One of the first questions people who are looking to have a background investigation done want to know when they call our office is:
“How much does a background investigation cost?”
Although this can be a difficult question to answer, I’ll do my best here to explain some general pricing guidelines. Keep in mind, much of what someone might find in a background investigation (or “background check”) can be found on your own through online research and public record requests. The only real hurdles are if you have the time and patience to learn the process and nuances of the game. This post will focus more on the factors to consider once you’ve decided that you want to have a professional background investigation done on someone.
My hope is that you understand that in a business like this, I can’t be exact, but the least I can do is give you a sense for what to expect and some possible ranges as to where costs might be.
Cost is Usually, but not Always, determined by Quality.
Deciding on the quality of a background investigation that you want is much like choosing what hotel to stay at when you’re out of town.
With so many options available, price ranges can vary drastically. Just as a night in a Motel 6 can start around $50 a night, a step up to a Hampton Inn is likely to cost you around $150, a night at a Ritz Carlton is probably going to cost you over $400/night. Considering that the average person who stays in a Hampton Inn, or even a Ritz Carlton hotel knows that they could get a room for $50 a night somewhere else on that same night in the same city, why do so many people choose to pay more? The answer is because these people understand that when they pay extra for quality they are minimizing the chances of unpleasant surprises or regrets throughout their experience. Anyone who has ever stayed in a Motel 6 knows that Motel 6 doesn’t change the comforter in their rooms on a nightly basis, meaning that you’re probably sleeping with the same comforter that the last ten people who stayed in that room wrapped themselves in. They also understand that the risk of sharing the room with a cockroach or bedbug is a bit higher at the less expensive hotel. Because most people who are staying at a hotel desire to spend most of their time in a bed sleeping peacefully, they want the confidence that their hotel will provide them with a clean, quiet, safe and secure experience. And most people are willing to pay as much as they can afford to buy that confidence and peace of mind.
These same principles apply to most people who are considering investing in a background investigation of a person or business. Most folks that are spending money on a background investigation will probably be wanting the background information to help them make more informed decisions. Whether it be a decision about who you’re going to invest your time with or who you’re going to trust your loved one’s safety with, or who you’re going to trust your money with, picking the right investigator with the most experience and the best resources the first time will increase the odds of maximum peace of mind with a minimal risk of missing critical information.
Factors to Consider When Hiring a Private Investigator
The same factors that might be considered when selecting a hotel room figure into how much a P.I. might charge for his investigative services:
- Experience/Years in Business: This is a big one. If someone has managed to stay in business for any length of time, they probably haven’t done it by cutting corners or doing shoddy work.
- Reputation: Reputation can be gauged by several factors, starting with Better Business Bureau rating, online client reviews and if you were referred by someone that you trust.
- Demand/Availability: Most people in business charge what they know their clients are willing to pay for their services/products. If a P.I. is already swamped in business, he is probably going to keep his fees higher. If he is hungry for business, he’ll probably lower his prices and/or offer discounts.
- Geographic Location: The market can vary according to where the P.I. is located. P.I.’s in bigger markets (NYC, Chicago, LA) are usually higher priced than investigators in smaller markets and more rural areas. The same Hampton Inn room that costs $97/night along the rural turnpike exit, will cost $397/night in Midtown Manhattan.
- Appearances/First Impressions: Let’s face it, appearances count. If you enter a hotel lobby and notice that it is disorganized, cluttered or that the furniture is outdated, you’re not going to expect the rooms to be fresh and welcoming. This doesn’t necessarily mean that an organized and extravagant lobby will guarantee a good night’s sleep, but it is a step in the right direction. By the same token, an investigator that has an updated and organized website that provides relevant information is a better predictor of an accurate and comprehensive investigation than one that has poor grammar, misspelled words and is difficult to navigate.
- Specialization: If you’re looking to have a background investigation done for FCRA-related purposes (pre-employment, credit, tenant/landlord), then I recommend hiring a P.I. who specializes is that type of investigation. However, if you’re looking for information that doesn’t require the restrictions that go with these types of investigations, it’s usually preferable to hire someone that is experienced and geared for going deeper and wider in their searches, which can be more expensive, but also more accurate and revealing.
