The Problem With Private Investigators

Having been a private investigation firm owner for over four years now, I have found some issues, that if corrected, would improve the reputation of the private investigation industry as a whole. Private investigators tend to be ranked somewhere around lawyers and pyramid scheme managers in the eyes of the public. Unfortunately, this has to do with our own undoing as the extremes are the only ones who get reported in the media. 

Maybe we should look at our image and use that to our advantage. Private Investigators are portrayed on television as either sleezy, gold chain wearing gangsters or as sexy Ferrari driving playboys.  Once again these are the extremes. What about the investigators who do excellent work and change people’s lives for the better? These are rarely reported and since the word “private” is key here, clients rarely report their darkest secrets to the media.  

We could start by not allowing ourselves to become one of the extremes and become solid communicators and work cases ethically. 

“Coming from law enforcement and specifically the FBI, I became used to a high degree of professionalism, skill, and ethics from my colleagues and myself.  Sadly, out in the PI world, these traits aren’t the norm.  I was shocked at the examples of poor work ethics, poor communication skills and faulty moral compasses employed by many so-called private investigators.  Don’t get me wrong, I have also met great PIs, whose work was second to none.” 

James K. Ellis 

Good Communicators 

Often when potential clients come into my office they say, “I have never done this before…how does this work…how much do you charge,” etc. I let them tell their story then explain how evidence will help, or not help, their case. No, I don’t take every case that comes through the door.  

Where I have seen the biggest breakdown in communication is when the investigation begins. I have failed in this regard before and paid the price for it. Once, we were swamped with multiple cases being worked by multiple investigators. We use a system where investigators upload evidence and write about their findings into a secure website. These can be viewed by the client, attorney, and anyone else the client allows. I failed to check in with this particular client by phone or in person and didn’t realize they had missed their login credentials to the reporting system.  

This client, understandably went on to tell her attorney that I took her money and disappeared. I then got a call from the client’s attorney telling me that I was being sued for the retainer for a failure to perform. Fortunately, the client didn’t sue and we were able to get her logged in and all was well. All the hassle could have been avoided with a simple phone call, email, or text message. 

This is an example of how I failed because of a technical failure, but this is really common in the industry. People pay a high retainer, then never hear from the investigator again. Investigators must develop a system to share information and communicate with stakeholders throughout an investigation. This keeps everyone happy and improves the reputation of the private investigator.  

Ethical Behavior 

Clients ask me almost daily to break the law during investigations. I never do it and never cross into the “gray area”. Once the law is broken to gather evidence, that evidence cannot be admitted into court and the client wasted their money and time.  

Several clients have come to me after they found out an investigator collected evidence illegally. Some examples include improper tracking of vehicles, trespassing to gather evidence, and physically threatening subjects. I know this sounds ridiculous, but people claiming to be private investigators violate the law all the time. 

Before paying an investigator, ask for two or three referrals from former clients or attorneys. If the investigator cannot provide this immediately, they have a damaged reputation. You can look at Google and Facebook reviews to see social proof as well. 

A note on social proof: if an investigative firm has over 25 reviews, and they are all 5 star, be wary. These reviews were likely paid for with gift cards or some other form of payment.  


I attribute all the above problems to a lack of training. Most investigators get a license then start surveillance. They never attend “real” continuing education that contains training. Most continuing education comes from attending a monthly association meeting where the investigators talk about how great things used to be and eat lunch. 

“How do you go from being a rookie investigator to being a seasoned veteran investigator? Sure, it requires a little time, dedication, skill, know-how and frame of mind, but it mostly comes from great training. Which brings us to the biggest issues in the private investigation business – there is no standardized training.” 

Paul Chambers 

Real training comes from scenario based training and on the job evaluations. This does not happen often and results can be disastrous for clients. If an investigator cannot show you proof of training they have conducted over the past year, don’t waste your money.  

Bottom Line 

The private investigation industry has a horrible reputation. Some of this comes from the extremes depicted in film. Some of this comes from real-life examples of investigators being unprofessional. Always conduct due diligence and ask for referrals and examples of training conducted. 

Do you want to work with the most professional PI firm in the industry? Call us to talk.  

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