Okay, so you've exhausted all possibilities of resolving the matter privately, and you're ready to ask for the assistance of a professional. Here's what you need to do:
1- Where to look
Your best bet is to ask someone you trust wholeheartedly for a referral; the last thing you need is word getting around that you've hired a detective. If no one in your immediate circle has had to hire a “gumshoe”, you can always fall back on the Yellow Pages (Online).
Keep in mind that you're best bet would be to hire a detective that is located in the area in which the search is going to occur. For instance, if you know your gambling cousin has fled the East Coast for Oregon, employ the services of an investigator stationed on the West Coast and the cost will be reduced significantly. Should this be the case, however, searching the Internet for a detective may be the way to go.
2- License status
Besides Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Mississippi, and South Dakota, all other states require that private investigators have a license issued by the government. The requirements to obtain such a license are usually quite rigorous and demand that the licensee has no criminal record. PI’s must also pass state-specific tests to gauge their qualifications and experience.
Ask for the license number
Once you've located a detective you want to hire, ask to see his license and write down the number. It is illegal for a person to act as a private investigator without a license -- it's also illegal for you to hire an unlicensed person. It's definitely not worth the hassle. If the guy refuses to give you his number, walk away.
Verify the number
Licenses for private detectives are public record so you can check the validity of your PI's license number quite easily. What you need to do is call your state's licensing authority. The name of this agency, unfortunately, varies from state to state. California’s is the BSIS located at www.bsis.com
Oftentimes, it's the state police, department of public safety, or the state's licensing board that handles the task. When you call, make sure the license hasn't expired, that the name provided matches your investigator's, and ask to see if any complaints have been filed against him.
Make sure he has insurance and don't be afraid
to ask him anything.
3- Insurance coverage
Although this may seem like a trivial, administrative nitpick, bonding and liability insurance coverage is one of the main elements you should lookout for when hiring a PI. Many jurisdictions insist that the licensee be covered by a policy covering a certain amount of money, since it's there to protect Clients.
It's also an interesting way of telling amateurs apart from professionals. Investigators who are serious about their trade have, for the most part, coverage as high as a million dollars. Since this coverage is also public record, you can make certain it exists. California requires a million dollar insurance policy.
Now that you know the investigator is street legal, you need to make sure he's competent. A few minutes spent talking with him can be enough to make a sound decision.
First of all, look for newspaper clippings or references on the Internet about him to see if he's been in the news. However, and most likely, don't dismiss the person or company just because the media hasn't talked about them yet; most PI’s keep a low profile for obvious reasons.
Because each case is different, ask if he has any experience with the type of investigation you're hiring him for. For example, if you need to have your cousin located and the PI is an expert at surveillance, he may not be the right man for the job.
In addition to being licensed, your investigator may have another certification. For instance, the National Association of Legal Investigators awards a CLI (Certified Legal Investigator) certification to experts in that field. Detectives specializing in fraud get a CFE (Certified Fraud Examiner) certification, which is granted by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. Or they may have a PPO license making them a Private Protection Specialist, PPS.
Call your local Better Business Bureau or State Attorney General's office to make sure there haven't been any consumer complaints against your investigator or his agency. You should also be blunt and ask your private eye if he provides, and abides by, a confidentiality agreement. You definitely don't want your private information and investigation results being sold to a rival.
Ask any questions you feel are relevant. At any point, if you don't feel comfortable with this person, excuse yourself and leave. As a good indicator of his ethics and proficiency level, ask about how the detective has gotten into this line of work. Also, don't be taken aback if the detective asks you questions. He has to protect himself, and ensure that you're not hiring him to do something illegal.
5- Hiring process
Satisfied with your investigator, you're ready to hire him. The finishing stage is about the discussion of payment. In this industry, the accepted method of billing consists of an hourly rate ($45-$95 US), plus job-related expenses like airline tickets, hotel fees, and long-distance calls.
Some detectives are open to working for a flat fee, in which you must provide a deposit. If the person is quite experienced, he may be able to give you an estimate as to how much it'll cost you when all is said and done.
You're better off asking for an estimate regardless, so as to avoid being taken for a ride. Be prepared to pay no matter what; if your girlfriend isn't having an affair after all, you won't be getting your money back! But you will have peace of mind.
John J. Mesa ~ President, PI, PPS