10 Mistakes to Avoid When Hiring a Private Investigator
and How to Avoid Making These Costly Mistakes
- Are you thinking about hiring a Private Investigator?
- Don’t know how much a P.I. costs to hire?
- Not sure about whether you even should hire a P.I.?
- Wondering how to check out a P.I. before you ever call him on the phone?
- Uncertain about how much personal information you can, or even should share with a P.I. over the phone?
Then you have to hear everything I’m going to share with you. It’s that important.
Hello, my name is Paul Baeppler. I’ve owned and run two of my own private investigation businesses for several years and at the same time, I’m currently a police lieutenant in a large metropolitan city. I’ve done most things right, but I’ve also made some mistakes of my own along the way as far as running P.I. businesses.
For most people that call our offices looking for a private investigator, this is their first time calling a P.I. They are usually a little bit nervous, they don’t know what to expect, and they’re calling us because someone has already breached their trust. In either case, they don’t know how the conversation should go, what questions they should ask, or even how much a P.I. should cost. Most importantly, they don’t know what to look for or who or what to avoid when selecting a private investigator to handle their sensitive and confidential issue or problem.
Now, although my company doesn’t outsource or subcontract private investigative work, as a service to several current and previous clients, I have searched out, vetted and helped them to contract with a competent and dependable investigator on the ground in geographic areas outside of where our home offices are in New York City and Northeast Ohio. As a result, I’ve vetted a lot of P.I.’s by researching them on the web, calling their “offices,” and checking them out with others in the business. Along the way, I’ve actually developed a process for this service. The fact is, I’ve de-selected more P.I.’s than I’ve affirmed. I discovered that there are many good and competent private investigators out there, but unfortunately, they are greatly outnumbered by the hacks and incompetents calling themselves P.I.’s. In some cases, because we either couldn’t get anyone competent to answer the telephone (or even return our calls), our clients paid a premium to have us go out of town and handle the situations ourselves.
Here’s the good news…Having seen the disastrous results my own clients have experienced from hiring the wrong private investigator (before they hired us, of course), put together with my own often-frustrated efforts to find what appeared to be a good P.I. in other geographic locations, I’ve decided to create this quick and dirty guide that highlights the most common mistakes to avoid when hiring a private investigator so you can steer clear of some of these mistakes, yourself…
Here they are…Disregard them at your own peril:
MISTAKE #1: Hiring a private investigator that you can’t directly reach on the phone.
The biggest and most common complaint I’ve heard from people who have dealt with other P.I.’s is that they can’t reach their P.I. when they need them and worse yet, the P.I.’s they’re using don’t return phone calls promptly (if at all!).
How the phone is answered when you first try to call the investigator…when you’re still undecided if you are going to hire him…can be a very good indicator as to how your case might be handled. The use of voice mail is a big red flag in this business, at any stage of the relationship. Answering services, where the person answering the call is outsourced, or working in a call center, probably in another part of the world, is another red flag.
Of course, many investigators are going to be readily available when they’re trying to get your case…but the reachability test begins once they have your money. This is usually where the real communication breakdown occurs.
Here are my tips for avoiding this mistake and making sure your investigator is responsive to your calls and communicates efficiently and effectively:
First of all, if you get a voicemail recording when you first call their office, immediately move on to the next candidate. If they can’t manage to answer the phone at this stage, they certainly won’t be answering it once they have a retainer deposit.
If they do answer the phone, find out what their process is for keeping you updated on your case. Ask the investigator if you’ll be able to reach him or her on short notice and what their hours of availability and maximum turnaround time for returning phone calls is.
MISTAKE #2: Hiring a private investigator without first meeting with them in person.
I realize that there are times when it simply isn’t possible to meet an investigator at their office due to time constraints…And sometimes the investigator you are trying to hire is located in another state or country and you simply can’t meet them in person.
But if at all possible, request to meet the investigator in person at their office. At the very least, make sure they are successful enough to have an office and staff and that they’re not running their business out of their basement, spare bedroom or a Starbucks or McDonald’s.
