Sunday, April 15, 2007

4/15/07 Considering a Private Investigator, Part II

You have made the decision to hire a private investigator. What do you need to know?

By Steve Bronnum

Part 2

Are you dealing with a legally licensed private investigator? This is a really good place to start. You would be amazed at how few times I was ever asked to produce my identification. Thousands and thousands of investigations over the course of many years and I doubt that I was asked to show my identification more than 50 times. So ask, and look at the picture on the identification. Make sure it matches the person who is offering the identification. Write the license number, name, address, who the issuing government entity is for your records. Then contact that government entity to confirm the authenticity of the license.

There are a lot of people who work, or worse yet, worked for licensed investigator. That doesn’t make them a licensed investigator. Remember in many states you have to successfully complete three years of employment with a minimum of 2,000 hours of documented investigative work per year in order to be eligible to apply for a private investigation license. Just the fact that you worked as an investigator for a licensed investigator doesn’t get the job done. You as a family of a missing person, need the actual licensed investigator. Of course, he or she will have employee investigators who work under their license and control and direction, but it is the licensed investigator or Qualified Manager who is the responsible party. I hope that helps a bit.

Of course, you can always create a list of information or documentation that you need from any given private investigator and ask them to submit that information before any further consideration.

If you have been contacted, I would strongly urge you to, “Just say NO!” This would not include any investigator who is affiliated with any reputable non-profit missing person assistance organization or law enforcement agency assuming you can locate such a person.

Let’s talk about the money for a minute. Hourly rates, daily rates, flat fees plus expenses for mileage, telephone, faxing, photocopying, photos, video tape or digital images are all routine in the investigative industry. Hourly rates can be as low as $20 an hour to $250 an hour or more. But of course, the hourly rate doesn’t mean anything without knowing just how many hours you are going to be paying for. It’s possible that the $250 an hour person will be able to accomplish the mission in 5 hours. While the $20.00 an hour person may charge 80 hours of hours. I’ve recently heard rates quoted at $100.00 per hour. Considering I charged $55.00 to $65.00 in the early 90’s that’s probably about right: somewhere between $80 and $100 an hour.

Just how much time is it really going to take? On the front end there is no way of telling. You might also want to consider the fact that the investigator has a lot to do with determining just what information you get and when you get it. So having a competent ethical professional is a must. In fact, I have personal historical knowledge of investigators using this simple and easily understood ploy to justify stringing cases out for months of even years. They would literally say, “When you get more money saved up, let me know and I’ll do some more investigation on the case.” That really shouldn’t work for you!

What’s the answer? Well part of it is reports: Regular, detailed, complete reports from the investigator on exactly what they have been doing, what they have learned, who they learned it from, and when they learned it. Make sure that your investigator has committed specifically to the work that they are going to do for you and that they report it to you on a timely basis. In the case of something happening really rapidly, they can call you to advise of their activity, but this must be followed with a written report as soon as is reasonable.

When do you pay? I would suspect that most investigators will request an upfront fee. Their position is, I’m working for someone who might not want to pay me later. My suggested position: Half now and half after they have completed and fully reported on their assignment to your satisfaction. The understanding being they get the balance ONLY if you are satisfied.

On to the list:

Have them send you all pertinent information about their PI license (i.e. the number, assigning authority, etc.).

They need to give you their real physical office address (never a P.O. Box), business telephone number, cell number, etc.

Have them confirm whether they have a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Of course you will want the number and the authorizing agency so you can authenticate the license. In many states, like Washington State where I have my personal permit to “carry a concealed pistol”, a criminal background check must be successfully completed through the United States Department of Justice before the license can be issued by the King County Sheriff’s Department. So, in my case, just because of the fact that I have this license allows you to know I have not been convicted of any crimes, nor am I wanted for any violation that would exclude me from receiving a license to carry a concealed pistol. That’s a nice thing to know when you are hiring an investigator.

Please note that in many states obtaining a license to carry a concealed weapon is just about impossible. So, not having such a license in the state of Washington would bother me. In New York State or California, lots of good folks could not get a permit to carry a concealed toothpick. One last note, being authorized to personally carry a concealed weapon may not necessarily translate to carrying one in the course of investigative work. In Washington State for example, a completely separate permit must be obtained for carrying of a weapon in the performance of investigative work.

Have them give you a signed declaration about whether they have ever been convicted of a crime, successfully sued by a client, and if they have ever had their investigative license suspended or revoked at any time.

