How to Hire a Private Investigator

Before hiring a Private Investigator for a video surveillance, make sure that you ask some important questions:

  1. Is the investigative agency licensed in the state where they are operating?

Almost every state requires that a private investigation company have a state private investigator license. Ask the Private Investigator what state government organization does the licensing for the state where you desire to have a surveillance conducted. Also, ask for the Private Investigator’s state license number. A legally licensed Private Investigator will give you his state license number willingly and will also tell you how long they have been licensed. After speaking with the Private Investigator, who you are considering hiring, take the time to call the licensing organization for the state and make sure that the private investigator license is currently valid. For a start, if you’re looking to hire a PI for proof of infidelity, contact Are You Cheating.

The fact that an Investigator has a big ad in the Yellow Pages or on the Internet doesn’t necessarily mean that they are licensed by the state.


  1. What if the investigative company is licensed, but the person who will be doing the surveillance isn’t personally licensed?

Most of the time, this means that the person doing the surveillance doesn’t have enough experience to qualify for their own private investigator license, so they work for an investigative agency as an employee to get the necessary hours of experience to get their own PI license. In other words, you could be paying top dollar for an investigative agency’s name, but the work is being performed by a trainee, who hopes to be a real Private Investigator one day, after having acquired enough private investigator training.

Rule of Thumb: Request that a state licensed Investigator do the surveillance or hire another company.

  1. How much do Investigators charge?

Fees charged by Private Investigators are not regulated in most states, so it’s best to check with a couple of companies. In Los Angeles County Investigator fees range from $40 to $85 per hour per Investigator and sometimes more. Normally, Private Investigators require a retainer for their services prior to starting an investigation, which can range from $90 to $1000 depending upon the specific case. Personally I charge $45/hour, billed from when I depart the office until I return to the office.

Rule of Thumb: Purchase between 4 and 10 hours of surveillance time to start with and see how the case develops. Usually Investigators can give you a better idea of the chances of success after a few hours of actual surveillance at a specific location.

  1. Are there ever any extra expenses?

Generally, you are billed for any expenses incurred during the course of the investigation. For example, some Private Investigators charge fifty cents for every mile driven, while others include mileage in their hourly fee. Perhaps the Investigator must get a motel for one night to accomplish to surveillance successfully. In this case the Investigator should inform the Client in advance if possible.

Some don’t charge extra expenses, unless authorized in advance by the Client.

Rule of Thumb: Inquire what added expenses that you might expect to pay before hiring the Private Investigation company.

  1. Is there a minimum fee charged for each surveillance operation?

Some Private Investigators have a minimum fee for each surveillance attempt. If the Private Investigator’s minimum fee is 4 hours per surveillance attempt and the Private Investigator only works for one hour, you must pay for 4 hours of surveillance for that particular day.

Personally, I charge 1 hour as a minimum for each surveillance attempt, which I consider to be reasonable.

Rule of Thumb: Don’t hire an Investigator, who has a 4-hour minimum, because your retainer will be used very quickly, most times.

  1. What about paying the Private Investigator “half now and half when the job is done?”

This is done in the movies, but in real life, it’s not likely to happen. If a Private Investigator is willing to agree with these terms, they are generally inexperienced or in desperate need of money. Neither scenario is good. Payment in advance is a customary request among Private Investigators.

Rule of Thumb: Purchase between 4 and 10 hours of surveillance time to start with and see how the case develops. Usually Investigators can give you a better idea of the chances of success after a few hours of actual surveillance at a specific location.

  1. What’s better evidence, a picture from a camera or videotape from a camcorder?

A picture is worth a thousand words, but a video is worth a thousand pictures. Videotape captures twenty-eight or thirty-two pictures a second, which more realistically shows what is actually happening in a particular situation. An individual picture can be taken out of context and give a false impression of what’s actually occurring. Picture cameras are very sensitive to lighting conditions and small movements of the Investigator, especially when using a zoom lens. This will produce a blurred image. With a camcorder, using videotape, lighting conditions and image stabilization can be controlled automatically. Camcorders almost always have a time/date stamped onto the videotape, whereas picture cameras generally do not. In addition videotape can always be imported into a computer, where it is possible to view each frame individually.

Rule of Thumb: Camcorders with videotape are better than still picture cameras.

  1. Since you can’t actually supervise the Investigator’s activities, while on surveillance, how do you know he can be trusted?

You have no way of knowing if you can trust your private investigator or not. Request that the Private Investigator take some time/dated videotape when arriving at the surveillance location and at least once an hour, thereafter, if there is no activity at the location. Of course, times/dates can be altered on a camcorder, but altering shadows cast at different times of the day are difficult to manipulate. At night the moon can often be videotaped against a foreground of a large object, like a tree or telephone pole. Also, videotape can be taken of general events in the neighborhood, such as local residents coming and going throughout the course of the night. If you are being charge mileage, request that the Private Investigator videotape their beginning and ending odometer mileage for the surveillance.

Rule of Thumb: If the Private Investigator is not willing to do these things, find another Investigator.

  1. What if the Private Investigator loses the person being followed or is caught while following someone?

Losing someone is an event, which can always happen during surveillance, because there are many factors beyond the Investigator’s control. Losing someone is always preferable to being discovered. Watch out for Investigators who says they never lose anyone. If they are telling you the truth, they also get caught fairly often. Getting caught is not a chance an Investigator can afford to take. Its best for a Private Investigator to terminate surveillance, if there is a reasonable possibility that the person being followed suspects he is being followed. Trainee Investigators, who only get paid when they are actually following someone, are more likely to take a chance of being caught. As a result they are the ones most often caught.

Rule of Thumb: Try to find a small Investigative Company, where the owner does his own work, like MYSELF.

  1. If you give the Investigator $500 and they catch the person after using only $200 of your money, what happens to the remaining $300?

Ask first because some Private Investigators don’t give refunds. They may say their policy is to give you a $300 credit for future services, which in reality, you may never use for the rest of your life.

Rule of Thumb: Ask before hiring the private investigator.

  1. What happens to your money, if you give an Investigator the retainer and then you later change your mind about conducting the surveillance? (Example: the person being followed dies in a car accident the day after you pay the retainer)

There are many events that can cause a person to have second thoughts about conducting the surveillance.

Rule of Thumb: Ask before hiring the Private Investigator.

  1. What if the Investigator reacts defensively or is generally evasive or rude, when asked important questions about your case?

Rule of Thumb: Find another Private Investigator.

  1. What happens if you schedule surveillance, but then find out at the last minute that you must cancel the surveillance?

Some Investigators charge a cancellation fee and others do not. Personally, I don’t usually charge for a last minute cancellation.

Rule of Thumb: Ask before hiring the private investigator.

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