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So, you think you need a Private Investigator?

Many people may think they know the term “Private Investigator” from books, movies, and TV shows, and thus the term undoubtedly conjures up a mental picture of what one may look like or even how one might talk. But due to many inaccuracies in Hollywood and in the media, most people likely have a very inaccurate understanding of what and who Private Investigators are. Even further away from the general public’s knowledge is how to actually hire one, how to ensure legitimacy, and what type of cases they will usually handle. If your attorney has suggested you hire a Private Investigator or you have been considering it, there is a lot of information one should know beforehand.

General PI Questions

Are private investigators legal?

Yes. In most countries and throughout the United States, Private Investigators are legal. Private Investigators are classified under NAICS Code 561611 – Investigation Services for federal, state, and local government vendor opportunities. While some investigative agencies are large — employing hundreds of investigators around the world — most Private Investigators you are likely to encounter will be small sole proprietors or Limited Liability Companies consisting of 1-5 employees serving in a local or regional capacity, like our San Antonio team. Private Investigators or the company they work for must go through the business process like any other business to ensure they are a properly registered business with their state and county.

Does one need a special Private Investigator’s license?

If one meets the state requirements usually determined by a state governing body, one may obtain a Private Investigator license. Different states have different requirements for a person seeking to obtain a Private Investigator’s license. Some of these requirements are very in-depth while other states simply require one to undergo a background check.

A Private Investigation agency, whether it is a large corporation or a small sole proprietorship must also adhere to and maintain specific licensing, insurance, taxation, and other local government requirements for their specific class of business.

Most states require those with a Private Investigators license to maintain Continuing Education Training on a yearly basis in order to maintain that license, which is usually renewed every other year after appropriate fees are paid to the state.

How do I find a reputable private investigator?

Despite the usual Hollywood depiction of Private Investigators as shady acholic washed-up ex-policemen living out of their dark ally office, most Private Investigators do not resemble this stereotype. This is not to say there are those to stay away from. Like most professions, there are those who are poor at their job, are seeking to exploit their clients for money, or who just get overworked and thus deliver less-than-exceptional services. There are others who are frauds and play upon the public’s general lack of understanding of the profession for financial gain. These persons are usually unlicensed and do not possess the legal ability to act as a Private Investigator in any way.

However, in general, becoming a Private Investigator is a career advancement for many top-tier, extremely-skilled veteran law enforcement detectives as well as many with strong military investigations and intelligence backgrounds. There will unfortunately be those who one should stay away from and there are typically several ways to ensure you choose a Private Investigative agency correctly. If you’d like to learn more about our San Antonio PI qualification, contact us today!

Does it matter what state I live in?

Most states have Private Investigative associations with lists of their members. In general, hiring an Investigator who is a member of their state’s association is a safe bet if you are concerned with fraud, licensing issues, experience, lack of insurance, or other shady behavior. Most associations hold their members to a high level of accountability in their work. Association members typically are able to call upon other members who may be experts in a particular field thus minimizing the risk of one Investigator lacking experience on a particular issue associated with your case.

While most states have an association to some degree, three of the major associations in the United States exist in Texas, Florida, and California. If you are looking for a Private Investigator in one of these three states, it is highly likely that most experienced investigators will be members of one if not all three of these associations.

  • Texas - Texas Association of Licensed Investigators (TALI)
  • Florida - Florida Association of Licensed Investigators (FALI) (
  • Califofnia - California Association of Licensed Investigators (CALI)

This is not to say that there are likely no great Private Investigators who are not association members, however, you run a much smaller risk by checking to ensure the agency or person you are considering is a member. There are also several national associations that work hard to better the standards and accountability of investigative work and behavior. Notable ones include the National Council of Investigation & Security Services (NCISS) and the United States Association of Professional Investigators (USAPI)

Check with your state’s licensing department. Most states have a licensing department that includes those for Private Investigators. In Texas, it is the Department of Public Safety. If you want to ensure the person or agency you are considering is indeed licensed and up to date with their insurance and training qualifications, you can search this information on their webpage. Their name is also searchable on the state’s website. License numbers are mandatory for Private Investigators to display in Texas and one can search by this method as well.

