• Should you hire a cheap Private Investigator? A look at both sides

  • Here is the thing, depending on what you need a private investigator for, we can certainly get expensive – until you consider the costs of a botched child custody investigation, divorce case, background check errors, insurance claims, or even a butchered witness statement.

    When we work with the public – take an infidelity case as an example – the client is trying to save as much money as possible. At the end of the day, they’re looking for someone to investigate their spouse for 8 hours and wrap things up, and that’s simply not the case.

    I’ve been a private investigator since the late 90’s, and I’ve talked to my fair share of private investigators. I’ve also read blog articles and magazine articles where private investigators argue that you should spend a LOT of money if you want to get a half decent investigation.

    This blog post is not that.

    I want to take a moment and look at both sides of the argument. Look, regardless of how you look at it, private investigators are going to cost you money. Even the “cheap” ones will cost you money. Our services are always going to be an expense. Our JOB is to help you minimize your losses while finding you the facts you need.

    Sure, with over 20 years of experience, I could fully justify why my agency charges the way it does, but at the same time, I can see it from the other side: Regardless of your needs, sometimes we’re given a budget – or (Since I’m writing this in 2021) you cold be trapped in the middle of a pandemic and the budget is simply not there.

    I started this article to try and educate the public about the $25/hour no retainer private investigators you’ll see across the web. Then, the topic shifted to educating the public into the real cost of hiring a private investigator. I’ve written about this in the past: The high-cost of a low-cost private investigator. My goal was to help clients understand the hidden costs of an investigation.

    I also read an article by Ruben Roel from Investigator Marketing – Why are private investigators so expensive to hire. Diligentia Group has a page dedicated to the costs of hiring a private investigator. And Pursuit Magazine even has an article on what to expect the first time you call a private investigator. I feel like there is so much more to say than just “Hire us because we’re good.” Or “We’re expensive because we have to pay for licensing fees, insurance, travel expenses, high tech equipment, cameras, calls, time, etc.”

    This article is a long piece – but I’m going to try and include as much of an argument as possible for both sides of the story. I’ll include what I consider as being a cheap private investigator, and give you recommendations on when hiring a cheap private investigator may be a good idea.

    What is a Cheap Private Investigator Anyway?

    When you start requesting quotes for your investigations, you’ll notice that most budgets will range from $1,200 to $3,500 or more. If you start looking into background checks, you’ll find online background checks for as little as $35 per check… then you stumble onto companies like Diligentia group where Brian Willingham charges upwards of $10,000 per background check. Suddenly, the $35 instant checks don’t look as “all comprehensive” as they claim.

    Looking for a West Palm Beach Private InvestigatorMy service area – you’ll find an average of $1,800 for a three-day surveillance. But you will still find investigators that charge as little as $500 for 3 days of surveillance – how this is possible? I don’t know. But I have my suspicions.

    If you’re looking for a private investigator in your area, the numbers are going to be different than mine. A “cheap” private investigator in New York City is going to be an expensive private investigator in Hill Country, TX. For the most part, a private investigator will charge you an average of $400 to $800 per day.

    For this article, I’m going to use this as the benchmark – $600 per day as my standard price. Keep in mind, prices change based on peak days – Labor Day Weekends, Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Christmas, Etc. and locations – New York, San Francisco, Miami, Dallas, (any other major city) will probably be more expensive than other less “busy” areas of the state.

    This article is not going to focus on investigative cases or assignments that require two investigators (due to heavy traffic areas, mainly in metropolitan areas) or travel assignments (when the investigator tails the subject across road trips).

    Who are the cheap private investigators?

    Typically speaking, the lower you go in the hourly / daily / investigative rate, the higher the chances the private investigator may be taking shortcuts.

    It’s possible for a private investigator to offer you an extremely low-cost investigation because they’re not busy at the time. But be wary of private investigators who advertise $25 hourly rates, especially in busy metropolitan areas.

    A “cheap” private investigator I the sub $25 hourly range may have be:

    • Doing this as a side hustle – some people offer this on the side to make some extra income. If that’s the case, we could write an entire article about short comings, possible broken laws, licensing issues, etc. – a topic for another day.
    • New to the industry – Look, there is nothing wrong with being a new private investigator. But is that really what you need for your case?
    • Large investigative firms – Even for them, this price may be extremely low. A large agency with volume can sometimes charge as little as $50 per hour. Their investigators (some times new to the industry) would be paid in the $25 to $30 range, and the agency keeps the rest.
    • May be unlicensed, underinsured, underequipped – I’m in Florida. The state requires private investigators to be licensed. You also have insurance fees, equipment depreciation, fuel consumptions, data fees, etc.

