Not all of these questions will be applicable to your investigation needs...
Are you insured?
Your private investigator should have his or her own insurance. Anything can happen during the course of an investigation. For example, the investigator could sustain a serious injury. Without insurance, you could be held liable. Do not risk hiring an uninsured investigator.
Are you licensed?
All states have their own requirements for licensing private investigators. Go here to check the license status of a California PI. https://www.bsis.ca.gov/forms_pubs/online_services/verify_license.shtml
How long have you worked as a PI?
Ideally, you want an investigator who has been around the block a few times. An experienced investigator will have the equipment, cameras, etc., and connections that will better equip him or her to help you.
What Is your background and areas of expertise?
Ask about the services they offer and whether he or she has worked your type of case before. You can also go into how the PI plans on tackling your specific case. Personally, I believe that investigations can be divided into specialties. For example, you would not see a cardiologist if you were diagnosed with cancer - just like you wouldn’t take your car to a transmission shop for a muffler problem. I specialize in criminal defense matters. Other areas that investigators specialize in include background investigations, fraud investigations, missing persons investigations, family law, and surveillance. For best results, consider finding an investigator that specializes in your investigation needs. I would not hire “a Jack of all trades.”
In California, applicants for PI licenses must have “qualifying criteria.” That criteria includes various forms of experience and/or previous employment. For example, when I obtained my PI license, my qualifying criteria was a minimum of three years of full-time law enforcement employment. Ask the PI what his or her qualifying criteria were when they obtained their PI license. Knowing this will give you some insight as to their knowledge, training, and experience.
Ask the PI if he or she has a website. The website will also tell you more about the person you are considering hiring.
What hours do you work?
Do not hire a private investigator who works Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. - there’s no such thing. Bad people do bad things at all hours, on all days. You want someone who is available around the clock; someone who is flexible enough to work nights and weekends.
How will you guarantee confidentiality?
Most clients don’t want the general public to know that they’ve hired a private investigator. All private investigators will tell you that your confidentiality is guaranteed, but you want to ensure there is a plan. Ask the PI how he or she plans on keeping your identity secret. For example, if they are confronted during a surveillance investigation, how will they handle the confrontation? Will they mention your name?
Keep in mind there may be circumstances where a PI has no choice but to reveal your identity. For example, in court, a judge may require the PI to reveal certain details of a case. In California, a private investigator working as a criminal defense investigator is required by law to identify themselves as such when contacting witnesses.
What can’t you do?
The results of your investigation will be null and void if the investigator violates the law during the investigation. You need to know that your PI will follow the law - just like police officers are supposed to follow the law. There are actions private investigators cannot take. For example, it is not legal for PIs to obtain cell phone records through pre-texting, wiretap, and/or posing as police officers. Pretending to be a police officer is the most common mistake PIs make.
Asking how the PI plans to get the results you need is important. If he or she tells you they are going to do something questionable, it’s up to you to ask whether what they’re doing is legal. The answer to this question will indicate whether the PI understands the limitations of the job.
Conversely, a client will unknowingly ask a PI to do something that is not legal. It is the PI’s duty and responsibility to make the client aware of what is legal and illegal. If the private investigator you’re interviewing cannot tell you what’s legal or illegal, find someone else.
Do you have work references?
The PI should be able to provide the names and phone numbers of at least 3 previous clients for whom they have provided services. Take the time to talk to those people to see whether they were satisfied with the services that they received. Perhaps the prospective PI has a Yelp page with reviews.
How will you contact me?
Ask the PI how they will provide investigation updates and/or communicate with you. You may not want the PI to contact you via certain means, e.g. phone calls, text messages, or email because doing so could alert the target of your investigation. You want to make sure you work out another arrangement.
Will you work with my lawyer?
Private investigators should have no problem working with your lawyer. There may be situations where they need to exchange information. If you haven’t yet retained an attorney and have considered doing so, the PI might be able to refer you to one. Keep in mind that if you retain an attorney that attorney might have an established relationship with a PI that they prefer to use.
Are you willing to testify in court?
All private investigators should be willing to attend court hearings and offer sworn testimony; it’s part of the job! If the investigator you are interviewing seems to have a problem with this, then that is an immediate red flag. The question becomes, “Is there something in the PI’s background that will negatively affect their credibility?” For example, were they fired from a law-enforcement position because they were caught lying while testifying in court or because they falsified a police report?
Can you guarantee that I will get the results I want?
It is important to understand that you may not be satisfied with the investigation results. A private investigator’s job is to investigate. Occasionally, the investigation results may not be what you were hoping for. A private investigator should be willing to discuss possible investigation outcomes. Remember, you are paying a PI to conduct an investigation - not for a particular outcome.
Will you subcontract any part of my investigation to another PI?
Many PIs will subcontract investigative work to other PIs at a lower rate than what you will pay the PI you are interviewing. This practice is not uncommon. In these circumstances, the question becomes, "What are the qualifications and experience of a private investigator that is willing to work at a reduced rate?"
If the PI you are interviewing answers the subcontracting question with a "yes," then you need to ask what tasks will be subcontracted and under what circumstances. For example, the PI you are interviewing might reply that he/she would subcontract the service of legal process, i.e. serving subpoenas or other paperwork. That task, in and of itself, is a relatively simple one. However, if the PI you are interviewing tells you that they will subcontract witness interviews and report writing I'm not sure I would do business with them because you will not have the opportunity to interview and/or know who that person is before they are retained. Witness interviews and report writing are at the core of any investigation; so, you - the client - must ensure that only the most qualified and experienced investigator is assigned those tasks.
The PI you are interviewing might also tell you that subcontracting will only take place if and when a particular task is more than a certain distance from where the investigation originates. For example, if a witness that needs to be interviewed is more than 100 miles from where the investigation originated, that particular witness interview will be subcontracted to another PI. There are advantages and disadvantages in this example. The advantage is that you, the client, will not pay 200 miles (there and back) worth of travel time and mileage. The disadvantage again is that you don't know who is doing the work. You might want to work out details in a contract where you, the client, has an opportunity to review the qualifications and experience of an outside PI and also be allowed to participate in the approval or rejection of the outside PI. One way to deal with this issue is to have language in your contract where the PI you are interviewing provides the credentials of 3 outside PIs and you are allowed to participate in the decision to retain or reject any or all of the PIs. In extreme cases, you might be inclined to reject all of the referrals and should be allowed to do so. Again, all of these conditions and possibilities must be in writing.
Will you ask me to sign a contract?
A professional PI will put in writing some sort of contract that includes investigation objectives, rate of pay, and billable services. These contracts have various names, such as Memorandum of Understanding, Professional Services Agreement, Client Agreement, etc. The contract should include language that protects the PI and you. Make sure that you read it.
Important - If the PI that you are interviewing hesitates even a little bit to answer any of the questions above then you probably don’t want to do business with them. It’s sort of like asking a surgeon how many times that they have performed a particular surgery that they are going to perform on you - or where they went to school. If the doctor thinks that he/she is above answering those sorts of questions then you probably don’t want to be in his/her care.
Be sure to interview more than one PI.
You will find that investigation approaches (ideas), experience, specialties, and rates of compensation vary greatly. Remember, you are interviewing them for a job. Try to find a PI that is located near where your investigation must take place. Don’t pay a PI for travel time and mileage if you don’t have to.
Now that you know what to ask when hiring a private investigator, it is time to set up a few interviews. With a little hard work, you will find the perfect PI for the job.