Can I use Thumbtack, Yelp, and other Online Bidding Platforms to find a PI?

If you are looking to hire a Private Investigator, we recommend you stay away from these platforms. Yes, we know these platforms do a ton of advertising and have many believing they can ensure you choose a great contractor for your project. While this may be true for getting your deck replaced, it is typically not where you are going to find your major investigative agencies. If you do find a couple of the major investigative agencies on these sites, they are unlikely to place a lot of initial urgency into your case. Historically, these platforms are cluttered with investigative requests that tend to be on the illegal side or “shoppers” and thus inquiries can quickly be discarded for more professional sources. Typically, most of the Private Investigators relying on these platforms tend to be brand new companies with little experience. These platforms also tend to include a number of unlicensed individuals and thus legitimate ones with established clients and reputations tend to stay clear.

If you are still determined to use one of these platforms, do a little research. Investigative agencies on one of these platforms may also be association members or have a strong online presence outside of these platforms. I recommend you contact them through a different method.

Private Investigators are not typically worried about turning away cases and often do so every month. There is no guarantee one of the good investigation agencies will take your case and thus you should ensure that they take you and your case seriously from the start.

Private Investigation Cost FAQs

How should I pay a Private Investigator?

Private Investigators will bill off a retainer, just like an attorney’s legal services. There may be some flat-rate services for a couple of tasks, yet in general, you should expect to pay a retainer for their services. If an investigator does not bill off a retainer and is unable to explain why or their billing processes, you may want to look elsewhere. Many states require Private Investigators to work from a retainer.

How does a retainer work?

Private Investigators should be able to explain how their retainer works, and their company’s process for collecting and billing for work completed. Work is typically billed at an hourly rate from your retainer.

Your money should be deposited into a Trust Account. As investigative services are rendered, payments will be made from this Trust Account to the Private Investigator. Depending upon the size of the investigation, this may happen several times throughout the course of the investigation or it may happen once. Your Private Investigator should be able to explain this process in detail.

How much is a typical retainer?

While there is rarely a “typical case”, investigative agencies usually have a standard retainer. This may move up or down a little depending upon the type of case and the historical amount of time it takes to complete similar cases. You should expect your retainer to be a minimum of $1,000 and increase from there due to complexity or the number of requested investigative tasks. Average Private Investigative retainers are around $1,700 - $3,000. If you are looking for a high-profile criminal defense investigator, corporate espionage, or undercover operations, you should be expecting to pay a $5,000 - $10,000 retainer.

It is unlikely that your investigative agency will offer any financing solutions, yet there are a couple that do offer this for specific types of cases. Such ones usually are kidnapping, child endangerment, or complex scenarios that will require higher retainers. You may have to search around to find one that offers financing solutions or just ask.

What should I expect the hourly rate to be?

There is no real standard hourly rate for Private Investigator services, as this can differ within a small geographic location. Rates will also differ wildly based on city and state. For example, you are likely not going to pay in Iowa what you should expect to pay in New York City. The rates may also differ depending upon the type of case. If you are looking for a criminal defense investigator or one who specializes in a forensics field, expect to pay much more than what you would for static surveillance. Typically, you should expect to pay around $70 - $140 per hour. Many agencies offer military, medical, or other types of hourly discounts so it will never hurt to ask.

The low end - If your investigator is quoting you an extremely low hourly rate (at or below $55/hour) you should be very skeptical. There is usually a reason for this, and it will unlikely end in your favor.

This is well below industry standard even for a brand-new investigator working for a small agency and is typically in the sub-contracting range.

The Process

How do I communicate with my investigator while he or she is working on my case?

This may depend upon the preferences of the investigator, the type of case, or their agencies’ policies. Some agencies will not actually let you communicate directly with your investigator unless there is a specific need to do so. There may be a case manager who will direct communication between you and the investigator. This is done so that the investigator can focus on the case. No investigator wants the case micromanaged and you should refrain from attempting to do so.

Most information retrieved from the investigator will also need to be analyzed for relevance before you are briefed on the information or given an update.

There are some agencies and investigators who do prefer to allow you, the client, direct access to Private Investigator, and this will just be something you will need to ask at your consultation.

Will I have a free initial consultation?

