Have you hired a private investigator?
June 13, 2011 5:19 PM   Subscribe

Have you hired a private investigator, for any purpose? I am considering doing this, and I would like to hear experiences from people who have.

I am considering hiring a private investigator to look into a crime that was committed some years ago. For purposes of this question, please assume police are not an option. I have enough information that a private investigator might be able to uncover a lead. (If that happens, I have not decided whether I will pursue further.)

This is a difficult decision, and it would help to hear some real-life experiences from people who have done this. I would be interested in hearing as many details as you're willing to share—how you located the investigator, his fee, how much information you needed to give him, and what were the results.

Thanks in advance. This is only one piece of the puzzle that I am struggling with, but it would provide some foothold. I appreciate whatever you can tell me about your experience.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I am a criminal defense attorney and use investigators often. Investigators usually bill hourly and expect a retainer or other advance before they begin. You will need to furnish them with as much real information as you can, especially full names, dates of birth, addresses and other identifying information as you can.

You might benefit from consulting with a lawyer before you begin, so you can determine the correct statute of limitation if you are hoping for a prosecution. If you are thinking of suing the target(s), contact a civil attorney with the same question before you start. Expect to pay for this information, but it may help shape your investigation or prevent you from wasting money.

Criminal defense attorneys often use investigators and you should get a referral from one of them before you turn to friends or the internet for referrals. They'll know who gets results. You may want to specifically look for an ex-cop, and specifically someone whose police experience was somewhat recent (e.g., they have connections and are still up on what it takes to make a criminal case) and involved real investigation (i.e., not traffic or uniformed patrol).

Feel free to correspond privately if you need help with referrals. I may be able to help with that.
posted by Hylas at 5:47 PM on June 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

The company I worked for was owned by a Japanese family and run by the eldest brother; we were the American subsidiary, run by one of the owner's trusted executives. The owner's daughter was attending university in New York, but had been acting flakey: demanding cash to pay for rent instead of letting her father write a check for the landlord; refusing to see them when they visited; refusing to turn over transcripts, but demanding more cash for expensive private tuition.

For the children of the wealthy going to school in the U.S., there's a whole profession of "minders": older nationals from the home country who act as local parents. The daughter's minder reported more strange behaviour and a generally hostile attitude towards the minder. The owner asked the local executive to look into his daughter's behaviour, in addition to cutting checks to cover sudden expenses. The minder suspected a religious cult had gotten hold of her; the owner suspected drugs; my boss, the local executive, fancifully imagined an adventurous life as a high-price prostitute. My own theory, having looked through logs of phone calls from a hotel she stayed at after getting evicted, was that she was hoarding cash and trying to find a job so she could tell her father to go fuck himself.

We talked to our company lawyers, who did some database searches themselves and recommended their own contact for a PI in New York. Through our lawyers we hired the PI, who proceeded to talk to the doorman of her building. The doorman then approached the daughter, reported that a PI was asking about her, and demanded a bribe to keep his mouth shut. A frantically angry call to her father followed, followed by an angry call to the executive.

Where I come into the story is that we got a referral to a different PI. I flew to New York for several days. I met the new PI, an older man who was a retired cop, IIRC. He heard the story, professed contempt at approaching the doorman (demanding bribes for silence being quite common, apparently), and discussed her life in general. We knew she was working at a cafe in Koreatown, so I went for a coffee there the next afternoon and was served by a very polite young woman who didn't seem to be either a prostitute, a drug addict, or a moonie. After some more conversations and little else with the other PI, I flew back home.

So, my conclusions after working with two PIs is that they're not generally worth the money or the grief. The first one caused more trouble than he was worth; the second didn't do anything besides tell me stories about staking out Al Qaeda terrorists in Brooklyn after 9/11. I suspect that PIs have a problem common to all consultants: from the client side, it's really hard to tell the good ones from the bad ones. If I were you, I'd check references carefully.
posted by fatbird at 5:50 PM on June 13, 2011 [5 favorites]

I've used a PI once for a legal case. Very expensive, not very useful. Check references carefully.
posted by yarly at 5:59 PM on June 13, 2011

Also with the consultants of any stripe type of advice, always reject out of hand someone who expresses no concern for the difficulty of the case, doesn't talk in exact dollar amounts, promises more than you ask for, over-empathizes, etc.
posted by gjc at 6:07 PM on June 13, 2011

In the late 80's or so, I hired a private investigator to help me find my birth mother. Of course, having been adopted as a baby in 1958, the records were sealed tight. His methods were a combination of very thorough digging, downright sleaze and probable law-breaking. In the end, though, he gave me the information I needed to re-unite with my mother.

