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By Leroy Cook
Investigators in the United States vary greatly from one another in their backgrounds, competency, size of business and, yes, even integrity level. Financial institutions without in-house investigators, faced with the uncertainty of what they will get from an investigator, frequently leave needed field investigation undone. Legal secretaries and legal assistants are sometimes put in the uncomfortable position of performing investigative activities without the appropriate tools. This article will endeavor to improve the comfort and success level of working with independent investigators.
HOW TO HIRE THE RIGHT INVESTIGATOR
The references in this article about poor and unscrupulous investigators should not be taken as an indictment of investigators in general or a reason to avoid them altogether. On the contrary, it is because of the importance of investigation that more knowledge is necessary. Investigators are a diverse lot: no real standards exist to judge them or classify them. It is not unusual to see headlines about a private investigator who is being indicted or arrested. No one wants to be identified as the client who hired the opposite of a “legal” investigator. Even highly experienced professional investigators have difficulty selecting associates. How then can you avoid wasting money or being implicated in criminal wrongdoing by selecting the wrong investigator?
Legal investigators are part of a continuum, with the paralegal at one end and the private eye at the other. Paralegals are used in-house and work closely with attorneys, doing research, drafting documents, and conducting preliminary intake interviews. The term “private eye” conjures up images of trench coats, shoulder holsters, high speed chases and danger. Just short of these images, real life private investigators:
Use guile and trickery to obtain otherwise unobtainable information
Rely heavily on contracts and procedures which, while not clearly legal, are at least unconventional Some good investigators are long on imagination and resourcefulness and short on concern about technicalities. Legal investigators fall between these two extremes.
Professional investigators who work for attorneys and lending institutions possess enough knowledge of civil and criminal law to make field decisions appropriate to the legal strategy being followed by the client. They limit investigative activities to those that will produce usable evidence. This limitation means the use of blatantly illegal methods is counterproductive. Even unconventional methods that could offend the sensitivities of the
court or jurors might not be worth the risk.
Few if any investigators fit neatly into a category as a pure legal investigator or a pure private eye. Even the most conservative legal investigators may have some contacts who will pass them otherwise unavailable information, and even if they do not use questionable information themselves, they sometimes will ask another investigator to help them out without knowledge of how the information was obtained.
WHAT QUALIFICATIONS MUST AN INVESTIGATOR HAVE?
In selecting an investigator, you should be interested in the candidate’s formal qualifications, skills, evaluation, knowledge and integrity. Specifically, ask about the following.
Over half the states have licensing requirements for private investigators. Unfortunately, most of the license requirements revolve around whether or not the applicant has ever been convicted of a felony.
Some states require a certain number of hours experience in the field, but most do little to verify experience, much less knowledge.
Some states have no licensing requirements, but various jurisdictions within the state, such as counties or municipalities, do. These governing bodies generally are more interested in collecting fees than assuring the professionalism of the person with the license. Don’t be too impressed by a license. Be especially cautious if it is carried in a wallet with a badge.
Some jurisdictions require a bond before issuing a private investigator license: but bonds do little more than earn income for the insurance companies writing them. In short, an investigator who offers “licensed and bonded” as his stronger qualifications should still be asked more questions.
Other than the bonding requirements mentioned above, private investigators are not required by law or most governing bodies to carry insurance. In all jurisdictions, even the ones with licensing requirements, it is not unusual for a wannabe or “Walter Mitty” to put his or her name in the yellow pages as a private investigator. Obtaining Errors and Omissions insurance is something the majority of private investigators do not get around to. Caveat Emptor!
EDUCATION AND TRAINING
No minimum education or training is required to call oneself a private investigator. Education is important but not paramount in identifying competency. Critical qualities such as verbal and written communication skills are taught in school, but resourcefulness and chutzpah are not. Only a loose correlation seems to exist between the amount of formal education and training an investigator has and the investigator’s competency. An investigator with a college degree and legal training is obviously better prepared to work closely with a client in strategy sessions and in the preparation of interrogatories. A private investigator, however, with a modest education and ten years of street experience, might lack some vocabulary but could probably find short cuts to information his legal investigator counterpart would miss; and a high school dropout, experienced as a telephone skip tracer, can get information in minutes that would be unobtainable in any other way.
If you do not anticipate photography in the assignment being contemplated, you might not care about the investigator’s camera equipment and photographic skills. Asking some questions about the subject, however, is a good way to get clues about the placement of an investigator on our continuum. If the investigator claims to have 20 years experience but doesn’t know a long lens tightens a curve in the road in a photo, do not count on him or her for photographic courtroom evidence. I would also wonder what this person did for those 20 years. Maybe it was one year of experience, 20 times over.
If they claim to know how to investigate criminal defense cases, ask them to explain probable cause or some other concept relevant to the case. If you need help interviewing witnesses, ask whether the investigator is familiar with the exceptions to the hearsay evidence rule or can explain proximate cause. If you sense that you might be getting a snow job, ask about something you know intimately, like organizing interrogatories, or an acceptable opening and closing of a recorded statement. See if they make up an answer.
ABILITY AND INTEGRITY
If an investigator comes across as obviously intelligent and able to communicate well but lacks special knowledge, he or she might still be the right person for the job. What you are really looking for is someone with whom you are comfortable.