Almost all Private Investigators will offer a free initial consultation. If this is not free, you should look elsewhere.

Where do consultations take place?

Gone are the days where you show up to an ally office with a glass door labeled “Private Investigator” to find him in a fedora smoking behind a desk littered with files. If this is what you are looking for, it will be hard to find. In fact, you are unlikely to find a Private Investigator sitting behind any desk at all.

Private Investigators primarily work from their vehicle and most do not even have an office anymore. If the company does have an office, you will only likely find administrative persons or persons from the company’s security or consulting departments. Private Investigators are always in the field. With the advancement in modern technology, nearly everything can be accomplished on a laptop and a smartphone in their vehicle.

Most consultations are now done over the phone, through email, or over Zoom. COVID-19 has only further strengthened this trend and it is unlikely to reverse.

If you insist on meeting your Private Investigator in person for an initial consultation or during the course of the investigation, he or she will likely offer to meet you somewhere like a coffee shop, diner, or even a quiet bar in the middle of the day. This is not to say that you will never meet elsewhere. If your Private Investigator is working with your attorney, they will usually want to meet at the law firm or will even rent conference space for large legal discovery briefings on more complex investigative scenarios.

Will Private Investigators protect me from danger?

Private Investigators are not typically licensed to do Executive Protection work unless they happen to hold a license in both fields. This scenario is possible. Private Investigators do not possess any special ability to protect one from harm over and above what they could as a regular person

Often, Executive Protection agents who are in the role of counter-surveillance or surveillance-detection are also Private Investigators.

What Can (And Can’t) A PI Do?

Do Private Investigators carry a firearm?

Many Private Investigators do carry a firearm, but some do not. This will depend upon state laws, a company’s policies, and personal preference.

Can a private investigator put a GPS tracker on somebodies’ vehicle?

The answer to this is almost always, no! While the law may differ in some states slightly, in most places it is illegal to place a GPS tracker on a vehicle that one does not personally own. You can have a GPS placed on your own car or on a car that you are letting your child drive or somebody borrow, but you have to own the vehicle. If a private investigator tells you he or she can place a tracker on somebody’s car, you should question it. It is likely against the law.

Can a private investigator get into my spouse’s phone messages to see who they are texting?

Absolutely not! This is likely one of the top misconceptions in today’s smart-phone reliance world. Private Investigators cannot get into anyone’s phone and access their text messages or deleted messages. This is highly illegal, and it is illegal for you to do so too unless you happen to own the phone you let them use. If the phone does not belong to you, then you need to stay out of it no matter what may be in the phone. Infidelity is almost always discovered by other means.

Can a Private Investigator “ping” someone’s cell phone?

The short answer is no. This is also illegal except under strict circumstances and infidelity is not one of those circumstances. In cases of kidnapping or a runaway minor, the cell companies MAY allow their phone to be “pinged” however this ability is usually only given to law enforcement in these circumstances without complicated legal paperwork.

Can Private Investigators make an arrest?

Private Investigators have only the same powers of a citizen’s arrest that you have. In some states, Bail Enforcement Agents or “Bounty Hunters” are also Private Investigators or a Private Investigator can make an arrest if working for a Bail Bonds company.

Private Investigator Case Types

Before we discuss the types of cases a PI might take, it is important to understand there are different types of PIs and this will determine what type of case they will take, or more importantly what type of case you will want to approach them with.

Experts in a Field

PIs who have been specially trained (usually in law enforcement or in the military) and/or have gone to school for a specific subject matter, will market themselves as experts in a specific field. This field may be one of the many forensic sciences or cyber analysis fields.

More often than not, one who specializes in one of the specific fields will only take cases that specifically related only to that field. Such fields include: Blood Stain Patterns, Tire Tread and Tracks, Took Marks, Cyber, Ballistics, Human Trafficking, Crime Scene Investigations, Digital Photo Imaging, Forensic Anthropology, Forensic Taphonomy, Forensic Entomology, Forensic Toxicology, Vehicular Accident Reconstruction, Fire and Explosions, Documents Fraud, and Firearms.

More often than not, you will not be able to hire one directly (they are usually even difficult to find), but you will need to acquire their services through an attorney or another General Private Investigator.