If you do any kind of research, you’ll find that the range of prices can vary quite a bit, just as they should considering everyone has different reasons, needs, wants and budgets when it comes to finding out what it is that they’re after.
For a variety of reasons, some people only focus on the initial price of the background investigation with the goal of finding the “cheapest” information. In doing so, they risk sacrificing accuracy, depth, reliability and quality, which can inevitably lead to regret, especially considering that unlike a hotel room, a background investigation will, in some cases, be relied upon for decision-making that could have effects that go well beyond when you check out of a hotel in the morning.
Reason for Wanting a Background Investigation
How much you’re willing to spend on a background investigation is probably going to be closely related to why you’re looking to have a background investigation done. If you’re just curious about who your new neighbor is, you’re probably not going to be willing to spend much to look into his past…unless you get some weird vibes off of him or he starts inviting your children over to play and he doesn’t have any children of his own.
FCRA (Fair Credit Reporting Act) Investigations: One should understand that background investigations for certain business purposes (pre-employment, tenant screening, credit-related issues) are closely regulated by the federal government through the FCRA. There are strict restrictions that need to be adhered to that one might not want to be restricted by if they’re conducting the investigation for certain reasons. For instance, the FCRA prohibits employers from looking back further than 7 years when considering criminal history. This means that the investigator will have to filter out an arrest for Fraud or Rape from 10 years ago. FCRA-related background checks are best handled by companies that specialize in these types of background checks, as they are geared to dealing with the restrictions that come with that territory. At the same time, background investigations that fall under the FCRA require that the person being investigated sign a release, acknowledging and consenting to a background investigation being conducted on them. For obvious reasons, many people do not want the person being investigated to be alerted that the investigation is being conducted, for obvious reasons.
Pre-Litigation Background Investigations: Background investigations done for non-FCRA reasons, such as a due diligence investigation wanted by an attorney on someone as preparation for a deposition does not have the restrictions that come with an FCRA-compliant investigation (No Consent/Authorization/Release of the person being investigated necessary, No time-restrictions on how far back one can search for criminal records or bankruptcies).
How Deep of a Background Investigation Do You Want?
The next big factor in how much a background investigation will cost is how deep and how far the client wants to go with their investigation. There are many different levels of background investigations, ranging from what we call an “Instant Internet Nationwide Criminal” background check, which is essentially a scraping of the Internet for data on a person’s background, all the way up to GPS tracking and manned surveillance.
I’ll briefly go over what one will typically find in each level of background investigation a little further down in this post, but first, I think it’s important to discuss the importance of verifying that someone is who they say they are.
Verifying that someone is actually who they say they are
This has been an interesting request as of late, especially with the dating scene. Last week, we had a female client who called us to do some further research on the man that she was dating. She had run an Instant Internet Nationwide Background check on her new beau and everything checked out okay. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something just didn’t seem right. When we ran his information through our databases, he still checked clean. It took some field investigation to clear up the confusion. As it turned out, her new boyfriend wasn’t exactly who he’d professed to be. He was close, but not exactly. Her new boyfriend turned out to have a different middle name than he’d told our client, giving him a whole different background, one including multiple bankruptcies and criminal fraud accusations. This character, who was very active in the online dating arena, knew that many women are now conducting background checks on the men they date. He took what he saw as appropriate action and took the liberty of gently misleading them…and it generally worked.
Knowing how to verify that someone is actually who they profess to be can be a critical part of an investigation for obvious reasons. It can be as simple as running the plate on their vehicle, or as complex as conducting surveillance.
Different Levels of Background Investigations
There are basically three different levels of background investigations; we call them database investigations, due diligence investigations and field investigations. They all have their appropriate time and place and they all have distinct advantages and disadvantages. I’ll try to briefly explain each of them below.
1. Database Reports:
A database report is basically the type of report that you can purchase on the Internet with your credit card (www.TruthFinder.com, www.PeopleFinder.com, www.intelius.com). I’m sure you’ve seen them. They usually market themselves as some version of an “instant Internet Nationwide Criminal background check” and they can be “delivered to your email inbox in moments.” The sellers of these reports usually market themselves providing as “REAL police records (court records of driving citations, speeding tickets, felonies, misdemeanors, sexual offenses, mugshots, etc.), background reports, photos, court documents, address information, phone numbers, and much more.”
