Seedy offices, bottles of scotch, trench coats and cameras. These are the Hollywood images that have been put in our minds when we think of private investigators. The gumshoe lifestyle is filmed in black and white and involves leveraging some corrupt contacts down at the precinct in order to weed out cheating spouses and backstabbing business partners. If all of this rings a bell for you, you aren’t alone.
You are also one of the many people in possession of some demonstrably false information regarding private investigation practices. Private Investigators have a plethora of tools at their disposal that do allow them to perform useful surveillance and investigative tasks, but the professional standards of a reputable private investigation firm are unlikely to hit the silver screen any time soon. Individuals in need of such services will find themselves in good, ethical hands, provided they ask the right questions.
1. Are you licensed and what’s your number?
Private investigation is not an occupation for just anyone. Depending upon the state, detectives in training must meet different standards to practice. In New York, aspiring PI’s must have three years and several thousand hours of fieldwork. A two-hour test is administered covering everything from knowledge of state and federal laws to proper handling of evidence. Diligent study is given to learning the laws, ethics, and standards of the occupation and a federal background check is mandatory prior to certification. In addition, these extensive requirements must be met on a regular basis in order to keep one’s license current.
Because of the level of quality and credibility maintained by licensed private investigators, start by inquiring with your state regarding a company or individuals licensing status. When hiring a PI, anyone can say they are licensed, so verify their license number. If the individual in question is of repute, they will likely have this number on their website, business cards, hanging in their office, or other promotional materials. Doing so will ensure that your PI maintains high professional and ethical standards on a consistent basis.
2. What is your background?
As you can see, knowing your PI is an integral part of the process. First of all, asking this question gives you some idea as to their level of expertise. Are they retired police? FBI? Beyond their work history, this also helps ensure that they are, in fact, retired police instead of fired police. Termination from law enforcement or investigation could have resulted from anything from poor job performance to unethical practices; information you’ll definitely want to know prior to employing their services. Having this type of information gives clues regarding their knowledge and expertise.
The background of your investigator can also help you pick the right person. Do they have a history in financial crime? Surveillance? Identifying the unique characteristics of your PI can help you select the one with the right skills for your situation. Even if their background isn’t in law enforcement specifically, an unconventional background can lend intangible advantages to your case.
3. Who will handle my case?
Professional investigative firms are rarely one-person shows. In order to provide a high level of service, agencies utilize a team of individuals, each with specific backgrounds, licensing, and skills in order to handle your case in the best way possible. For that reason, inquire about the licensing status and capabilities of the specific individuals handling your case. Determine if they have any personal strengths that may help in your circumstances and make sure that they exercise sound ethics and practices.
In particular, do not be offended if the brunt of your case is not being handled by the head PI. Different individuals in the firm may have specific capabilities or contacts that can help reach a quick and accurate resolution to your case – sometimes better than the head PI. Just vet the individuals responsible for your work and rest with the peace of mind that your case is in the best hands.
4. How long have you been working as a licensed private investigator?
Private investigators are like doctors: we all had to start somewhere, but that doesn’t mean we were bad. Understand that hiring a newer PI is not necessarily a bad thing. But it is important to keep in mind that in more delicate matters, such as professional surveillance or custody cases, experience is an important asset. Furthermore, PIs with a demonstrated track record of success and ethical behavior are more likely to give you the results you are looking for. Just know that hiring a new, well-respected, and well-qualified in PI is not a bad idea either.
5. Do you practice any legally “grey” methods of obtaining information?
This one is key. Finding the right individual and vetting their staff and background is important, but the credibility of your case can take a drastic hit if it turns out the information was obtained using illegal channels. The challenge lies in the fact that between full, above-the-board legal methods and strictly illegal methods lies a sea of grey area. For your protection and safety, be sure to establish what you find acceptable in your contract.
For additional assurance, ask for work samples in order to take a closer look at their specific methods of investigation. Any good private investigator will be able to provide these, albeit with redacted names and information for confidentiality purposes. What you will be able to see, however, is the specific methodology used and the complexity of the case itself. With this information, you can guarantee that you’re receiving the best treatment in a way that fits your character and values.
Private investigation is a useful and powerful tool for individuals with specific legal needs. Employing the services of a PI requires a measure of scrutiny and care to ensure that all professional and ethical standards are met. Ask about licensing status, methods of investigation, and qualifications of staff. Outline your ethical boundaries in your contract and read work samples to see their work in action. Secure your information, your case, and your peace of mind by asking the right questions when you enter into your contract and rest assured that your due diligence will make a difference in the courtroom.