Many good investigators are masters of deception – pretending they know things they really do not know. That is one of the ways they get people to talk to them. If they tell you they know all about photography and then cannot explain depth of field, you cannot be comfortable with them. As the client, you do not want to be wondering when to believe your investigator.
Ask investigators to describe their actual experience and listen closely for anything that might have exposed them to the type of work you need done. If the nature of the assignments warrants it, have them fax their resumes to you before you make a decision. Ask how long they have been in business and for whom they have worked. If the assignment is routine, it is unlikely you are going to call their references, but their ability and willingness to give you straight answers will help you a lot. If you still have doubts, a few quick calls should help you decide.
Some state associations have instituted their own test, entitling anyone passing it to put initials after their name. Three sets of initials that require more than minimal knowledge of the subject matter are CLI, CPP, and CFE.
CLI stands for Certified Legal Investigator and is awarded by the National Association of Legal Investigators for passing a half-day written and oral exam. CPP stands for Certified Protection Professional and is granted by the American Society of Industrial Security in conjunction with a grueling test covering eight mandatory subject areas, from investigations to computer and nuclear security.
CFE stands for Certified Fraud Examiner and comes with admission to the National Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. Admission to this organization now comes only after passing a two-day test, plus other minimum requirements.
Two other acronyms are NALI and ASIS. Both require certain educational and experience minimums of applicants but they do not require that applicants be members in their respective associations.
MEMBERSHIP IN PROFESSIONAL ORGANIZATIONS
Membership in professional organizations is a way for an investigator to show stability, and having initials after his or her name is sometimes worth an extra point. Official-looking initials, however, do not always mean much. As with licensing and bonding, it does not guarantee competence or effectiveness.
Unless you know the requirements for membership or for using the title, do not be too easily impressed. Because the investigation profession attracts many very independent people, it is not unusual to find competent and successful investigators who refuse to join anything.
OWNER VS EMPLOYEE
Ask if the person you are talking to is going to do the work or if others in the firm will be doing it. If the investigator has employees who will be doing the work, ask a few questions about which specific employee you can count on handling it, his/her background, experience and how he/she is supervised. Another way of qualifying firms with employees is to ask about their hiring practices and how long their staff investigators have been with
them. Pin them down on whether the work is done by employees or subcontractors.
DO INVESTIGATORS SOLVE CASES?
Contrary to the TV image, investigators almost never “solve” cases. The client asks for something and the investigator gets as close as possible to exactly what is requested. In litigation, someone can be expected to dispute the results of the investigation. The job is done and the bill is paid but the case is not “solved” until the verdict comes in or a settlement is reached.
HOW MUCH DOES INVESTIGATION COST?
In non-metropolitan areas some local PIUs can still be hired for as little as $30 per hour. From a hungry newcomer to the business, you can get an investigative errand run in a sleepy town for as little as $37.50. Some established investigators in major metropolitan areas charge as much as $100 per hour. One investigator in the Los Angeles area will not take a case without a $5,000 non-refundable prepayment. When this investigator works
a case, he lives it 24 hours a day. If that is the kind of dedication you want, be prepared to pay for it.
Across the country, the average hourly fee for established investigators is $50 or $60 per hour. Some investigators, with established clientele, insist on a minimum of 3 or 4 hours of billing to open a case for a new, unknown client. It is good to realize that not only might you be cautious of an unknown investigator, the investigator has good reason to be cautious about doing work for a new, unknown client.
In general, clients with budgets under $150 are not looking for an investigator. They are looking for a go-fer or an errand person. If you need someone to pick up a document at the courthouse or drive by an address to see if it exists, an investigator might do the job, but only if no real investigative work is available or you are willing to pay for at least two or three hours at $30 to $50 an hour.
WHAT CAN INVESTIGATORS DO?
Private investigators do not use magic. However, the ease with which they often accomplish seemingly impossible tasks can make them seem like magicians. Here are a few of the typical information-gathering tasks for which you might employ private investigators:
Surveillance and/or activity checks
Background on prospective client, witness or defendant
Physically go into unfriendly environments
Financial histories, assist ownership verification and liens and judgment
Undesirable conduct such as gambling, drug use or alcoholism
Past criminal background and civil dispute records
Personal reputation among former classmates and neighbors
Conflicts of interest, especially business interests in other companies and firms. Investigators are also called upon to:
Find reluctant witnesses and other people who do not want to be found
Conduct interviews and obtain statements
Identify foreign agents and/or connections
Locate missing evidence
HOW TO GET THE MOST FOR YOUR INVESTIGATIVE DOLLAR
A little practice is all it takes to reduce the risk involved in using private investigators. Use an investigator occasionally for non-critical tasks in your home area. When the big case comes along and you need an investigator you can really count on, you will know who you can count on and how to work most effectively with them. When you need to hire an investigator out of your area, on a “one-time” basis, contact a referral service that tracks the performance of independent investigators by the ratings they receive from clients.
Leroy Cook is a former insurance adjuster and private investigator who is now the president of ION, Inc. ION, Inc., operates the Investigators Anywhere Resource Line(TM), a referral and screening service with information on over 22,000 independent investigators. He can be reached at 800-338-3463.
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