    Of course no one is going to advertise that they’re cheap, that’s not in their best interest. But they WILL advertise no contracts, no retainers, low hourly rates, or flat out list $30 hourly rates.

    Conducting an investigation takes a LOT of time, comes with 2 to 3 hours of preparation, database fees, and general management fees. If the price sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

    My argument against cheap private investigators

    I’m going to make my argument here – this is me defending the industry. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years now, I’m more than just a man with a camera sitting in a car outside your window.

    If you’re looking for a private investigator, or if you’re doing research on how much a private investigator charges – I hope this article will help you find the answers you need. If you’re a new private investigator looking to start a private investigations agency, I encourage you to do it right. Find your operation expenses, figure out how much money it costs to run your company, and learn from professionals in the industry.

    If you’re looking for educational classes for Private Investigators – I implore you to look at what PIEducation.com has to offer.

    If you’re looking for blog articles from private investigators, there are great websites from the industry. Adam Visnic has an amazing Vlog Series. Diligentia’s Blog is a wealth of information about the industry. Pursuit Magazine has hundreds of stories from professional investigators. Investigator Marketing has resources on how to start a business. You have Podcasts from Workman Forensics – the list goes on. You are NOT alone when it comes to starting a new business.

    Let’s start with the big one – Experience

    I want to start off that I was a new private investigator at one point. Because of that, I can tell you, without a doubt, I had to wing it. Looking back at my first case, I could have done so many thing differently.

    This may come to a surprise to many, if a private investigator is offering cheating spouse investigations, clearly he must be experienced in conducting these types of cases – right? Not really. There is no “cheating spouse investigation” certification process. That doesn’t exist. You’re either a licensed investigator, or you’re not. Once you have your license, you can advertise and promote everything from Fraud Investigations to Child Custody Investigations. Even if you have ZERO experience in that type of investigation, you can still advertise it.

    Again, they’re not going to promote their zero level of experience in XYZ case type, and if this is your first time hiring a private investigator, you’re not going to know the difference.

    A cheap private investigator may not be licensed or insured.

    This does happen. We’ve run into private investigator who were not licensed or insured in the past.

    Can this cause you problems? If you go to court and they subpoena your “investigator” yes.

    If you plan on using your findings as evidence, yes.

    A private investigator works as an extension of your – eyes & ears. So, if your private investigator does something that is illegal – and they are unlicensed – this can be traced back to you.

    If a private investigator hurts a person and they are not insured, this can also be traced back to you.

    Getting licensed and insured in Florida is not expensive. This can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 per year. But some private investigators try to avoid the fees and push their luck – usually, this happens from people who do this as a side hustle.

    A cheap private investigator may not know how to wrap up an investigation.

    An investigation is complete when a client receives their report, video, invoice, and tells you the job is done. It takes a good 4 hours to wrap up an investigation. Typing up a report that tells the story in chronological order, processing your video, stamping it, and making sure you have all the necessary documents and files to (assuming you want this) go to court, is time consuming.

    If you have a private investigator charging you $25 per hour – ($200 for an 8 hour surveillance), they still have to write up a report & add still images – 1 hour. Process your video – 1 hour. Encapsulate and bundle the whole investigation – 1 hour. Update you with information and give you a debriefing – 1 hour. They’re looking at a good 12 hours’ worth of work.

    Then, they have to store the case and file it for a certain amount of time. Every state has different rules on how long a case must be stored for. Long story short, it’s not easy to wrap up an investigation.

    They could miss information on the report, they could accidentally damage the video, or even erase the whole thing entirely – yes, this has happened before.

    “My hard drive broke”, “My computer died”, “My camera glitched”, “The dog age my SD Card” is not going to hold up in court.

    A cheap private investigator may not care about their online reputation.

    Look, we try extremely hard to get online reviews from our clients. This isn’t always easy. No one wants to air out their dirty laundry, but some investigators simply don’t care about what’s happening online. They have negative reviews, they scam people, and when they get burned – they change their business name, shut down their online profiles, and open up a new one.

