapport With You

Do you connect with the PI? Does he understand your situation? Does he maintain eye contact? Do you feel comfortable? You're trusting him with the confidentiality of your situation as well as the information he uncovers, which may affect many of the people closest to you. He should treat your case with sensitivity.

Is his conversation free of any patronizing or condescending remarks? Do you feel comfortable enough to ask all your questions? Are his answers satisfying? Do you leave the office with a sense of hope?

A good private investigator is as professional in the delivery of information as he is in gathering it. As his client, you should feel he is looking out for your best interests.

The First Meeting

What should you bring to the initial meeting? All relevant documents and information, and be prepared to summarize your needs. For example, Anna wants to have a surveillance conducted on her husband, Miles. For her consultation, Anna should provide an accurate description of him (bring a picture) and his car, as well as any significant addresses, such as his office, local hangouts, friends' houses, etc. We also request a twenty-four hour scenario-what is his typical day like?

Don't worry if you forget something. This is just the first step toward hiring someone. You're just gathering information about service, fees and the investigator himself. The investigator will walk you through the process and what he needs to do his job.

The initial consultation should be free, which will relieve the decision-making pressure. And you should feel comfortable giving yourself time to evaluate your needs with the new information you have gathered from your consultation. If you decide to use this particular agency, you will schedule a follow-up meeting to begin the process. You can provide the additional information at that time.

Final Thoughts

Making the decision to hire a private investigator can be emotional. Think about why you need one. Is it to uncover information? Always consider the possible outcomes. Are you prepared for the truth the PI might uncover, the bad as well as the good news? Are you ready to follow through with the next step?

Say you need facts about a romantic partner. What if what you learn is upsetting? Are you ready to have your suspicions confirmed? And if it concerns a husband or wife, are you willing to act on the information? Will you seek counseling or a divorce?

What if you want to find a lost relative? Maybe that person doesn't want to have a relationship with you. How will you respond?

Or are you researching a business investment? What will you do if you find out that it's fraudulent?

Hopefully, the results of hiring a private investigator will ease fears and answer questions. But if the opposite is true, prepare yourself. Use all your strength, self-esteem and self-respect to continue the process.

Remember that you can rely on a good private investigator. Besides handling the situation with professionalism, he may be able to refer you to a lawyer, doctor, therapist or other useful specialists. Also, remember that you're making the first step toward empowering yourself in order to resolve issues that may be preventing you from living happily. You deserve it.

Positive Candidates

  • Operate out of a professional office.
  • Are licensed.
  • No disciplinary actions or complaints have been filed against them.
  • Provide you with references and those references check out.
  • Have expertise in your area of need and have handled many similar cases.
  • Have law enforcement or FBI background.
  • Just feel like the right person.
  • Do not pressure you to "close the deal." They allow you time to make your decision and interview other candidates.
  • Offer a money-back guarantee.

A Final True-Life Story

Jim Delaney will attest to the wisdom of picking the right private investigator. Although there are hundreds of civil and criminal cases from which to choose, I chose Jim's story because he was one of my first clients. This is the first time I've spoken or written about Jim's case and I believe one day it, too, will be on television or made into a feature film (one of our cases previously was the basis for a CBS Made-for-TV Movie, "Highway Heartbreaker").

Jim was a banker by profession. Married, divorced and married a second time to Debra. From a previous marriage Debra had a daughter named Alexis. Life was grand for Jim and Debra living in a gated community. They had all the trappings one could ever dream about. Five years passed and the relationship soured.

Bound for divorce court is what Jim thought. Little did he dream he would be caught up in the criminal justice system.

On a sunny day in June 1981, Jim was arrested by a large contingent of law enforcement officers as he sat at work in a financial institution. The charges were the unthinkable: eighteen counts of child molestation, rape and oral copulation.

The victim, a 16 year-old stepdaughter named Alexis.

Jim went to trial, was convicted on all counts by a jury of his peers. He appealed the verdict and subsequently requested our assistance. In 1982, although I had heard of the case, I was unfamiliar with its intricate detail. Before I would accept the case I wanted to read the trial transcripts. Afterward, I met with Jim. I advised him that I believed he was guilty and to just save his money. He became even more insistent about his innocence. I remember thinking, almost every criminal client I have says they're not guilty. Jim was relentless and finally convinced me to just do a preliminary investigation.

The following six months turned both our worlds upside down. Among many other items, while interviewing a witness I was told that some personal effects of Alexis were left at her home. In them I found a diary. It was the first time that I saw the word "devirginated." Alexis had written that on August 16 "Brent" had devirginated her. If the entry date for August 16 was true, then Jim could not have committed some of the crimes as they had been alleged before that date.

I found Brent in Europe where he was stationed in the Army. Brent was, in fact, the star of Alexis' entry for August 16.

He confirmed that she often bragged that she set up her stepfather with her mother to obtain all the proceeds from the divorce. I later found additional evidence that was either hidden or not found in the course of the first investigation. We also determined that the prosecutor in this matter was dating Alexis, who was still a minor.

These are just a few of the numerous twists and turns that the investigation took over a long period of time. (We'll save many of the others for the movie or TV screen.)

Suffice it to say, we get a card during the holiday season - every year from Jim wishing our agency well and thanking us for our efforts. He often mentions the value of our investigation and how a PI turned his life around. In 1995 Jim called and wanted to have lunch. We hadn't seen each other in three years. The discussion turned to the sentence he had received in 1982. I reminded him that he would still be in prison had he not encouraged me to take the case. He somberly told me that he would not have been in prison but would have long been out many years ago. I was quite curious as to his reasoning. He said, "Someone accused of my crimes would have been carried out in a pine box many years ago."

“Patience and fortitude conquer all things.” Ralph Waldo Emerson