General Private Investigator (Most Investigators)

While this is not a legal or industry term, it does help you separate one who is an expert in a specific field from PIs you will be more familiar with and who you are likely to find.

General PIs are the ones who are typically working cases such as: Child Custody, Infidelity, Divorce Insurance Fraud, Skip Traces, Serving Papers, Harassment, Vehicle Theft and Recovery, Theft, Missing Persons, Recovery of Assets, Background Checks, Bug Sweeps, and General Information Gathering.

They are also likely to be your go-to sources for the more complex investigations that may require experts in a field. Most complex cases will require several different avenues to investigate and thus choosing the right “General” Private Investigation who can piece the case together and call in experts in different fields along the way, is the critical component to succeeding on your case.

Elite Investigators

While this again is not an industry-standard term, there are those PIs who primarily work for security companies or as a contractor for an Executive Protection team. Their primary function is Surveillance Detection and Counter Surveillance for the purpose of protecting a location or individual.

With all of these different types of PIs, how do I ensure that my case is handled by the proper personnel?

If you are hiring a sole PI, it will require a little research on your part to ensure that the PI you are interested in hiring, is experienced enough to handle the many different avenues of an investigation. He or she will also need the experience and lack of ego to know when to bring in others who may know more about a topic than their own personal knowledge.

An easier and usually more reliable way to ensure you are getting the correct person for your case is to contact a medium-sized regional Investigative Agency that will often specialize in several different types of cases. Some of the larger agencies will handle almost all types including doing government contracting work and focus on these and corporate investigations. Typically, they will sub-contract out smaller and private cases to those regional and sole Private Investigative agencies.

How do regional or national Investigative Agencies usually work?

Typically, if you were to reach out to a larger investigative agency, you will be handed over to a case manager who will seek to understand your case and what your overall goal is. Once this is established, he will likely coordinate with one or multiple PIs in different fields in order to obtain the information you are seeking.

These agencies have the advantage of employing several PIs who specialize in several different fields as well as having established relations with multiple contractors who they will bring in on a case by cases basis.

Is it better to go with a sole PI operation or a larger investigative agency?

This is a tricky question and there is not always a right and wrong answer. The more complex your case is, the more likely you may want to consider an investigative agency. If you are unsure or just not wanting to do any research into your PI, this may also be the better option.

If your case is less complicated, it is highly likely that an investigative agency will sub-contract this case out to one of the sole PI operations for all, if not most of the work. It may be financially beneficial to approach the sole PI first if you are confident in your ability to find a reputable one.

What Types of Things Are Illegal For a PI To Do?

There are many types of things PIs cannot legally do. PIs must adhere to the law just as anyone else and this includes adherence to privacy laws and entrapment laws. PIs cannot break into anyone’s home, apartment, vehicle, or another place where a person has an expectation of privacy.

PIs cannot hack into someone’s phone to recover or observe one’s private text message communication!

This is one of the most requested services, yet it is illegal and anyone who tells you they can, is either lying or doing highly illegal activity. You and the PI can be held legally liable for such activity.

PIs cannot install hidden cameras inside one’s home, apartment, car or anywhere else one has an expectation of privacy.

The exception would be if you own the business, home, or car, and you are looking to discover activity from an intruder or misconduct by an employee. They still should never be installed in a restroom or where someone other than the client is expected to sleep. Most reputable PIs will be very leery about installing hidden cameras.

A PI cannot legally enter one’s hotel room in order to obtain evidence of infidelity like in the movies.

A PI cannot place a camera over someone’s privacy fence and record what is happening behind it. He or she may record what is observable from the street, parking lot, or public sidewalk.

PIs cannot track or ping a cell phone in any way.

If you ask a PI to track a cell phone and you cannot provide documentation that you own it, then they cannot legally track that phone.


Most if not all states now require one to be commercially licensed if they are going to use a drone for business purposes and this would apply to Private Investigators. Thus, if a drone is discussed by your PI, you should ensure they are licensed to operate a drone for commercial purposes.

Hire A Reveles Intelligence Group Private Investigator

If you have a question that wasn’t addressed in our FAQs, please reach out to the Reveles Intelligence Group team at any time! We would be happy to answer any and all questions related to our private investigator services at any time. Contact us today to get started.

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