Hiring a private investigator isn’t something people tend to do all too often. Many people never require the services of a private investigator, and most of those who do – apart from attorneys and insurance adjusters – rarely use them more than once or twice during their lifetime. However, when the circumstances do arise and you find yourself in need of a private investigator, determining which private investigator to hire can be a surprisingly difficult decision to make.

Part of the difficulty comes from simply not knowing what qualities to look for when choosing a private investigator – or even where to look. In all likelihood, your colleagues and friends and family have limited experience in this area, and will be unable to offer any personal referrals or recommendations. Moreover, the circumstances that have caused you to seek assistance from a private investigator may be urgent and stressful – such as a troubled investment or business deal, a contested divorce or custody case, or a runaway child – which makes it even more critical to be able to make the right choice as quickly as possible.

This post will address all the factors that you should consider before hiring a private investigator, which will help ensure that your choose a qualified professional who will handle your case in the correct fashion.

Are They Experienced?

To obtain the best results you will need to hire an experienced private investigator. Ask for their professional references and be sure to contact those individuals directly to verify that the investigator has a solid track record.

Specifically, does the private investigator hold the skills best suited for your case? If you are hiring a private investigator for an asset search, for example, they should have in-depth experience and expertise in that particular area.

In addition to consulting their references, you may wish to ask whether the investigator is a member of any professional associations, such as the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, The American Society of Industrial Security, or the National Association of Legal Investigators. The groups they’ve joined are generally a good indicator of their areas of specialization.

Reports and surveillance tapes produced by private investigators are typically kept confidential. However, it is reasonable to ask for a sample report – or a copy of a past report with any sensitive or personally identifying information redacted. This will give you a general sense of the scope and depth of the work they will be conducting on your behalf – and it will also let you know if they communicate in a clear, straightforward, professional manner. Unless you have requested a highly technical investigation such as DNA testing or computer forensics, their written reports should be free of jargon and very easy to read and understand.

You should also ask about the investigator’s educational and professional background. Many private investigators have law enforcement or military experience; however, this doesn’t automatically prove that they are experienced conducting investigations in the private sector. You need to know how many years they have been in business as a private investigator, in addition to information about their prior career in law enforcement.

Check That They Are Licensed

This is the first thing that you should do when looking for a private investigator. Some investigative firms provide a copy of their licensing information on their website. If you contact an investigator who does not list his licensing credentials on his website, be sure to ask him to email you a copy of his current license prior to engaging his services. If you encounter any resistance to this very reasonable request, then you may wish to consider finding another investigator.

You can call the state licensing agency directly to verify these credentials. You should ask them whether the specific PI is licensed and what the requirements were for them to become licensed. It is also a good idea to check whether there have been any formal complaints made against the private investigator and if there is such a record, request as much information as possible regarding the nature of the complaint and whether they have been resolved.

Private investigator licensing is administered by different agencies depending on the individual state. A useful online guide for identifying the right state agency can be found by clicking here.

It is important to note that several states – including Idaho, South Dakota, Mississippi and Wyoming – do not require private investigators to be licensed. In those states, anyone can claim that they are a private investigator. However, many other states have much stricter requirements.

Confirm That They Are Insured

Private investigators should be insured. Before hiring a private investigator you should ask them to provide documentation that they are covered by a professional liability policy. They should be able and willing to provide you with a copy of their insurance certificate. Again, if this information is not immediately forthcoming from the investigator – or if the policy provided is out of date, or has a very low coverage limit – it is advisable to continue your search for an investigator. It is always better to be overly cautious than running into problems later on.

Check That They Are Bonded

In several states, being bonded is a requirement for private investigators to receive a license. Being bonded means is that the PI has taken out a corporate surety bond. These bond amounts vary from state to state but are often in the range of $10,000. The bond provides a degree of assurance that assets (up to the amount of the bond) will be available in the event that a successful legal claim is made against the private investigator.

For example, if a private investigator takes an up-front retainer payment but fails to provide satisfactory services, his client could file a claim against the bond to recover their funds. Therefore, the bond is a form of financial protection for the general public.

Before hiring a PI, check whether their state requires a bond – and if so, be sure to request information on their current bond status.

Will They Testify In Court?

The evidence that a private investigator uncovers can make or break your case. Whether you are involved in civil litigation, a domestic case or a criminal trial, you need to know that the private investigator is willing, capable and prepared to testify in court if necessary. For maximum advantage, you may wish to hire an investigator who is credentialed as an expert in a particular area of practice. Past experience is extremely important.

You want an investigator who will be both comfortable and compelling on the witness stand – and those qualities only come from past experience.

How Often Will They Report Back To You?

Different investigation firms have different policies regarding how frequently they will report back to their clients. Some provide daily or weekly updates; others provide no news at all until the investigation is complete and they furnish their final report.

In general, more frequent contact is preferable and is considered a “best practice” for private investigators. This allows you to keep up-to-date in monitoring developments in your case, and gives you an opportunity to course-correct if things appear to be headed in the wrong direction.

Some tech-savvy investigators utilize online case management systems that allow their clients to track costs and expenses, in addition to informational updates, in real-time as the case proceeds.

If you keep these general rules in mind, you should be able to confidently hire a qualified private investigator and ensure that your case is handled professionally.

About the Author: John Powers is director of Beacon Investigative Solutions. His articles on private investigation and related matters have appeared in Huffington Post, AOL Money & Finance, Private Investigator Magazine, Competitive Intelligence Magazine and The Legal Investigator. Email him at jpowers@beaconinvestigation.com or follow him on Google and at @JohnPowersPI.

About Beacon: Beacon Investigative Solutions is a national private investigation firm licensed and authorized in 45 states and Washington, D.C.