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How to choose a private investigator

Region: Ontario Answer # 1005

Asking questions and finding out as much information about an investigator and their agency can help prevent you from choosing the wrong investigator, which could result in:

  • a compromised investigation,
  • liability/exposure for you – the client, and
  • higher costs due to failure or poor results

What should you look for when hiring a private investigator?

It is important to consider a number of factors and ask a number of questions before hiring a private investigator, so that you can make the best choice for your situation.  It is very important that a licensed private investigator  has the right training and qualifications.

1.  Is the investigator licensed?

To legally provide private investigation services in Ontario, investigators must be licensed, and must either work for an agency, or be licensed as an agency themselves. It is always prudent to ask the investigator to show you their licence.

Licenses are issued by the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General (MSG), which is the Ministry responsible for overseeing the private investigation industry. Some of the requirements to obtain a licence include being 18 years of age or older, having a clean criminal record, taking a basic training course, and passing an exam.

How do you know your private investigator is licensed?

After obtaining its licence, an individual must register with the MSG online at ServiceOntario or an agency must register as an employer. The agency must register the names, individual licence numbers and licence types for each employee working for it as a private investigator. Registrations are valid for one year and must be renewed annually through ServiceOntario.

To confirm the status of the licence of an individual Private Investigator, you can conduct a search on the Licence Registry. To do so, visit the MSG website, Security guard or private investigator licence (individuals), and choose “Search Licence Status” under the “related” list to the right of the page. You can then conduct a search by entering:

  • The licence number of an individual – to confirm the licence status of a private investigator.

You can also conduct a search for the status of a Private Investigator employer. Visit the MSG website, Security guard or private investigator licence (employers), and choose “Check an employer registration status” under the “related” list to the right of the page. You can then conduct a search by entering:

  • The legal business name of an agency (you may have to confirm this with the agency) – to confirm the licence status of an agency that sells the services of private investigators.

2.  Does the private investigation agency carry General Liability Insurance?

In order to be issued a private investigation licence, an agency must show proof that they have a minimum of $2,000,000 in general liability insurance coverage. Before hiring an agency, you can ask to see proof that the agency’s insurance policy has been maintained.

3.  Does the private investigator conduct the type of investigation you need?

This could include:

  • background checks
  • employee fraud investigations
  • find missing persons
  • child custody investigations
  • domestic dispute investigations
  • intellectual property investigations
  • asset searches
  • workplace insurance board investigations
  • skip tracing, and so on.

4.  Do they make a good impression and seem professional?

When you are interviewing a private investigator, make an assessment of whether you believe they are operating in a responsible and professional manner.

For example, ask yourself questions such as:

  • Does the private investigator operate out of professional office space?
  • Do they have a website?
  • Do they respond quickly and in a professional manner?

5.  What are their fees?

It is also important to find out how much their services will cost. Experienced investigators will be able to provide an estimate after knowing the circumstances and requirements of your situation.

Some questions you can ask include:

  • do they charge a flat fee or hourly rate?
  • can they give you an estimate of what your investigation will cost you?
  • is an upfront retainer or deposit required?
  • will they sign a contract upfront detailing the services to be performed and the estimated costs?
  • will they provide an itemized bill and accounting of services after the investigation is done?
  • what is their policy with respect to interim billing and progress reports?

What additional questions should you ask before hiring a private investigator?

Once you have found an investigator that you have confirmed is licensed and satisfies the other concerns mentioned above, before hiring them you should still conduct a phone interview, or ask to meet with them. Many investigators provide a free initial consultation.

During your consultation, ask the investigator:

  • How many years experience do they have as a private investigator?
  • What is their background? For example, were they previously in law enforcement?
  • Can they provide you with references? Do those references check out?
  • Do they have experience testifying in court?

How much do private investigation services cost?

Depending on a number of factors, such as the type of services required, the cost of hiring a private investigator can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. As well, an investigator may charge either a flat fee or an hourly fee for the investigation.

Flat fee

Some investigators may charge a flat fee for basic or specific services, such as a background check, criminal record search, asset investigation, or vehicle registration search.

Hourly fee

Some investigators may charge an hourly fee that could range typically from $60 an hour to $140 an hour. This may apply in investigations than involve surveillance where it is not known how much time will be spent.

Retainers and deposits

Investigators may also ask for a retainer or deposit upfront, which is to be applied against services rendered and expenses incurred. This amount could vary depending on the type of investigation to be conducted. For instance, a retainer for criminal defence work will probably be higher than one for an investigation that just involves data searches.

Regardless of how they charge for their services, the amount will be determined not only by the type of investigation done, but by a number of other factors, including:

  • the amount of time that will be spent to conduct the investigation and prepare a report
  • the location of the agency or services
  • the level of experience of the investigators involved
  • how much information you are requesting
  • how much information you can provide to help with the investigation
  • the urgency of the investigation
  • the amount of travel that will be involved
  • expenses that must be incurred, such as airline or hotel expenses
  • if the investigator requires the assistance of an associate in another province, or country

Get help

To have someone conduct a background check or other investigation, contact our preferred Investigators:


Smith Investigation Agency

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