Start by looking for an office address on their website. You can usually find this either at the footer of their website or on a “Contact Us” page. If their address is not listed or it is listed as a P.O. Box, I strongly recommend moving on to the next candidate.
By meeting the person handling your case in person, you’ll also be able to get a better feel for the investigator’s level of integrity and professionalism. If their office is disorganized or sloppy, or if you see evidence from other people’s cases out in the open, I’d look for another investigator. Additionally, by meeting them in person, you’ll get a better idea of whether he or she really seems to have a good understanding regarding your case and whether they seem physically capable of getting the job done.
MISTAKE #3: Hiring an investigator without first seeing an example of their work product.
The quality of a written report, photographs and video, is going to be the end product…the evidence proving or disproving your suspicions that could end up in court. Even more important than that, the quality of any documentation can greatly help (or greatly hurt) your positioning before you ever get to court. In many cases, superior documentation and concrete proof can even provide the leverage that makes going to court unnecessary.
A competent investigator will usually showcase an example of what their work product might look like somewhere on their website. If you don’t see anything like that on their website, request to see a previous report they’ve completed and closed out, or some kind of report so you can get an idea of what their documented results look like. If pertinent, make sure the investigator embeds photographs in their reports with time/date stamps on the photographs.
At the very least, take a good look at the quality and organization of their website. If it seems outdated, poorly structured or has poor grammar, you can guess what their work product will look like.
MISTAKE #4: Choosing a private investigator based on low price:
In most cases, just like when selecting a lawyer to handle your divorce or a doctor to handle your open heart surgery, low price is something to avoid. It usually means the investigator doesn’t have the reputation for getting results which enables him/her to demand the premium rates. The level of professionalism in the private investigation business has a very wide range, and it usually directly correlates with what you are paying. Marketing themselves as a “Budget PI” is the only way some investigators know how to get business for themselves. There is usually a hidden price that comes with “cheap.” Do you really want to risk paying that price on the issue for which you’re considering hiring a private investigator? Low price can be the bait that gets you to retain an investigator, but once the investigator gets on the case, will he have the experience and know-how to get results?
To avoid this mistake, call a few different investigators and find out what they charge for the service you are looking to have done. As mentioned earlier, make sure they have an office and, if possible, visit them at their office to get a better feel for their level of professionalism and their ability to get things done. Remember, your window of opportunity for obtaining what you’re after is usually limited and hiring the wrong investigator could leave you in a worse situation than you’re in now.
MISTAKE #5: Choosing a private investigator without considering and verifying his or her experience.
Although I have dealt with many very competent P.I.’s who had no law enforcement experience, a law enforcement background is usually an advantage for a private investigator when it comes to issues like credibility and knowing how to think on your feet in stressful situations. Most police officers have a good working knowledge and plenty of experience dealing in and with the courts. On the other hand, being a former federal agent who spent most of one’s career conducting white collar investigations that dragged on for years doesn’t necessarily mean one knows how to get to the bottom of a cheating spouse, child custody or theft investigation quickly and effectively.
Look for an “About Us” page on any investigator’s website. As often as not, the investigator won’t even list the name of the owner of the investigation company on their website. This is another serious red flag. If you do find their name, run it through Google, both as a general and a “News” search. Check out their name on LinkedIn to verify how long they’ve been in business and where else they’ve been employed. If you find their name on Facebook, it will usually give you an idea if they are at least a normal person and verify that they are who they say they are.
MISTAKE #6: Hiring a private investigator who doesn’t offer a money-back guarantee.
In my view, every private investigation company should be fully accountable for its work. If you aren’t pleased with the job in every way, you shouldn’t have to pay for it. Very few investigators offer a guarantee. Ask the investigator if he offers a money-back guarantee. If he doesn’t, this indicates that he doesn’t have the confidence in his business to stand behind his work.
MISTAKE #7: Choosing a private investigator without looking for reviews from his other clients.
Any private investigator can say anything about his past work. And, unfortunately, some of what he says may not be true. Make sure you ask for references or read comments from past clients so you can depend on the investigator and his work. Look for genuine testimonial reviews with first and last names attached, as it has become somewhat of a sham as of late with people creating their own online “reviews.”
