Vetting & Selecting a Qualified Professional Investigator (PI)

This post is the third in a series designed to establish a foundational understanding of when, why, and how to leverage investigations and the use of professional investigators to achieve your brand protection objectives. 

We have explored crucial questions and areas for consideration when deciding whether an investigation may be necessary and the merits of hiring a professional investigator.  

Unless you were referred by a trusted source or introduced in a way that establishes credibility, obtaining copies of the investigator’s license and general liability insurance certificate should be baseline requests. On occasion, we are asked for client references and/or case studies too. As a best practice, we also have a standard client agreement that outlines some of the operational basics i.e. rates, confidentiality, and evidence handling, storage and destruction, etc…. If you do not work with investigators often, we find that it serves as a helpful reference for cooperation and as a conversation starter into what may arise during a case.

When outsourcing investigations, sufficiently vetting available resources helps set the stage for success and ensures that you have a qualified expert to fit your needs. Below are 10 key areas to evaluate as part of your selection process.  

Licensing Location 

First, verify that the investigator is properly licensed. Like many occupational licenses, PI licenses are issued by the state and related qualifications are determined by that state’s regulatory body. One way to confirm licensure is by requesting a copy of the investigator’s license credential. Some states have a publicly accessible database for verification if necessary. As an example, in North Carolina, our regulatory Board offers it here .

As the date of this writing, there are two states that license on the local level (AK & WY), and a few that do not require licenses (ID, MS, SD, CO). Colorado is the most recent addition, eliminating their state license as of August 31, 2021. Keep in mind that licensing also varies by country, along with what may be common or acceptable from a legal and ethical standpoint. 

Location, while a consideration, may have limited relevance depending on the type of case. Often, it is not necessary for the investigator to be licensed in your state or where the subject of investigation resides to support you effectively. We support clients with investigations across the U.S., and internationally. Should there be a true need for boots on the ground in a particular location, this is when we leverage our resources, as discussed later in this blog. 

Experience & Specialization 

Look for an investigator with experience relevant and suited to your specific needs. Some investigators specialize in certain areas, such as domestic disputes, criminal cases, intellectual property, or financial crimes, offering a breadth and depth of expertise to benefit your situation. Evaluate an investigator’s resume in whatever form and decide what background seems most appropriate to add value to your situation. While the number of years holding a license or in business may lend credibility, also consider how that time was spent (i.e. full-time career vs. part-time or side hustle) and the amount of experience logged related to your type of case (i.e. volume of investigations worked). As Abe Lincoln said, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” 

Insurance Coverage 

Ensure the investigator carries adequate insurance, including professional liability insurance and workers compensation. This protects you, your organization, and the investigator in the event of a mishap during the engagement. While carrying insurance is certainly considered a best practice among investigators, not all states require it to maintain a license. Never assume and always request verification as part of your due diligence if you believe this is of consequence. 

Referrals, References & Professional Involvements 

Referrals from a trusted source are an organic way to start your vetting process. If unavailable, request references or testimonials from previous and/or current clients to gain insights into the investigator’s performance and reputation. Online reviews and ratings also may provide insight, although they should be taken with a grain of salt. The company’s LinkedIn page as well as the investigator’s profile also should prove helpful when exploring shared connections, industry-relevant memberships or associations, and posted content. Given the nature of the profession, we are sticklers for confidentiality so likely testimonials and case studies will be anonymized unless first shared by the client or part of public record. References are often available on request, although it may take a couple of days if first seeking permission from that client (which is our customary practice). 

Cost & Fees  

Engage in a transparent discussion about cost structure and fees. Investigators may provide quotes based on an hourly rate or project basis. Rates will vary based on the investigator’s location, experience, and specialty. Some investigators also have hourly minimums or require retainers in certain circumstances. Understand how the investigator charges (e.g., flat rate, hourly rate, expense reimbursement) and request a cost estimate based on your objectives, requested deliverables and the nature of your case. Investigators uncover facts and evidence, so you are paying for the service, whether you like the answers or not. Because costs can be a sensitive issue, especially if the outcome may not be what you had hoped, it is much easier to openly discuss your expectations and seek clarification at the start rather than be surprised by an invoice or unexpected fee later. Often, specifics around fee structure and incidentals are covered in an engagement letter or standard client/agency agreement.   

Professionalism & Integrity 

Professionalism and integrity are non-negotiable qualities. Ensure that the investigator demonstrates an undeniable respect for confidentiality, communicates clearly, and strives to understand your expectations, along with outlining clear deliverables. If it is the first time you have engaged with a particular investigator, every touchpoint and interaction is a tell with the potential to make a positive or negative impression. We believe that how you do one thing is how you do everything so first impressions and key in setting the stage for professional collaboration. 

Methodology & Resources 

While this may be outlined in a proposal or discussed during an initial consultation, asking how the investigator intends to go about collecting the desired evidence is a fair line of questioning as part of the vetting process. This also gives you an opportunity to evaluate their creativity and gauge relevant experience. If the answer is, “it depends,” because often, it does, ask for a case study related to your type of case. Case studies often demonstrate methodology and shine light on resources too – whether specific databases, undercover personas, or law enforcement contacts. If your case requires the investigator to employ undercover tactics, ensure that you are comfortable with this avenue of information gathering and aware of the potential risk vs. reward. While you do not need to be versed in best practices of pretexting, you should feel confident that your investigator is and can articulate such if/when asked.  

Communication & Reporting 

Communication is a two-way street. Timely response to questions and points for clarification on both sides ensures efficient communication. You should share your desired style and frequency of communication upfront to ensure you have the answers ready when you need them. No investigator likes to receive a high priority e-mail from a client requesting an update and really, you should not have to ask!  Discuss your preferences i.e. verbal and/or written form, timing of updates to best align with internal meetings, specific reporting formats, best e-mail, contact and/or platform to reach you if an immediate response is needed, etc… A client-centric investigator will adapt their standard practices to support your workflow. With clear expectations in place, you can trust to be informed of the latest update when it is needed to guide your next steps.  

Confidentiality & Discretion 

Truthfully, this should not even be a concern as confidentiality and discretion are engrained in our profession. However, it never hurts to reiterate its importance, both with the investigator as well as internal parties who may be privy to the details. Often, there are cases where numerous parties are involved in initial discussions, and the field narrows as the investigation gets underway. It should be clear to whom the investigator is reporting and who to copy on correspondence to limit unnecessary disclosure. We would much prefer to provide information to too few vs. too many, and leave internal dissemination at the discretion of the client, especially if the case is extremely sensitive or may involve volatile circumstances. 

Compatibility & Comfort 

Finally, consider whether you feel comfortable with the investigator and any initial foundation established. Trust and compatibility are pivotal, especially in emotionally charged cases. Your gut instinct, ease of communication, and blend of personalities should give you a sense of whether your interactions with the investigator will be positive, easy, and smooth. If you have vetted your investigator appropriately, collaboration will be enjoyable and ideally, the start of a rewarding, long-term relationship. 

Sharing our perspective based on 20+ years of investigative experience, we have compiled additional top 10 lists for each step of the journey as you enter this realm: 

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Offering Intellectual Property (IP) investigations & brand protection solutions globally since 2003.

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