Private investigator cost guide

Do you suspect your spouse of having an affair, but can't obtain the cast-iron proof? Or, perhaps, you're looking for a friend you lost track of twenty years ago and have no information about his whereabouts now? This is when most people start thinking of hiring a private investigator. These professionals with a certain air of mystery about them are always on hand to dig deep and get any kind of evidence, find anyone, or spend hours sifting through an antique database for a tiny piece of information that may save someone from a financial disaster. Not for free, of course.

Here you will learn about:

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Average private investigator cost and services provided

A private investigator, also known as a private detective/private eye, is a professional whose primary function is to collect information, conduct surveillance, or find someone or something based on the data provided by his or her clients. By some estimates, around a quarter of all private detectives in the country are self-employed. 25 percent are hired by specialized investigation firms. The rest are on the staff of various financial and business organizations and can't be hired by individuals. Most frequently, they charge hourly fees. On average, a detective will take from $50 to $250 for one hour of work, depending on several factors such as the complexity of the case, location, or potential threat to life or health. It's also customary for agencies to ask their clients for a retainer or initial deposit, from which they subtract the money for the hours actually spent by a detective on the job. Retainers typically fall in the range from $550 to $10,000, but may be even larger if the case is particularly lengthy and complex. There's also a set-up/administrative fee in the area from $45 to $160, as well as additional fees such as a fee for taking photos, which averages $5-$15, and a mileage fee from $0.20 to $0.70.

Price-related questions

What typical pricing structures do private detectives use?

Individual private investigators or detective agencies may use different pricing structures as a compensation for their services. Here are the most common of them.

1. Hourly rate

Most investigators will charge their clients by the hour, minimum for 2-8 hours of work. The hourly rate is typical for surveillance cases since they may be quite time-consuming. The hourly rate across the United States ranges between $50 and $250, with the average figure being $55-$60. Several factors determine how much you will pay a detective:

  • The total number of hours you're going to buy (the more you purchase, the lower is the rate)
  • The time of the year
  • Risks to the investigator's life and health
  • The investigator's location (in cities and large communities, the costs of licensing, rent, and permits will be higher)
  • The necessity of assistance from other investigators (this is the factor that may considerably increase the overall cost, especially if your investigator needs assistance from another detective located abroad. In certain countries, the hourly rate may amount to as much as $350)
  • The complexity of the case
  • The necessity to leave the town
  • Working in the evening, as well as on Saturday or Sunday

2. Retainer

Another typical pricing structure is called a retainer, which is an initial deposit that a private investigator or agency asks a client to make before they start working. The exact retainer amount is determined by the following:

  • The type of the case. For instance, if the proof of infidelity is required, the retainer may be higher – around $5500, whereas for simple database digging a client may have to deposit as little as $500.
  • Possible traveling expenses
  • The time the case may take
  • Accommodation costs
  • How soon the evidence is required

Once the client has left a retainer and the work has begun, the investigator will deduct from the deposit the fee for every hour spent on the job. If the case is successfully resolved and there is still some of the retainer left, certain companies may refund it. Others, however, may not. So, it's a good idea to ask about the agency's/investigator's policy in this respect before signing a contract. If, on the other hand, the case turns out to be longer than expected and the whole of the retainer has been consumed, the detective will ask the client whether the work can continue and if the answer is positive, will normally charge the client for each month of work until the result is achieved.

