Private investigators are specialized professionals trained and licensed to conduct surveillance, collect evidence, and use specialized databases to look into matter such as cheating, child custody cases, missing people, and pre-employment checks. In short, if you need to get to the bottom of something, a private investigator can help you.
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This post examines 4 different types of payment structures private investigators use, and how much it costs to hire a private investigator to investigate 6 popular case types
How Much Does a Private
Across all cases, the cost of hiring a private investigator in the US is ranges from $40 - 200$ per hour. Trustify, as the largest national network of licensed private investigators, charges between $69/hour and $79/hour.
Retainers for most agencies range from $500-$28000 depending on the type of case. Trustify's average case cost works out as 7 hours at $79/hour, or $553.00 with no retainer (we don't charge one). Surveillance cases will run higher, while research cases will run lower, depending on the circumstances.
How much a private investigator costs depends on the work you want done and the location in which the case will be based. Whether you want to hire a private detective to find records or property, follow someone, investigate infidelity, or find a lost relative, you'll need to know how investigators charge, and what the likely cost will be for your case.
Common Cases and Their Costs
We've handled lots of cases here at Trustify. To help you understand how much you can expect to pay for a private investigator's services in handling common cases, we've compiled some typical case costs based on our own hourly rate of $79-$99 (we charge hourly, with a small setup fee - we do not charge a retainer). We've also included some general notes on different cases, and a rough guide to prices from other agencies to help you compare our own methods to the rest of the industry.
Typical case length: 4-8 hours
Typical cost: $316 - $632
A locate case can vary greatly in cost. Often 4-8 hours or more of work is not atypical for this sort of case. Obviously, this will fluctuate depending on how much information you have on the person you’re searching for, and other factors affecting the difficulty of the case.
Most investigator will use the hourly rate payment structure to locate someone, and may charge you for expenses (like database fees).
Surveillance, Infidelity, and Following People
Typical case length: 4-18 hours
Typical cost: $316 - $1242
Each case is different. Surveillance cases can be unpredictable, but generally speaking the more information about the person of interest's (POI's) habits and personal life that the investigator has, the faster they can investigate.
Most agencies will charge a retainer for cases like this that tend to range anywhere from $1,000 - $5,000, with an hourly rate charged against that retainer. At Trustify, we simply charge an hourly rate (that we discount for longer cases). We have a whole post that breaks down what you can expect to be charged to have someone followed.
Locating Birth Parents or Adopted Children
Typical case length: 2-10 hours
Typical cost: $158 - $790
The cost of a case of this nature depends on a couple of key factors, namely how long it has been since last contact, and the availability of key records (like birth certificates etc). If the case is recent, a quick digital investigation can locate someone in a matter of an hour or so. If the person you're looking for was born some time ago and you have little information, the case can run a little longer.
Because these cases can be lengthy and often difficult, most agencies will charge a retainer usually ranging from $5,000-$10,000, and then charge hourly against this sum.
In-Depth Background Checks and Research
Typical case length: 4-8 hours
Typical cost: $316 - $632
The cost of a proper, in-depth background check from a private investigator depends primarily on what what you’re looking for, and what you have to go on. If you're looking for things like phone records, court records, or other detailed information, these will affect the final price of the case. The more detail you're looking for, and the less information you have to get started, the more your case is likely to cost.
You may be wondering why this price is higher than the online search services you might have found on the web. A background check by a private investigator costs more because, rather than quickly combing over public records and outdated databases, you'll have an experienced human with information that a normal civilian can’t access working on your case. There are better ways actually to perform a free background check, but if the background check is important to you, then you should use a private investigator.
Getting Phone Records or Tracing Cell Phones
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Cell phone records used to be available (up until 2006) for a nominal sum by licensed investigators - but the law changed, and now different methods are required.
These days, investigators can use tools, guesswork, and human intelligence to determine what carrier a phone number is on and who it is registered to. They can also use other surveillance and investigation methods to investigate who someone might be contacting (this is the preferred method).
Tracking a Cell Phone
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Typical cost: -
It's actually illegal for a private investigator to track someone’s phone without the permission of the owner of the phone. If you do need to track someone’s phone, we do have an article that covers 3 legal ways to track a phone.
Fortunately, there is usually a better way to get the information you’re looking for. We normally suggest performing surveillance instead. Generally speaking, surveillance isn't on shakey legal ground like cell phone tracking is, and pictures make much better evidence which if taken correctly can be used in court.
How to Hire a Private Investigator
Ready to hire a private investigator? Here's a few things you should know, whether you hire a private investigator through Trustify or not.
