Hiring a private investigator can be an emotional and exhausting undertaking. The distinction between a good company and a bad one can cost you dearly in a financial sense, in a lost court trial, or ruined life and reputation. Therefore, you’re better to do comprehensive research before trusting someone with your case.
Although some cases do not require immediate attention, and there will probably be other opportunities, do not wait until the last moment to find the investigator you want to handle it. The good ones are rare, busy, and plan ahead, and you don’t want to settle for what will be left available.
In your quest, let your instincts and common sense lead the way, but keep in mind the following guidelines.
Licensing and Insurance
Most provinces in Canada require investigation agencies to be licensed and insured, as well as requiring the investigators they hire to be licensed. Start with checking that there is a license and it is valid. Contact the issuing authority and make sure the agency or the investigator is in good standing, and has not been charged with any legal or ethical indiscretions. After that, verify the insurance coverage, which has to be at least $1,000,000 per incident. Ask if there were any claims in the past, and get the details.
One thing to remember is that an individual investigator, despite being licensed, cannot take on a case without having an agency permit and liability insurance.
Most investigators in Canada are now required to undergo special training and must pass an exam in order to be licensed. In those courses they should learn interviewing and interrogation techniques, surveillance and undercover methods, report writing, laws, handling of evidence, etc. Fraud and financial investigators, forensic specialists and computer examiners have their own courses and certifications, as do fire and incident investigators. Ex-police officers and ex-military investigators bring with them a diverse range of related courses and knowledge.
Those who come with university degrees will probably provide you with a more refined experience. They will produce better reports and have better insight into the case, especially if their education relates to the area of expertise that your case requires, or in general to criminality, law, social services or psychology. Also, they will be more likely to avoid committing any wrongful acts and will hold themselves to higher professional standards.
Having law enforcement, military, or intelligence service background is a great asset for any investigator. However, having one does not guarantee a professional service. Years of work experience in the private industry or extensive private investigation experience could be more reliable indicators of the quality of service you will receive. If you require a specific type of investigation, ask for that specific experience. There are many great investigators with financial, insurance, journalistic, and human resource backgrounds, who may deliver outstanding results in their areas of expertise. Also inquire on people skills, understanding of human nature, street smarts and improvisation skills, as well as analytical and observational abilities.
Even if you don’t think your case will end up in court, it is better to know that the company you hire understands the system, knows the laws, and has experience in preparation and testifying in court. Also, verify if the investigator has any ‘baggage’ that may disqualify or raise doubt in his or her testimony. Finally, if and when the time comes, your investigator must be reachable and available to attend the court and provide professional and accurate testimony.
Security & Confidentiality
In this digital age, a lot of information is stored on computers and servers, and is shared via email and text messages. The investigation company must have practices in place to safeguard your information and use safe means of communication with you. They also must be easily reachable in case of emergency. You don’t want to be chasing the company for your evidence during preparation for a court hearing or for any other reason.
Inquire if the person you are speaking to will be dealing with your case personally, or if it will be given to an in-house investigator, or sub-contracted. You want to know who will be handling your personal and confidential information, and how. A good investigator will go a long way to protect your confidentiality and the information you shared, even if things go wrong, or when faced with threats or arrest.
Look for clues when interviewing potential candidates. If you hear anything to suggest dishonest practices, use of illegal equipment, disrespectful comments about previous clients or colleagues, or patronizing or derogatory references toward women, minorities, or animals, think twice before revealing sensitive information or giving your money away. What will such an investigator or the agency have to say or do about you, your case and your entrusted information? What will happen if things go wrong? You want someone who will not dump you in the middle, who will not rip you off and who will conduct all investigative and business activities with your interests in mind, respectfully and professionally.
It isn’t uncommon for many investigators to be late to the location, leave during a shift, or watch movies, read or be busy with their personal lives in the vehicle while on surveillance, and thus miss the subject’s activities. There are also those who claim to have interviewed or surveilled the subject or the witness, but in reality were on another case or running errands. Finally, there are even those who after receiving your money, will go to the investigated party and offer to engineer the case for another fee.
Since you will be sharing sensitive information, you want to be dealing with a company you can trust and have good rapport with. The investigator must have effective communication skills, understand your situation, maintain eye contact, and you must feel comfortable dealing with her or him. If you feel pressured, threatened or intimidated, do not hesitate to look elsewhere.
Avoid those who have bad habits such as persistent smoking, coffee or other substance addictions (which will affect discreet and prolonged hours of observation, safety and ability to move quickly), have poor hygiene, or look unpresentable. Those who do not care about their personal attire or have messy office and vehicle environments will probably handle your case just as inadequately. Good investigators are dedicated professionals with great sense of attention to detail in every aspect of their lives.
Reputation & References
Verify the agency’s or the investigator’s reputation online, through social media, professional affiliations and memberships, law enforcement and legal communities. Do not be shy to ask for references from previous clients, colleagues or attorneys. Although most clients’ privacy is usually an issue, if the agency has been around for a few years, they may find someone you can talk with.
An investigator’s license and reputation depends on the clients he or she chooses. Therefore, be prepared for a good investigator to do a quick background check on you as well, to make sure that you are who you claim to be, and that you are not requesting services for illegal or malicious purposes.
Report Writing Skills
You can probably assess the company’s report writing skills by evaluating their website and social media content, brochures, and business cards. Spelling and grammar mistakes may indicate poor writing skills. Reports must present factual evidence only, contain relevant pictures (if there were such), and be clear and precise. There should be no opinions or any other useless information. Any weakness in the report will be attacked by the opposing counsel and the judge, and may ruin your case.
It is rare for a successful investigation to occur without the use of any special gadgets or electronic devices. Inquire on the specific equipment that the investigator will be using. Make sure that it is of good quality and is legal to use. You wouldn’t want your case to be thrown out of court or make the front pages of local media because a prohibited device was used in the process. A good investigator will have a change of clothes, will easily adapt into a particular environment, and will be able to hire an associate with a specific skill set, as well as appropriate age, gender, expertise and equipment.
Investigation services are usually charged on an hourly basis, although at times or for certain services it could be a flat fee. Rates may vary from one agency to another, and can range at the very minimum between $50/h to as high as $250/h, depending on the type of services provided. The fees can also include administration charges, travel time, vehicle, mileage and toll costs, equipment rental and telephone costs, hotel and meal reimbursement, report writing and document search fees, court appearance fees, etc.
When a company takes your case, and books an investigator to a specific day and time, it means that they will not be conducting other work, or taking on other potential clients. Therefore, asking for a retainer up front, is a common practice in the investigation industry. If you decide to cancel, there might be fees associated with it. If you become a regular client and have been paying your bills on time, you may negotiate other arrangements. In any event, a good investigator will provide you with an accurate and clear estimate and will not exceed the agreed upon amount without consulting you first.
Although some clients may not have a large budget, and/or may not realize the cost associated with hiring a private investigator, remember that you want your case to be handled by a skilled professional. Don’t assume that a better hourly rate will get you a better overall deal. Often those who claim to be cheap may provide insufficient services, have limited resources, turn to shady practices, add more hours to the bill, or cut corners to make it worthwhile for them. You don’t want to add to the problems you are trying to solve.
On a final note, be prepared to face the information that the investigator may obtain about your loved ones or trusted business partners. You may suspect something, but you may not fully comprehend the scale and the depth of their immersion. A good investigator will advise you accordingly and will help you go through the process. He or she will also refer you to a reliable lawyer, doctor, mediation specialist or other relevant professional.