What do private investigators do?
How much do your services cost?
Will you break the law for me?
These are just a few of the questions first-time clients ask me. And here are my answers.
I get lots of calls from people who are contacting a private investigator for the first time in their lives. Often, early in the conversation, they say something like this: “I never thought I’d need a private investigator. I’m not sure how this works. Am I doing something wrong by contacting you? It’s not illegal is it?”
Many people don’t really understand how we operate. I’ve encountered prospective clients who think we have police-like powers (we don’t), people who want me to give them legal advice (I can’t), and even people who think I am willing to perform criminal acts (I’m not).
So allow me this opportunity to enlighten you on how hiring a PI works, and what you’ll need to know about us and what we do. Obviously, I can’t speak for every professional, and I don’t know your situation. But I can tell you how it works when you call my company, and I believe that much of what I say will hold true for private investigators’ offices around the world.
Who exactly am I calling?
I am a small business owner. I pay taxes (sales and property), keep records, am registered with the Secretary of State, and use an accountant. Personally, I have a multi-year lease on office space—although not all private investigators do. Many small firms operate out of a home office.
In other words, my colleagues and I are regular businessmen and businesswomen. We have overhead and expenses to pay, and we need to make a profit in order to make a living. We reinvest that profit in our businesses, our employees (if we have them), and our community.
What are your qualifications to be a PI?
In Texas and many other states, PIs must be licensed. In order to open an investigations business, you have to have a combination of experience and training to be eligible to apply for a company license. You must have a clear criminal record, be able to pass an FBI background check, pass the state’s managers’ test, and pay many, many fees before you are granted a license and can hang out your shingle. We are also required to carry liability insurance, and we carry hundreds of thousands of dollars in coverage.
All that to say that we have cleared a number of hurdles and met a multitude of requirements before you ever give us a call.
Isn’t part of your job to do illegal stuff?
Set aside almost everything you have ever seen on TV or in films about private investigators. First off all, in most states, we must carry a license—in my case, one issued by the Department of Public Safety of the State of Texas. However, I am not a law officer. I am a private citizen, but I have been vetted and licensed by the state to conduct investigations.
In my state, it is unlawful for an unlicensed person to conduct investigations for payment. If I break the law, I risk going to jail, being fined, and losing my license that I worked so hard to earn. So no, I will not break the law for you. However, I will use my skills, training, and background to help you accomplish your goals whenever possible.
Pro tip #1: Don't ask me to break the law. If I do, any evidence I gather becomes inadmissible. And that does you no good whatsoever.
Furthermore, the best way for me to accomplish your goals is for me to abide by the law. In any investigation, I assume that everything I do is eventually going to be discussed in court. Whether I am investigating your divorce or custody case, working for an attorney on a criminal defense case, or helping your business with an employee problem or due diligence, I always consider how I will explain my actions, decisions, and conclusions to a judge or jury.
Most of the time, I don’t wind up having to testify. However, when I do, I want to be sure that all the work I do on your behalf can be used in court to benefit your case. Because if I break the law, any evidence I gather becomes inadmissible. And that does you no good whatsoever.
What’s going to happen when I call you?
If I’m sitting at my desk, I’ll most likely answer the phone. (Some firms have a dedicated answering service or a full-time receptionist. But for many of us, that isn’t a practical use of our funds. So we try to answer every call we can.) If I’m in my car, a courtroom, or in the field conducting an interview, you might get voicemail. Assuming you feel comfortable leaving a message, someone from our office will try to return your call by the end of the day.
So when we do talk, what will happen? First, I will ask you how we can help you. Some clients are calling for a price quote. Others have a specific service they need and want to discuss whether we can do it, and how we would approach the case. Others have have a complicated problem, and they need help. They don’t know exactly what kind of help they need, nor do they know exactly how we might be able to help them.
Pro tip #2: Be honest with your PI about your situation. Concealing information pretty much guarantees that we can't do the job you want done—and you'll most likely lose our trust.
Almost always, I’ll want to talk with you, either in person, on the phone, or via email. I want to hear your story in detail and talk about ways we might be able to help. Sometimes, after a lengthy conversation, my advice to you may be that there are better ways of solving your problem than hiring a PI.
We don’t take every case that comes our way. There are plenty of reasons I might talk a client out of hiring me. We won’t take your case if I don’t believe we can help you. We want you to be happy with our services when we are done—even if our only service to you is advising you that you don’t really need a PI in the first place.
There are times when private investigators don’t meet their clients in person. I have clients that I have only spoken with on the phone. I have clients with whom all communication is done via email. I have some long-term clients who only text me. We are flexible on how we communicate with clients, as we want to make things as convenient as possible for everyone involved. But understand that I will vet you, to make sure that what you are telling me is legitimate.
And by the way, these initial consultations are always free.
Is this conversation confidential?