MISTAKE #8: Choosing a private investigator who is a “Jack of All Trades.”
If the P.I. doesn’t specialize in what you’re trying to get done, or doesn’t have investigators on staff who specialize in the type of situation that you are dealing with, then you might want to consider moving on. You don’t want someone who has a mind for reviewing spreadsheets and uncovering embezzlement trying to find a hidden listening device, camera or bug. It just isn’t going to work out well in most cases. At the same time, you don’t want the investigator who has a knack for getting things done in an undercover situation trying to extract “deleted” data from a cell phone or computer hard drive.
Over 20 years in law enforcement and the investigation business has taught me the hard way that there are some investigators that are built one way and others built another, but rarely, if ever, do investigators with multiple specialties come in the same package. Some larger and more established investigation companies have several investigators on staff who specialize in different types of investigations, but most P.I.’s will usually try to get the case and then outsource or sub-contract it to someone who can do it. As often as not, many one-man shops will try to actually do the job themselves, even as ill-equipped and lacking in training and experience as they are to handle it.
Ask the investigator if they either specialize in the type of work you are trying to get handled, or if they have someone on staff who specifically does. If you are looking to have something highly technical done, such as computer/cell phone forensics or a bug sweep, make sure the investigator has certifications in these fields, as I’ve seen the aftermath of more than a few hacks and charlatans who did nothing more than put on a good show.
MISTAKE #9: Hiring a P.I. who is subcontracting the work to another investigator.
This is oftentimes disguised with phrases such as our “partners” or “part of our network.” There are P.I.’s out there who are making a business out of subcontracting investigative services, simply taking calls, accepting cases and then scrambling to find someone else, anyone else, even someone they’ve never dealt with before, to do the work.
The primary problem with this approach is that when you hire someone who is “subbing out” the work, you are losing total control of who is handling the case, how much experience they have, what their credentials or reputation are and what kind of results they are known to get.
Once again, looking for a local address on the investigator’s website, along with a local telephone number, should ensure you are dealing with an investigator who will be handling the work themselves and not a “General Contractor” who is subbing out the work and paying a cut-rate fee to someone who doesn’t have the experience, reputation and expertise to earn premium rates on their own accord.
If you have any concern or doubt that the work is being subbed out, simply ask the investigator if they are handling the investigation themselves. If they fumble with, or dance around the answer, thank them for their time and move on.
MISTAKE #10: Waiting too long before you actually make the decision to hire an investigator.
In many cases, the window of opportunity where you can effectively capture and document what is actually occurring is limited. Either your target becomes wise to your suspicions and goes deeper underground or they change their tactics. The greatest benefit of conducting an investigation is usually the peace of mind, confidence and clarity that can come from knowing the facts with certainty. The ability to move forward while basing one’s decisions on concrete facts, rather than guesswork and emotion, brings with it peace of mind and the return of a sense of control.
Ask yourself…What is your issue costing you–financially, emotionally and physically–to postpone taking action. Don’t only evaluate the potential downside of action. It is equally important to measure the atrocious cost of inaction. If you don’t take some sort of action, where will you be in one year, five years, and ten years? How will you have allowed circumstance to impose itself upon you and having allowed ten more years of your finite life to pass living in a way you know will not fulfill you? If you telescope out 10 years and know with 100% certainty that it is a path of disappointment and regret, inaction is the greatest risk of all.
My private investigation businesses turn down more cases than we accept. This is primarily for two reasons…First of all, I’ve found that my span of control over investigators and investigations has a limit if we are going to handle our select clients in an exceptional way. I’ve found that when the number of cases go beyond that threshold, the quality and success of our investigations goes down and my stress level goes up. In addition to that, there are just certain kinds of clients and cases that I don’t like, so since we don’t have to take the cases, we don’t.
Now, if you are considering hiring a private investigator due to some issue that might be keeping you awake at night AND If you’re still reading this AND avoiding most of these mistakes makes sense to you, you may want to give our office a call. If you’re comfortable discussing your issue over the phone, we can take a few minutes to do that (Of course, all conversations are strictly confidential). If you then see any value in it, we can meet at one of our offices to discuss how to resolve the issue in person.