Pro tip: Don't ask too many questions about their methods.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:32 PM on June 13, 2011

I've worked on a number of documentaries and tv news magazine shows that used PIs. In some cases, they were great, and in others, they didn't do anything my Lexis/Nexis skills couldn't have done.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:35 PM on June 13, 2011

Funny. In five years, I've never had a reason to mention this on MeFi and this will be the 2nd time in a week I've posted about it. (If you are the previous poster and I've already told you piece of this, I apologise.)

I have hired a PI, yes, though it was 20 years ago. I needed to track down the name of the person who assaulted me as a child before the statute of limitations ran out. I started out calling the local police in the town in upstate NY, who refered me to either the sheriff or possibly the state police. I spoke to a very kind detective there who gave me the name of an ex-department detective who had been shot and was now early retired, working as a PI.

This was before the internet, really, so I went with what was my only option. I called him and gave him all of the details I had, which was a lot of location information, property ownership information, employment information, a very distinctive physical description, and an approximate age. (It was someone I'd known, a summer camp staffer, and I had a lot of detail, I just... couldn't remember his last name.) He gave me a daily rate and a retainer figure, and I posted him a check. It took about three or maybe four days, because I had a lot of detail to find someone in a relatively small area before he called back with the name, and that was it.

I decided at the time not to press charges because I knew I had a really poor chance in court, but the name was critical to me. I was later able to find out that he had been convicted of a related crime and was serving time. Thank you, Internet.

I hope that if you decide to do this, it helps you feel like you did something for yourself. For me, just the name gave me peace, but in retrospect if the search had failed, I still would have been relieved to have made the effort. My advice would be to think about both outcomes - finding what you see and not finding it - and make sure either one would put you in a better place.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:36 PM on June 13, 2011 [8 favorites]

As Ideefixe says above, don't rule out talking to a librarian or journalist with access to LexisNexis and other deep-Internet databases before you go the PI route.
posted by vickyverky at 7:37 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

DarlingBri makes a great suggestion that I wouldn't have even thought of: ask the police. I've found that walking into a police station and talking to whoever you can find usually gets you the answers you want. In most cases, they want to be helpful, and won't steer you wrong.

Even if it is a sticky situation with regards to the police, like a local notorious crime the cops have given up on, you have a good chance of getting steered in the right direction.

Especially if you find an officer outside smoking.
posted by gjc at 6:51 AM on June 14, 2011

Attorneys use PIs a fair bit in personal injury cases. They are often useful for doing things that the internet or databases can't, like getting surveillence footage of people or tracking down physical addresses and leaving contact information, etc. They're not any better than services like Lexis Nexis for finding historical (or sometimes even current) address, phone numbers, etc., since they often use the same services.

That said, it's also worth finding out what "pressing charges" means in your jurisdiction. In many, it just means your subjective intent or opinion about what prosecutors and police should do. Sometimes that carries a lot of weight, sometimes it doesn't. Many prosecutors will be skeptical about a crime that is presented to them by a victim, at least at first, since your credibility and motive are as much of an issue as the prospective defendant's. I was a prosecutor for a bit, and a victim who reeeeeally wants a case to go forward was often more problematic than one who didn't want the case to go forward at all.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:46 AM on June 14, 2011

They are often useful for doing things that the internet or databases can't...

I use them often to find additional witnesses and to conduct interviews. Sophisticated PIs can sometimes locate assets or obtain other information by using colleagues or contractors out of state where pretexting is legal. I'm not saying I condone this or ask for it, but some are willing to, and sometimes they are successful in finding information you can't find on Lexis or West, especially if it involves finding assets.

Many prosecutors will be skeptical about a crime that is presented to them by a victim, at least at first, since your credibility and motive are as much of an issue as the prospective defendant's.

I'll second that. This is why I suggested someone with recent law enforcement investigative experience, because they will often have credibility or relationships that can help with the non-investigative objections OP might have.
posted by Hylas at 1:48 PM on June 14, 2011

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