One of the questions that often arises is a concern about confidentiality. When you call a PI, you often have a sensitive personal or business issue. People are sometimes hesitant to reveal too much information in those situations.
Private investigators do have a responsibility to keep information confidential. We do not enjoy the same type of privilege as lawyers, but we do have a responsibility to keep your secrets secret, unless we are required to testify or are under oath in a deposition.
When we “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us,” we are legally bound to do just that. One way around that legal requirement is to have your attorney hire us instead of you hiring us individually, which will often put us under the umbrella of attorney/client privilege.
So please don’t call us and confess to a murder. But you can discuss your sensitive or business situation with us with the confidence that we won’t be contacting your spouse, friends, neighbors, business partner, or local newspaper to share what you tell us.
Pro tip #3: Want a stronger guarantee of confidentiality? Have your attorney hire us instead of you hiring us individually. This will often put us under the umbrella of attorney/client privilege.
Either way, don’t be surprised if we ask you some detailed, probing questions about your situation. As investigators, we are often skeptical of what people tell us, especially if something “feels off.” Sometimes individuals call on us for less than honorable reasons, and sometimes they are just a little misguided.
I won’t track down your ex and tell you who they are dating or where they are working now. But I will find out where your ex works and coordinate with your attorney to serve them papers for a court appearance about the back child support they owe.
I won’t put a GPS tracker on your boyfriend’s car (because that is illegal). I may conduct surveillance on him to determine where he is going when he has told you he’s playing golf. However, I will also tell you that surveillance is expensive, and I’ll discuss why you think he is doing something to betray your trust.
If you don’t trust me enough to talk candidly about these things, I understand. We just met. But I may have doubts about your motives, and may turn down your case. Some PIs don’t care. They will take any job if you can pay the retainer. It’s a business. This is just how I choose to run mine.
How much is this going to cost?
Speaking of retainers, let’s talk money.
Depending on the case, we often require a client to pay a retainer up front before we do any work on their behalf. We will discuss what we think will be required to accomplish your goals and charge accordingly.
Investigators typically charge by the hour for the work we do. I can quote you a price for a background report and the like, but even that is based on what resources I will have to employ. Usually, a retainer is based on my estimate of the number of hours required to do the job, along with any associated expenses. By paying for those up front, we can focus on helping you find out what you need to know.
Sometimes we agree on an initial retainer and give the client the discretion to adjust or add additional work as a case develops.
Pro tip #4: Find a PI you feel will do a good job for you. Paying for quality is not a bad thing.
For many clients, cost is a deal-breaker. Some PIs will work with you on price, some will not. Please don’t expect us to work for free or to cut our rates. I promise that you’ll almost always get a lot more of my time than you paid for. I want to accomplish our agreed upon goal, and I will do everything I can, within reason, to make that happen.
So what do PI’s charge? There is no set price. I’ve seen companies that charge as little as $50 an hour, and I know people who charge $300 an hour. There are some boutique or specialty firms in some areas of the country that charge considerably more than that (and are worth every penny). Some companies have a minimum number of hours, or retainer, which they charge.
My advice is this: Find a PI you feel will do a good job for you. Paying for quality is not a bad thing. If you have a set amount of money you can spend (and most people do), discuss how you can accomplish your goals within that fee. A good PI will be honest about whether or not he or she can do the work you need done within the budget you have in mind.
What happens after I decide to hire you?
You’ve been vetted, agreed on the goals of the investigation, arrived at a price, and signed a contract. Now what?
Ideally, your investigator will have a plan of action, discuss it with you beforehand, and then set out to do it. I try to give my clients a timeline of when I will be accomplishing certain tasks and when they will hear from me.
I update my clients as necessary. Some clients want a detailed play-by play; others just want to know the results. At the end of the investigation, I’ll deliver a report to the client. It may be in writing or via email. It may be delivered verbally in person or over the phone. I’ve even delivered reports in text messages, because that’s what the client requested.
Keep in mind that my job is to report the truth. I cannot make something happen that didn’t happen. If you don’t like what I tell you, I am sorry about that. If the records don’t exist, they don’t exist. If something doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. I will report to you what I observe or know to be true. I may tell you what I think, if you ask my opinion (and I’ll make sure you understand that it is just my opinion). But I cannot and will not “make” things happen.
The point is that you’ll have agreed ahead of time about what you want and need, and both parties will understand the plan. This way, everyone is happy at the end of the investigation.
Your Go-To Person
Hiring a private investigator is really no different than hiring other professionals. There are good private investigators and bad ones. Different people are good at different things. Ask questions, be honest, and find a professional relationship that will benefit you. Just like finding a good dentist, a good attorney, or a good accountant, once you find a good PI, they will always be your “go to” person when you need help in that realm.
Keith Owens is founder of Owens Investigations, a family private investigations firm in Irving, TX. You can follow him on Twitter @dallaspi.