They will need to provide you with a current proof of insurance. Routinely, this will be a certificate from whoever insures their agency for “Errors or Omissions.” If they do not have such a policy, then you don’t want them. Every insurance company requires this certificate before allowing an investigator to contract with them. Your interests are even more important than any insurance company’s, don’t you think? Ask them for the official certificate of insurance from their E and O insurance provider and then call the provider to confirm its authenticity. I used to have copies at my office, but you can call the issuing agent and have a certificate created with your name on it and sent to you, thus verifying coverage.

You can always request a resume from the investigator. I certainly would. I also would ask for a history of the investigative agency, who they employ, and what their backgrounds are, as that would very nice to have as well. Effectively, anyone who would have access to your confidential information and be involved in anyway in the investigation for your missing loved one should be identified.

Find out why this investigator would be a good choice to work on the location of your missing loved one. Do they have special expertise? Have they had training in locating the missing? etc., etc.

If they are former military….ask them for a copy of their “DD214” (DD Form 214, Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty). This document will provide proof of their service and what type of discharge they received from the military. Anything other than honorable should cause you to begin to wonder….

If they are former law enforcement….ask them who you need to contact with their former department, agency, etc. to obtain verification of their service. Quick note: You must require an official source of information, a friend who is still on the department, as an example, would not be acceptable. You want the personnel department and an official communication.

Upon requesting their resume and/or history of their agency's clients:

If they tell you they can not reveal the names of their clients for reasons of confidentiality they might have a point. However, if they work for major corporations, insurance companies, financial institutions, local governments, charitable foundations, etc., they can definitely give you this information, and you could most certainly confirm their association with the company or governmental agency without any issue of breaching confidentiality. I routinely provided a listing of the corporations and governmental organizations I contracted with, but never the cases files or specific information about any particular case. Routinely, I would provide a contact for each of the companies or organizations I worked with so they could be contacted and provide a reference.

Ask them who will actually be conducting the investigation for you. Yes really. Who in their company? Who with other investigators they might contract with, etc.?

Find out what capabilities their agency has. Do they have photographic, video and/or digital imaging equipment? Do they have a web site? Do they have surveillance capable vehicles (i.e. a vehicle that an investigator can remain comfortably concealed within without moving for 10 hours or more at a stretch and not be seen by neighbors or passers by). Real surveillance experts do not work out of passenger cars. Many investigators and law enforcement officers, even Federal Agents do, and that’s why they are frequently getting “burned.” For real surveillance professionals they wouldn’t think of sitting in the front seat of a car (with or without a partner) drinking and eating as they watch the target.

Of course, there is a lot an investigator can do without needing a surveillance capability. However, we routinely used surveillance especially on targets who we intended to interview directly at a later point. There are many times when surveillance conducted correctly can be a very valuable capability. I would only use investigators who did not have this capability for specific pre-assigned tasks. You will find that most ex-military and law enforcement don’t have any surveillance background. You will also find that surveillance is routinely considered drudgery and work for the less mentally skilled, just like you will find that many departments consider the missing persons detectives positions just about the lowest rung on the departments ladder. Often these people are not considered capable for the big leagues like: Homicide, Organized Crime, Gang Units, Robbery, etc, etc. I think you know where I’m heading with this.

Hopefully this gives you a little better idea of what you need to evaluate an investigator. If you are going to give up large sums of money, which is the reality that you are facing, make sure it’s to a competent professional. Remember, if you don’t like them when you interact with them, don’t hire them. They are not better than you and they most certainly are not magical. The best are dedicated professionals who have knowledge, experience and capability which they will use to do their very best to locate your missing loved one.

One last thing:

Create a contract. Write up what you expect, when you expect it, the requirements for reporting to you and how much you will be paying. Do that and have an adult witness the signatures on the contract.

Hopefully this will be of some assistance. Good luck and all the best!

Steve Bronnum

Our Note: Also ensure that the PI is technically advanced. There will be numerous reasons why PC/Internet skills come into play in an investigation done in today's world. You should also take into consideration if the PI has skills and hobbies similar to that of the missing person, or that they have a keen understanding of the same.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

With all due respect to Mr. Bronnum, as a licensed investigator, I wouldn't work for you if you demanded to know who my clients were. I would be very happy to provide you sufficient information to determine that I am duly licensed and insured. I would not work without a contract. The contract protects the consumer and the investigator. Any complaints can be directed to the appropriate authorthity. His recommendation regarding being suspicious of an investigator without a concealed weapons permit is ludicrous.

1:43 AM  

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