    We’ve seen dozens of investigators throughout the years come and go.

    For the most part reputable investigators will stay here through the good, the bad, and the ugly. Bad reviews are bound to happen, and that’s part of the service industry, but be wary of private investigators who have reviews on new accounts or have reviews from ghost profiles.

    Ghost Profile – are, in my definition, a profile that only exists to leave 1 review to a business. Google has “local guides” which are people who constantly review places. Some investigative agencies have hundreds of reviews, but all of them are new accounts or fake accounts. Find accounts that share positive reviews from local guides.

    A cheap private investigator may not be able to handle the job.

    I wish all investigations were easy, but that’s simply not the case. As a private investigator, you rarely have backup. It’s usually you, in a car, 30 miles away from your office. You need to handle all the issues that come with running an investigation.

    Camera malfunctions, equipment issues, issues with the neighborhood, curious neighbors, etc.

    If a private investigator gets confronted (getting burned) you need to find a way out of the situation without compromising the investigation.

    If a police officer gets called out to the location, you need to find a way to explain what you’re doing there without giving away what you’re doing.

    When is a cheap private investigator worth it?

    I wish I could say NEVER! But that’s simply not true. There are times when a service doesn’t add up to the cost. If you’re an attorney and need a private investigator to go knock on a door to tell a client to please contact the attorney (we’ve done this before) the fee from us was $50 to the client. I was already in the area. I literally drove to the home, knocked on the door, and said “hey, your attorney is trying to get ahold of you.” The guy didn’t have a phone at the time (a few years ago.)

    There are a number of reasons for when a cheap private investigator would be wroth it.

    You need to monitor an area / business for extended periods of time.

    We have done this before. We were contacted by a client to conduct surveillance – 24 hour a day, for 14 days. For a situation like this, the hourly rate was lower. This type of investigation is great for businesses who need monitoring for a long period of time. The surveillance literally calls for you to stay in a location and monitor for suspicious activity.

    Security guard companies offer this service for $20 to $30 per hour. It doesn’t require much work.

    You are okay with something very basic.

    If you’re an attorney and need to hire a person to knock on some doors to see if anyone saw an accident in the area, a cheap private investigator may be what you’re looking for. We may not need to run background checks, have to develop witnesses, interview people, etc.

    These types of cases are extremely basic.

    You don’t need video, background checks, or a report.

    If you’re looking to hire a private investigator to follow a person and report back any type of potential activity, you may be okay with hiring a cheap private investigator.

    Like I mentioned above, wrapping up an investigation takes a good 4 hours of time. If you can save money that way, a private investigator may be able to help you with a cheap service.

    If you hired me to follow a person around town and call you IF and only IF the person went to XYZ location, I would do that all day long.

    I don’t have to worry about keeping notes, keeping track of license plates, people they meet, social media background, perfect video shots of the subject’s face / body / interactions / etc.

    I don’t have to get out of the vehicle and follow them into buildings, document interactions with people inside the building, or record who they meet with.

    If all you need is – call me if they do XYZ – a cheap private investigator may be what you’re looking for.

    The budget is simply not there.

    Look, I get it. Sometimes the budget is simply not there. Like I mentioned above, some private investigators are trying to step into the industry. If your budget is extremely tight, you could find a private investigator who can work with you. You may get lucky and find an investigator who under promises and over delivers.

    There are several up-and-coming investigators who are stepping into the industry. You’ll have to spend a little bit more time in finding the right person, but you can find someone who can give you the level of service you’re comfortable with.

    Talk to them, research who they are, why they’re investigators, see if they’re licensed and insured. Do your homework – if everything matches up (legally) and the only reason they charge low is because they’re new to the industry – give them a shot. If you’re okay with this, a cheap private investigator may not be a bad option for you in this situation.

    The main take away.

    I know I missed several other reasons, but these are some of the main ones that I’ve stumbled upon over the course of my career.

    Hiring a private investigator is not cheap, and it IS an expense, but depending on your needs, we’re worth it. If your business depends on it, consider the risks associated with a cheap private investigator. If you’re going to make a Million Dollar investment, why would you risk your money on a $35 background check? If child custody is important to you, why would you risk it on $200?

    I’m not advocating to hire the most expensive private investigator in the area. But I would ask you to consider the risks.

    If you think hiring a professional is expensive, wait until you hire an amateur.
    – Red Adair.

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