Hiring a private investigator is probably not something you do every day – not every attorney, investor, fund manager or individual has a private investigator on retainer.

In fact, you may rarely find yourself in a situation where you need a private investigator.  However, those tend to be the situations where it really counts.

Of course you want the best investigator you can get…but what does that really mean?  Here are some questions you should ask before hiring a private investigator.

Are you licensed and insured?

Every state has different requirements for licensed private investigators and the scope of the work they may perform.

Both the client and investigator have a responsibility to be aware of the laws in the states where the investigation is to be performed.  Investigators should also be able to provide proof of liability insurance.

Can you provide references and work samples?

Most experienced private investigators will be able to provide you with references and samples of several different types of cases.

It is important to understand that, due to client confidentiality, there is a good chance that work samples will have identifying information redacted or the facts of the case changed to protect the subjects’ identities.

However, samples are helpful to see the quality of the reports, the thoroughness of the investigation, and the various sources utilized by the investigator.

Who will handle my case?

In many cases, the experienced professional private investigator will manage the case and delegate lesser investigative tasks – or even the entire case – to other individuals.

It’s important that you know who will handle the case, and request information about their experience and background.

Request examples of their prior work and obtain an understanding of how closely the primary investigator will supervise the case.

As we’ve noted here previously, if there is an international component to the case, you need to ask your investigator detailed questions about the capabilities of the investigator’s international contacts (see related post International Background Investigation – What You Need to Know).

Do you belong to any professional organizations?

Many investigators belong to membership organizations such as the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) or the National Council of Investigation and Security Services (NCISS).

These organizations offer rigorous training and certification for investigators, have codes of ethics, and other education and experience standards for membership.

Do you use “shady” or unethical methods to obtain information?

Between a fully above board investigation and illegality lies a vast grey area.

Over the years, many clients have found themselves embroiled in scandal because of their investigators (e.g., HP , Anthony Pellicano, and others).

It is important to set parameters for your investigator at the outset – ideally through an engagement letter that explicitly outlines your expectations and requirements before.

Both you and your investigator should be aware of the laws in the jurisdiction where the investigation will occur.

Will our communications be privileged?  Do I need to tell you everything?

Privilege laws for investigator-client communications also vary widely by state.

Clients and investigators should be familiar with the particular laws in their state.

When it is an attorney who retains the investigator, additional legal work product and communications privileges may apply.

Of course, an investigator does not need to be told every detail.

However, providing the investigator with adequate information before hiring a private investigator, and throughout as new developments occur, will increase the likelihood of an efficient, thorough, and successful case.


Hiring a private investigator is not something that most people do every day. Asking the right questions before hiring a private investigator can help you avoid a potential disaster down the road.

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