This is the Table of Contents of one of our database reports:
- Name, including alias
- Driver License Info*
- List of Phone Numbers
- Email Addresses
- Address History
- Possible Relatives
- Criminal History
- Civil History
- Hunting/Weapon Permits
- Pilot License
- Voter Registration
- Current and Past Property Deeds
- Professional Licenses
- Vehicle Info Past and Present*
- Employment (in rare cases)
*It should be noted that although a responsible, licensed P.I. will also receive information such as the Social Security number, Driver’s License and Vehicle information in a database report, this information is not available to the general public due to privacy regulations.
The cost of these database “background checks” usually ranges from $29-$79. However, the lower price is only available if you “subscribe” to their services and become a “member” with a monthly fee charged to your credit card. There are lots of progress bars in the buying process to keep you invested, along with pop-ups that claim phrases like these…
Click here to see the warnings and alerts that keep you engaged.
Remarkably, there is not even an option just to buy the single report, and that is because they make it so difficult to unsubscribe that most people give up until after their card has been charged five or six times.
So, here are the advantages of Database reports…
They are quick and dirty. There is usually a ton of information in these reports which cover everything from previous addresses to some arrest records to relatives and “associates.” It will sometimes include judgments and liens and other civil matters such as bankruptcies.
And here are the disadvantages of database reports…
Database reports are notoriously inaccurate! Nothing in the report has been verified, checked out or vetted! The error rates in these reports are astoundingly high. When data entry is occurring, some information is sometimes incorrectly entered…digits and letters can be transposed, different people have similar names, identities are stolen, etc. This is why these reports are forbidden from being used by employers, tenant check services, or anyone else in an official capacity unless the information has been confirmed by a human being, either by mail, email, telephone or in person. There are actually federal laws with serious penalties that enforce the use of these database reports for certain purposes just because they are so notoriously inaccurate.
Most real background investigators start their investigations with reports from multiple database providers (as some are better and more reliable than others in different aspects of background searching). They use the database reports as a track to run on, verifying and refuting each piece of information in the reports for accuracy in a systematic way.
So, if you have the time and know how to go about verifying the different pieces of information, a database report is a good tool.
Keep in mind, a database report (unless it’s a credit report, which is a database report of sorts) will not provide financial information outside of home values or reporting of bankruptcies.
At the same time, it’s estimated that only about 35% of all criminal records can even be found online (not including LEADS/NCIC, which is only available to law enforcement). This means that a guy might be a child rapist, but that information might not show up on a database report, leaving you to believe that he’s okay to leave alone with your toddler children.
Most private investigators will sell you a comprehensive database report for $50-$200. There are a couple of advantages to buying a database report from a P.I. First of all, since a licensed P.I. is required to pass an FBI check in order to qualify for a license, database providers release much more thorough and detailed information to private investigators (i.e. vehicle information, driver license information, etc). Secondly, you won’t be trapped into a monthly subscription that charges your credit card every month. Thirdly, your name won’t be connected to requesting this specific information on this person via the web or your credit card history. Of course there will be a payment record with the investigator, and he will have a record of the transaction, but it won’t be so easily available to someone who may have access to your financial records.
2. Due Diligence Investigations
A Due Diligence Investigation starts with at least one database report. The database reports are used as a track to run on to track down new leads and verify known information. A Due Diligence investigation will typically include court records from every jurisdiction (Federal, State, County, Municipal) that the subject of the investigation has lived in for their adult life, as well as public records requests from the police jurisdictions that the subject has lived in. These types of investigations will also include divorce and probate records which, if requested, require an investigator to visit the courthouse where the proceeding was filed. Depending on the nature of the investigation, a Due Diligence report may also include information from different governmental regulating agencies (Secretary of State, Security & Exchange Commission, Federal Trade Commission, etc) to affirm professional licensing, disciplinary history and good standing in the industry. This is the kind of investigation that we typically provide to a corporate attorney who is in litigation or who is tasked with vetting a business partner or simply digging up dirt on someone. It is also a typical request for a father who has concerns about someone that his adult daughter might be dating or engaged to, or even a recently-divorced woman who has re-entered the dating scene and has an “off” feeling about the new guy she’s dating.
