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Risk of Hiring Private Investigator

We have written extensively about the benefits of hiring a private investigator, but there are some inherent risks you may have never thought about.

1Getting Caught

If you are trying to conduct a discreet investigation, such as doing surveillance, there is always a chance that the investigator will get caught red-handed. Similarly, if you are making discreet inquiries, word can always get back to the person you are investigating. Even with the most diligent of planning, it can happen to the best of investigators.

2Unclear Outcome

When you hire an accountant to do your taxes, you expect your taxes to be completed once he is done. But you may spend hundreds or even thousands on a private investigator and you will still be in the same place as you started—with a lack of clarity.

3No Value

You don’t give a bartender $7 and hope she brings you a drink back. But you may have to pay a $1,000 retainer to an investigator and get nothing of value in return.

4Liable for Illegal Actions

There are dozens of examples out there of investigators providing illegal information to their clients, which ultimately got them burned. A few years back, a Massachusetts woman who hired a Virginia private investigator to find hidden assets had her case thrown out because the “evidence” that the private investigator provided on some offshore bank accounts “did not exist and was ‘created’ to turn a profit.”

5Lack of Expertise

Lots of investigators like to be all things to all people, touting their expertise in everything from executive protection to bomb-sniffing dogs to cyber investigations and computer forensics to lie detection and interviewing skills. It’s impossible to be great at everything.

6Lack of Evidence

You may need evidence that your ex is hiding money or that your legal opponent was conspiring with your competition or that certain testimony was false. But sometimes, you have to deal with bad facts, like your ex isn’t hiding money, the competition was conspiring against you, and the testimony was truthful. Unlike the movies, these things don’t always have a happy ending.

7Not Dependable

Investigators are not known as the most reliable group. I know because I have worked with lots of them who aren’t.

8Trust in Methods

There is an inherent trust that you put in an investigator about their methods of conducting an investigation. After all, you can’t be breathing down their neck.

9Secret Sources

Secret sources sound intriguing, but they introduce reliability problems into an investigation. If the secret source can’t be independently vetted or verified, it’s impossible to determine if the information was obtained illegally, through shady methods, or if it’s just a figment of someone’s imagination.

10Faulty Strategy

Part of hiring a good private investigator is coming up with a strategy that aligns with your goals. Having a faulty strategy can doom the case from the start.

11Confidentiality

If a person is hiring a private investigator directly (not through an attorney), your emails, text messages, reports, surveillance tapes, and memos are not privileged. Hiring a private investigator through an attorney establishes protections via attorney–client privilege and attorney work product. 

12No Support from Attorney

I’ve seen some clients over the years take matters into their own hands and hire a private investigator without support from an attorney. If your attorney is not on board, it’s very likely that you are wasting your time.

13Hiring the Wrong Private Investigator

Having the right tool is imperative to successful completion of the task at hand. Too many problem-solving efforts go awry because you are using the wrong tool for the job. Don’t use the wrong tool.

14Pay for What You Get

Like most professional services, you pay for what you get. So if you are looking for the low-cost option, you are probably going to get a low-cost result.

15Lack of Scope

When I ask clients who are considering doing a background investigation, “What are you looking to find?” and they answer, “Everything!” I know we may have a problem on our hands, in part because finding out “everything” may cost about $150,000. Having a defined scope of work at the outset of an investigation is key to keeping things on track and avoiding surprises down the road.

16Unlicensed

Are you hiring an investigator who is licensed in your state? Or someone just advertising that they are an investigator? (Check your local states.) Why should you care? Well, you may end up hiring this guy, who was not only running an unlicensed private investigation service but also operating a prostitution ring on the side.

17No Guarantees

When you hire a contractor to fix your roof, you expect it to not leak anymore. But if you hire an investigator, the end result is not guaranteed and you may be back in the same place you were when you started. 

18Specialty Bias

Every investigator has a bias to recommend work that they are good at. So a private investigator who specializes in surveillance may naturally be biased to recommending surveillance, while the task may be best suited for a forensic accountant or an open-source intelligence specialist.

19Telling You What You Want to Hear

I’ve spoken to dozens of potential clients over the years whom I have literally talked out of hiring a private investigator because whatever they were asking us to do was a waste of time and resources. Not every private investigator you talk to is going to talk themselves out of work, though; just be cautious before proceeding. Some will feed you what you want to hear, knowing full well that it’s not going to have a happy ending.

20Negative Publicity

Uber hired private investigators a few years back as part of a “dirt-digging investigation.” Frankly, many big firms do the same every day. The investigation firm Uber hired ended up using some pretty shady tactics. It’s not clear if Uber actually knew what the firm was doing, but nevertheless, the damage had already been done. Hewlett-Packard never recovered from the fallout after they famously hired an investigator who used questionable methods (obtaining telephone records) to spy on its own directors.

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6 replies
  1. Edmund Magdziarek
    Edmund Magdziarek says:

    Great list Brian. I hate the old “secret Sources”. It almost always is an illegal source, expensive and of no benefit to the case, assuming it hasn’t already compromised your case!
    Then there’s the clients who have already amassed great amounts of illegally sourced “evidence” before you’re even hired!

  2. Edward Pollock
    Edward Pollock says:

    I am a retired Sgt. on the Atlantic City Police. I am now a Polygrapher in Venice, Fl. I am also a Fl. PI. What kind of PI work is best for business in SW Florida?

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