- Check Their Reviews or Get a Recommendation. There are unscrupulous investigators out there - and even fake ones! (You can check Trustify's reviews on Trustpilot.)
- Check their license. Some research cases do not require a licensed investigator - but if the case is on location or requires experience and specialized database access, then you should make sure they are licensed in the state they will be operating in throughout the case. Here's a handy guide on licensing information for each state.
- Ask about confidentiality and security. Make sure that you are comfortable with their procedures, including how they plan to communicate with you throughout the case, how they intend to send you their final report, and what their skills are with undercover work if they are going to be in sensitive, covert situations.
- Ask about their experience and training. Private investigators that operate illegally or unethically can get you in trouble or harm your case. Ask them about using GPS trackers, hacking into cell phones, and techniques like "pretexting". These three techniques are all legally restricted and prohibited in most circumstances.
- Ask about insurance. Many states have insurance requirments for licensed investigators. Insurance isn't necessary for every case, but if it is you should ask about it and make sure that they have the required coverage.
- Discuss your expectations. A good private investigator will discuss your expectations before money changes hands. Sometimes it is not possible to achieve all your goals, and you should be aware of what's possible before the case actually begins.
Typical Private Investigator Charges and Fees
Private investigators will typically charge for their work using a combination of one of these 4 common pricing structures. It's not uncommon to have a retainer combined with an hourly rate, or to have expenses included in an hourly rate - be sure to confirm this with your investigator before you begin your case.
Note: Trustify charges from $69-$79 an hour for our private investigators' services, excluding expenses, with no retainer. This fee includes dedicated case support to help you get what you need and extensively vetted investigators.
Generally, hourly rates for private investigators range between $40-$200 nationwide. Hourly rates change depending on your location, the investigator or agency you hire, the difficulty of the case, whether you'll have more than one investigator on the case, and even the time of year.
Most investigators and agencies (including Trustify) will adjust their hourly rate based on factors like overall hours purchased, the price of gas, and expected risks to the investigator's safety. Most agencies (like Trustify) reduce their price per hour if you hire them for a large number of hours. This is important, since investigations involving tactics like surveillance can take a significant length of time.
Note: Most hourly rates normally don't include any extra fees that an investigator might incur but Trustify will cover normal expenses a private investigator may charge for (outlined later in this post).
Flat Fees and Rates
For services that are straightforward to complete, a private investigator or agency may charge a flat fee. Flat fees are simply a fixed price for the service’s completion. In the private investigation industry, a flat rate pricing structure should also cover any other expense to complete your case. The sorts of cases that often attract a flat fee include:
- License Plate Searches
- Confirming a Cell Phone Number
Retainers can vary from $1,000 to over $5,000 per case, depending on the investigator’s or agency’s policy, and the work you need completed.
Some investigators will charge against your retainer and refund anything that they don’t use, while others will keep the full amount, whether or not they use all of it. If the services that the private investigator agreed to provide for you exceed the cost of your retainer, or the investigation incurs expenses exceeding the value of the retainer, you'll most likely be charged for them.
At Trustify, we do not charge a retainer - just a one-time $50 processing fee to get your case started, and then charge you at an hourly rate after that.
If your investigator is charging either a retainer, an hourly rate, or a mix of the two, you will most likely also have to cover any expenses your investigator incurs throughout their investigation. Some of the common expenses include:
- Drive Time/Mileage - How long and how many miles it takes for an Investigator to follow someone. ($0.20-$0.75/mile)
- Tolls - Any tolls that your Investigator has to pay during the investigation.
- Air Fare - If your investigator has to fly to your job site, you should expect to foot the bill for the plane tickets.
- Hotel Fees - If your job requires an investigator to spend the evening in a hotel, you should expect to cover their room.
- Court Appearances - If your Investigator has to testify, they usually will charge for their time in court, either with a flat fee or hourly rate.
- Administrative Costs - Some investigators will charge for things like mailing evidence, faxing, administrative staff, etc. Typically, this ranges from $50-$150.
- Database Fees - if your investigator uses private databases in the course of their search, they may also charge you for any fees they had to pay for the use of the database.
It's extremely important that you get an itemized invoice at the end of your investigation to make sure that you can account for all of the expenses your investigator may have charged.
Hopefully this guide has given you a good idea of what your case is likely to cost. If you're still not sure, that's OK - the cost of each case tends to be determined on a, well, case-by-case basis. Individual circumstances, information given, and other specifics have huge impact on the price of any investigation. The best thing to do is to talk to a professional and see what they say. You can get a free case estimate right here, anytime.