Hiring A Private Investigator vs. Do-it-yourself Investigating

 By: Randy Mann
The interesting thing about posing this question is that most people think they are qualified to answer it, although they aren't. The fact is, most people do not know what detectives, whether on the police force or "for hire", really do in an investigation, and what sorts of skills are required. It is certainly nothing like you see on TV.

Of course, you would not do much murder investigating, even if one happened in your family. You would probably leave the burglary capers to the police, too. Private investigators can certainly look into those matters for you, but the bulk of a private eye's work involves finding people and identifying their whereabouts, their actions - and, of course, their assets. This is why the great majority of private eyes make the great majority of their money on divorces and civil matters, not criminal investigations.

Private eye or DIY?

Private investigations can be difficult for even the most experienced professional. Private investigators have been helping people "get the skinny", or the truth, in all types of situations. Whether it's a company investigating a string of warehouse thefts, a spouse that suspects her significant other of cheating or a case of a disappearing investment advisor (these are on the rise), private investigations can be quite challenging and time-consuming. There are certain tricks of the trade that you must learn, and there is no substitute for on-the-job training.

There will always be a huge difference between a real "PI" and a do-it-yourselfer (DIYer). But if you reduce the tasks to their simplest components, there are a number of basic matters that you could investigate, or begin investigating, without hiring a professional right away. With the Internet, you can check many databases, including those of government agencies and various industries, to help you in the one undertaking in which you just might make some progress on your own, namely, locating people who don't want to be found.

Tools and tricks

Private investigation has changed tremendously over the past few decades. As opposed the "old days" of the "gumshoe" where a PI would follow a wayward wife around town with a camera and try to catch them in an adulterous act, PIs now are highly trained, skilled professionals. Whether they are former police officers or crime lab technicians, or like many others took law and/or accounting courses (like FBI agents), they did what was necessary to get an "education for investigation".

Trying to conduct an investigation without the required skills will yield poor results. This is where many of the DIYers make their first, and most catastrophic, error. They think that a few web searches and a $19.95 online background check is "investigating". This, of course, is silly. So, even in the one type of investigation in which DIYers could be successful, the personal search, there are twists, turns, shortcuts and time-wasters all along the way. There are precious few things other than experience that can make a beginner a veteran.

Danger and other high costs

There is also a tremendous amount of danger that PIs can get themselves into. Some of them will face life and death circumstances. These days, however, many private investigators are not acting under that title alone, and hold badges in law enforcement. This allows them to protect themselves to the fullest extent. However, among the 50 states there are various laws regulating, or outright prohibiting, sworn peace officers from working as private detectives, security staff or bodyguards.

With danger being an equal opportunity employer, and something that any PI might face in a thousand different ways, the "DIY detective gig" might become something of a magnet for those who want to become vigilantes for justice. Fortunately, most states have licensing procedures in place that will limit the number of "John Waynes" that are allowed to flash badges and carry concealed weapons while in the employ of a private citizen.

Back to basics

Not only can private investigation be dangerous and daunting, it is also very time consuming. Private investigators dedicate their every waking hour to the completion of whatever case they happen to be on. PI work is difficult for the professional and amateur alike, but deciding how much to "bite off" should be simple for the DIYer. The answer would range from "none" to "not much", at least until you develop the basic online search skills, plus learn how to get information over the phone, by mail, via e-mail or in person from the myriad local, county, state and federal bureaucrats that man the barricades in the government offices that are chock full of answers.

It's very important to consider all of the costs, in terms of money, time and danger, which conducting an investigation entails. Invest some research time into the fine points of, say, "skip tracing" and you will discover that it's not as easy as it might have seemed on television. Then, when confronted with a problem that needs some detective work - nothing criminal, of course - you should be able to see a clear line between what you can handle yourself and what you need help to do. It should not bother you in the least that the latter group will be much larger than the former, as it is that way with most everything. After all, you can only be an expert at so much, so get help when you need it. The trick is knowing when to do that, and it's always better to err on the side of caution and ask for help than to charge ahead and lose your head!
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In these times, background checks on people have now become standard operational procedure. Employers screening potential applicants, private investigators trying to solve their clients' cases, businessmen cautious about investing money, and even parents wanting to check out their future in-law's past life - these and many other people are in need of background checks on particular individuals, despite their different reasons.
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