The PI business is like a construction general contractor or other specialized service provider. You don't want to pick a lawyer, dentist, eye doctor, college, auto mechanic or even a beer because he/she/it the cheapest. You want to select based on quality and the likelihood that the professional will cure or solve your problem or get you answers.
I could go into discussions on value and economic principles but I will be more direct: Never take the lowest price. We had estimates to have a deck rebuilt. All estimates but one was over $12K. I wonder why that contractor was able to do it for 33% less than the others. Ultimately we rebuilt the deck ourselves for about 20% of the average contractor cost but that is a different, it was an intense project which started and stopped many times over six months but it was rewarding and a great experience.
However, what if we had hired on cost and I had failed to vet him properly. Even if I had checked one or two references it would have still been a poor decision, this contractor would have cut costs in some way or sub-contracted it out to a lesser sub. I was recently contacted by a family that had accepted a contractor. They later came up missing thousands of dollars in construction supplies and family tools. They didn't vet a contractor and check references.
Perhaps everyone has a bad contractor story. I don't want you to add a bogus P.I. encounter to your tales of consumer woe. Unfortunately, I have a couple peers I consider to be rip-off artists or incompetent. Every business has its bad eggs. We are no different. Here are a few things to consider in selecting a private investigator.
Beware the Experience Trap
The private detective business is the ultimate "what have you done for me lately" profession. In our industry hardly anyone gets in trouble by the state licensing authority, the Department of Regulatory Affairs or something like that. This lack of oversight means that there are incompetent private investigators who have been around for more than 30 years. Obviously, you want someone who is experienced but beware when someone seems to be playing up that experience card a bit much. You want someone who is honest and who has a record of success and professionalism.
Pay Attention to Social Media Reviews
Read the fine print. There's nothing wrong with having no reviews online but the investigator should be able to provide at least three professional references. In our case we have a good mix of reviews from attorneys we have served, private clients and even other investigators that needed assistance.
Find the Right Man (or Woman) For The Job
I stick to our core strengths: surveillance, locates, family-law, and background checks. I refer to other private investigators if the potential client needs more technical services involving computer forensics, electronic countermeasures, aka bug sweeps, adoption research or stationary camera installation. Ask the private investigator: what are you the best at?
Busy People Get Things Done
Be leery of the private investigator who says he's not currently very busy. Maybe they are not in demand because they are not very good or treat the work more like a hobby. For a professional, they know the flow of their own work and are disciplined enough to accomplish tasks in a timely manner. Certainly ask the private investigator about his work load if you have a big case. Ask them how long it will take them to do your job. If it's a surveillance you are going to need to be patient.
This is not intended as a comprehensive be all, end all guide to hiring a private investigator. But starting with the investigator's price range, these issues I bring up should also be discussed or considered.