3. Flat fee

If the case is relatively simple, a private investigator may charge a client a flat fee, that is a specific amount of money, for the resolution of the case. Ordinarily, a flat fee also covers any expenses the detective may incur while doing the job. The most typical tasks for which a flat fee is taken include the following:

  • Tracking a GPS device ($55-$80 – 3 days-a week)
  • Checking a vehicle license plate or someone's driving record (around $80)
  • Records search ($30-$250)
  • Pre-employment checks
  • Background checks
  • Checking a house or car for any spying devices

4. Additional expenses

Whichever pricing structure an investigator prefers, he or she will most likely ask clients to cover some additional expenses before they begin working. These costs may include the following:

  • Set-up or administrative fee for things like sending mail or faxing. That fee may fall in the range from $45 to $160.
  • Time a detective has to spend behind the wheel of their vehicle (from $0.20 to $0.70 a mile).
  • Accommodation fees. Those are intended to cover staying at hotels if the job requires out-of-town or even out-of-country work.
  • Traveling fees. If air trips are likely in the course of the investigation, these fees must cover the cost of air tickets.
  • Fees for time spent in court. Whenever the investigator is summoned to court on your case, you will have to pay for every hour he or she stays there.
  • “Photograph” fees. For every photo taken by a private eye, you may have to pay $5-$15.
  • Fees for using a private database. Sometimes, a detective will need paid access to a proprietary database.
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What kinds of cases do private detectives work on and how much do they cost?

The final figure in the bill for a private detective's services also depends on the type of the case. These are the most typical problems investigators have to deal with:

  1. Thorough background investigation and research

    In this case, the fee depends on how much data you want to have in the end and how much information/how many clues you can give the investigator. If you need much with almost nothing to provide, expect a high charge. On average, a detailed search for phone records, court files, and other information about a person will cost you $300-$650 for around 4-9 hours of work.

  2. Confirming adultery suspicions, surveillance

    These can be lengthy cases if the information a client provides about the target person (their daily routine, interests, and other details) is scarce. Typically, investigators take a retainer for this type of work and then subtract a fee for every hour worked from that amount. Expect to make an initial deposit from $500 to $10,000.

  3. Finding someone's location

    Again, this type of case may often take a great deal of time and effort on the part of the investigator if they have few details of the person in question. For working from 4 to 9 hours, a private eye may charge you in the range $300-$650.

  4. Finding real parents or adopted children

    In this situation, the investigator needs to know how much time has passed since the last time people met and if there are any documents that can facilitate the search such as a birth certificate. As such cases may take up to 12 hours, investigators normally ask for an initial deposit from $4,000 to $10,000. On average, however, expect to pay from $150 to $800, deducted from your retainer.

Information to check

The sad truth is that not all private investigators are what they claim to be. In order to avoid hiring a scam instead of a real professional, make sure you follow these guidelines:

  1. Learn about their training and experience, as well as about their working methods. If they pretend to be another person to fish information out of someone, for instance, you may get into trouble along with them.
  2. Ask them about their insurance coverage. In many states, private detectives with a license need to be insured as well. While it may not be required for each case, find out if your situation mandates the investigator's insurance coverage.
  3. Go online and check their reviews. If you find none or their reviews are unfavorable, look for someone else.
  4. Check if the service provider is properly licensed. While in the case of a standard research, a license is not required, in many other circumstances a private investigator is obliged to have received a permit from their state.
  5. Talk to the investigator about the feasibility of a positive outcome. A good professional will listen to your problem and truthfully tell you if you can expect any tangible results.
  6. Ask for a written explanation of the fees with the investigator's signature. That way, you will avoid any misunderstanding in the future.

Other frequently asked questions

How can I achieve the best result from working with a private detective?

There are a few rules of thumb you need to follow if you want a quick and successful resolution of your case:

  1. Heed your investigator's advice. As professionals, they must have dealt with all kinds of situations and thus always know what methods work best.
  2. Be truthful with the investigator and conceal no essential details from them. Even seemingly unimportant information may turn out to be crucial to the result of the investigation.
  3. Try to buy more time even if you believe it will not be used up. In many cases, people or situations can be unpredictable and you never know when the case will end.

Bottom line

Private investigators may charge fees depending on a whole range of factors including their location, the complexity, and the type of the case, risks, or time. They may also work by the hour, ask for a retainer, charge a flat rate, and charge fees for additional expenses such as the price of fuel or plane tickets. Across all cases and states, be prepared to pay from $50 to $250 per hour.

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