Most private investigators don’t perform “Due Diligence” investigations for two reasons…Number one, they are very tedious and time-consuming and number two, most private investigators don’t know what to look for, where to go to find all of the information and how to request it from the different governmental agencies. Although all governmental agencies are subject to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) and Sunshine laws, they all have their own unique protocols and requirements, whether it be via U.S. Mail, fax, telephone, e-mail, or in-person. This type of work requires a special type of investigator and it usually isn’t the same type of investigator who is good at doing field investigations. If you are considering hiring an investigator to handle a true background investigation of this sort, make sure that this is either the kind of work that this P.I. specializes in, or that he/she has someone on their staff that is dedicated to this type of investigative work. These types of investigations usually range from $300-$1,500 apiece, again depending on how many jurisdictions the subject has lived in, the scope of the subject’s activities and the age of the subject of the investigation.
So, here are the advantages of Due Diligence investigations…
Due Diligence investigations consist of verified information. These investigations are also very thorough. You can depend and rely on the information in these reports because it has been double-checked, either by pre-text phone calls or physical documents.
And here are the disadvantages of Due Diligence investigations…
These investigations are not instantaneous. It can take weeks to sift through the information and to then send off and await responses from governmental agencies. Additionally, these investigations are not cheap. A lot of research hours go into these investigations, first searching for and requesting supporting documentation and then pouring over documents in order to read between the lines, make connections and draw conclusions.
3. Field Investigations (Trash Pulls, GPS, Activity Checks, Surveillance, Interviews)
Trash Pulls: Conducting a trash pull, sometimes referred to as “dumpster diving,” is not always a viable option, but when it is, can be very informative and valuable to the client. Trash pulls are likely to uncover information such as written lists, purchasing history, personal correspondence, cell phone records, financial records (banking/credit cards), signs of alcohol consumption, evidence of drug abuse, prescription drug usage, etc. Trash pulls usually cost anywhere between $300 and $1,000, depending on the location, amount of trash and documentation required.
GPS Tracking: GPS tracking can be a very valuable investigative tool, but it is not legal or appropriate for every situation. The legalities are complex for GPS tracking and most attorneys and police officers don’t even know or understand when a covert GPS tracker is legal or permissible. But rest assured, they are still legal and appropriate in many situations. We have been using them for years, and in fact have over a dozen of them in use in the field at the time of this writing.
One must keep in mind that what a GPS tracker can tell you has it’s limitations, though. As it can obviously tell you where a vehicle is going and when it is going there, it will not tell you who is in the vehicle or what they are doing. In some cases, that is all a client needs to know, but usually, some further investigative work is necessary in the way of an investigator on the ground, or a remote camera set up in the field.
Some P.I.’s charge for tracking services by the day, although most charge by the week. We charge bi-weekly. Currently, as of this writing, I’m finding that investigators that do offer GPS tracking services are charging around $200/day, or $1,000/week. We charge $1,500 for a two week period. Many investigators will negotiate these rates when bundled in packages with other investigative/surveillance services and/or for multiple vehicles or extended periods of time.
Activity Checks/Surveillance: Activity checks and surveillance involve having an investigator covertly watch, monitor, follow and document (with video/written reports) another person’s activities. This kind of investigation can run anywhere from $50/hour all the way up to $250/hour in larger cities, depending on the location, complexity of the work and credentials of the private investigator. Most investigators will have a 4-hour minimum charge for any field work and these fees are usually paid upfront in the form of a retainer.
So, here are the advantages of Field Investigations…
Field investigations can provide hard-core, concrete intelligence that there is usually no other way of uncovering. There is sometimes no other way to figure out where someone is going, what they are doing, who they are doing it with or why they are doing it.
And here are the disadvantages of Field Investigations…
As you can see, hiring an investigator who knows what they are doing…and who won’t get burned (have their cover blown) while doing it…is expensive. The bottom line is, one has to figure out if that expense is higher or lower than the expense of not having that information.