Many of us will go through life without ever encountering a private investigator anywhere except on-screen or in the pages of a best seller. Not everyone is that lucky, though, and at some point you may find yourself in need of an investigator’s services.
That leads to two obvious questions: How much does a private investigator cost, and is it worth the money to hire one? Unfortunately neither of those questions has a quick and easy answer, so you’ll need to do some detective work of your own before you make up your mind.
How Much Does a Private Investigator Cost?
For some jobs, typical income levels are easy to find through sources like the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s not the case with private investigators. As of 2020, the BLS showed them having a median income of $25.64 per hour, with the top 10% pulling down $46.64 per hour, but that’s deceptive. Like lawyers, investigators charge on a billable-hours basis, and not all hours are billable. Depending on the investigator, a given week might easily contain 40, 60 or 10 billable hours, and nonworking time brings down the average.
It’s more useful to look at the cost of hiring a PI, not their reported overall earnings. According to the popular contractor-hiring website Thumbtack, normal rates nationwide range from $99 to $150 per hour, but they can be as low as $65 per hour or — at the high end — easily exceed $200 per hour. Some investigators bill by the hour, whereas others enforce a minimum charge that ranges anywhere from 2 to 8 hours’ fees. Still others may charge an up-front payment called a retainer, which can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
You can also expect to pay extra fees and services in some cases, including:
- Mileage or travel costs, and the associated bills for food and lodgings
- A premium in high-cost urban areas such as San Francisco or New York City
- Surcharges for the rental or use of surveillance equipment
- Surcharges for photography
- Extra costs for activities that require the use of multiple investigators or assistants
- Hazard pay for Investigations that could endanger the investigator
- Having the investigator testify in court
On the other hand, investigators don’t want to price themselves out of the market, and may offer a price break on long-term investigations. At the opposite end of the scale, they may even offer a low flat-rate quote for simple tasks like looking up a license plate for you. In short: it’s complicated.
Is It Worth It to Hire an Investigator?
That leads us to the next question, which is whether it’s worth it to hire a private investigator (and, for that matter, whether you really need to). That’s a tough question to answer too. Sometimes the decision will be out of your hands — if your lawyer tells you you need one, you probably do — but more often you’ll need to balance the cost against the benefits.
If your own billable rate per hour is higher than a detective’s, it’s a no-brainer: you hire the investigator. The opposite scenario is just as simple, in which you just plain can’t afford to hire a detective no matter what. For most of us the calculation is a little more complex. Professional investigators have specialized skills and expertise, and may also have access to services or databases that you don’t (like the ability to run a license plate, for example).
It’s not necessarily an all-or-nothing scenario. Often you’ll be able to do much of the work yourself, using tools that are accessible to anyone. This may not mean you can avoid hiring an investigator entirely, but it does reduce the scope of the investigation to only those things that need a professional’s expertise. This in turn can sharply reduce the number of billable hours you’ll need to pay for, and make the whole exercise more affordable.
Being Your Own Detective With Spokeo
When you’re looking to find someone, or find information about someone, Spokeo’s people search tools are often your best starting point. As long as you have a name, a phone number or a physical or email address, you can search for it on Spokeo.
Those results in turn can provide you with additional information to further your search, from current and former addresses to accounts and social-media handles or usernames associated with the person you’ve searched for (or perhaps even the real name that underlies the alias you’ve been given). If you’ve learned about some social-media profiles, for example, your next move might be to scour those platforms for any details you can glean. If you turn up a physical location or address, you might follow up by looking into property records for the corresponding jurisdiction.
For more specialized searches or research, take a quick look through the guides on this very blog. They can help you find long-lost family members, for example, or track down the catfishing impostor who “borrowed” a substantial amount of money from your mom, or the scammer who bilked you on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace.
Other Web-Sleuthing Resources
Tracking down people in general (and scammers or criminals specifically) online is referred to as “web sleuthing.” Many people do it as a hobby, but the same tactics and principles apply when you’re conducting a private investigation on your own. Aside from Spokeo, there are a few other noteworthy resources.
Newspaper archives, operated either by the publisher itself or by an aggregator such as ProQuest, can be another excellent source of data if you need to dig back more than a few years. Many of these databases are also behind paywalls, but you may be able to access them through your public library, or your college library if you’re an alumnus.
It’s also worth looking for web-sleuthing communities online, in the form of forums and social-media pages. Like enthusiasts everywhere, they’ll often be happy to share their best researching tips and sources. Be cagey in terms of how much you share about your own specific case, though, especially in public.
The More You Do, the Less You Pay For
The payoff for your investment in time, effort and (sometimes) subscription fees is that when you do need to hire a private detective, you’ll dramatically reduce the scope of the investigation. That in turn minimizes the time and resources your investigator will need to put into the project, which lowers the number of billable hours, which minimizes the final impact on your wallet.
Often you won’t need to go full Nancy Drew at all: just methodically recording, organizing and collating all of the information that’s pertinent to your investigation can have a significant impact on the bottom-line price you’ll pay. If you’ve been diligent about providing the investigator with everything they need, in an organized fashion, you’ll avoid paying them to shuffle paper or call you back for missing information. That doesn’t just keep the cost down, it speeds the investigation: in short, it’s solid good sense.
If you’ve done your share of the work diligently and well, the ultimate answer to whether hiring a professional investigator is worth it might be “it is now!”
- US Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics, May 2020: 33-9021 Private Detectives and Investigators
- Thumbtack: How Much do Private Investigators Cost?
- Survive Divorce: How Much Does a Private Investigator Cost?
- Lexis-Nexis: Home Page
- ProQuest: Home