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So how much do the services of Investigative Firms actually cost?

Updated: Feb 25


In this article, I-OnAsia’s Chairman Derek Elmer talks about the cost of investigative and intelligence services globally, why they vary, what to look out for, and what the common costs are associated with the most frequently requested services.


One of the biggest secrets among investigative & private intelligence agencies globally is the cost of their services, there can be significant variables between firms, and quite often the difference in price for what appears to be the same product can leave prospective clients, lawyers and corporate's confused as to why the difference is so vast, for what appears to be the same service? Or is it?


So how much does a Private Investigator Cost?

Investigation and private intelligence agencies exist all over the world, on every continent, in every country, and in most cities, but very few advertise how much their services cost on their websites and in their advertising material.


The very absence of the most important element of a client’s decision making process as to whether they should engage or not with a firm, will be determined largely by the price of the service being offered, so why is it not there I hear you ask....?


One thing to bear in mind is that sometimes costs will vary significantly depending on the service the firm is offering, where they are offering it, and the expertise of the person who is undertaking the task, so to commit to a price for a particular product on a website, is actually somewhat disingenuous as there are many variables to the services that are offered which can alter the price.


Let us use the most common service often sought of investigative agencies as an example, locating persons, sometimes referred to as skip tracing. An investigation which involves trying to locate someone who cannot be found, or has moved on since last corresponded with, maybe a bad debtor, a missing relative, or someone who needs to be served with a court issued freezing order, or summons.


Its not uncommon for a lot of agencies to offer a ‘no trace no fee’ skip tracing service, so, if the agency doesn’t find the subject person you’re looking for, you don’t part with a penny, but, is this a good thing? Or a bad thing? And what did the agency do to get to this conclusion that they couldn’t find the person, and how good is the information if they did find them?

Investigations firms will charge for this service anywhere from $50.00 all the way up to potentially $2,500 USD, plus local taxes if they have had to use other investigation tools and followed the subject person through a number of countries to locate their whereabouts, which in some cases can be very challenging, and even then, there’s no guarantees they'll take off again.


Now immediately I hear you say.


“$2,500 to find someone, that's ridiculous!”

This sounds like a lot, and it is at the higher fee structure of this particular service, but to understand why it could cost so much, allows you to understand why this is the case in some instances.


Firms that offer the "no trace, no fee" option will have access to basic credit history reporting programs which provide and indication as to where the person was last recorded via their residential address, all based on credit history activity, if they get a hit, the agency will consider this a locate and send you a quick report with an invoice attached, often costing anywhere from $50 to $100 plus local taxes if they apply.


Fantastic I hear you say, job done!

You go off with the information you have been provided with to have the person served, or send them the relevant correspondence by registered mail based of the address details you've been provided. All of which is sadly returned to sender. Or you send a licensed process server which reveals that they actually don’t live at the address you’ve been provided and moved out some months ago. So, the process of finding the person frustratingly starts all over again.


So what do agencies do, like I-OnAsia that charge more than this, and how do they achieve a better result?


Firstly, lets understand some of the most common fees for locating someone. As a guide, here in Hong Kong it's between $600 to $2500 USD, the United Kingdom & Europe 150.00 to 750.00 pounds and the United States between $700 and $2500 USD again and Australia, its anywhere from $350 to $850 AUD , this is all largely dependent on the information you have to hand which can assist the investigators in locating the subject, and the time an analysts spends on the investigation putting together their findings using the latest investigative databases and systems.


So, if you have someone you are trying to find who you think could be hiding in a remote part of Asia, Europe, the Middle East, South America, or the Outback of Australia, $2,500.00 is not out of the question when trying to find that illusive person, and hiring a good team to carry out that task.


A good intelligence & investigation agency, or private investigator wont just rely on a recent financial credit report to locate a subject person, they ensure they have numerous data points taken from complex and expensive databases, with these databases and more, these firms are able to demonstrate how they have concluded that someone lives at a particular address, supported by a number of factual sources and recent information which is provided to you in a formal report, giving conclusive evidence and corroborating the address provided, which may include, if lawful, a site visit to the address where the person is located. This is often recommended to ensure they are there at the time of writing the report, thus allowing you to engage a process server or send correspondence with absolute confidence.

The other factor to bear in mind when comparing the costs of this particular service, is not the data sets and the information that is found, but in fact the skill level of the person/s who you have engaged to help you with your matter, and who is charged with the responsibility of analysing all that they find with the expensive comprehensive databases they maintain.


At I-OnAsia staff training and development is all carried out in house. Our in house teams come from well established investigation & intelligence backgrounds, and understand the processes required to complete often complex and dynamic investigation tasks. Other agencies should be doing the same, and its vital that you try to understand if this is the case so that your matter is handled by the right people.


There are many people across the globe professing to be the best investigators and intelligence analysts known to man, but what qualifications do they really possess to validate these titles? Some of the best former law enforcement officers, detectives and government intelligence personnel now work in the private sector, all of whom come with a wealth of experience, knowledge, and expertise in analysing data and investigating complex matters, including locating people & skip tracing.


There are also people that do not have these specific law enforcement or intelligence backgrounds, but have been in the investigative and intelligence sector for many years and who have developed skill sets which demand higher fees from the thousands of cases they have undertaken, no different to experienced lawyers, doctors, and architects who with their years of experience, expect a higher fee structure.


Doing your due diligence on the firm you engage is critical in understanding the sort of personnel that will be helping you keep costs as low as possible, cutting corners and going for the more cheaper option may work in some instances, but it can also cost more if it does not go to plan.


“You ultimately get what you pay for....”

The other dynamic to bear in mind is where you are seeking the services. A lot of agencies offer global services, but do they actually have offices in every corner of the globe?

The most common answer is likely to be no, and thus the agency you engage will more than likely have to reach out to local operators they have a close relationship with in that region to support them. There is nothing wrong with this, and is actually common practice, but it will increase fee’s and make the operation slightly more expensive as your local firm act as the mechanism for your instructions, and ultimately ensure the regional team deliver to a high standard. Quite often, in this case you are paying not only for the skill set of the agency, but their well established global network of investigative contacts to get the job done.


The example of locating someone and the variable costs is the same for every other service you may find or need from an investigations or intelligence agency, you will ultimately get what you pay for, and costs will vary from agency to agency largely based on experience, qualifications, complexity of the matter and the risk associated with task....


Here is a brief overview of some of the costs you can expect to pay for some of the most common services undertaken globally.


Surveillance

A frequently used service all over the world, clients will often be charged an hourly rate per operator with reasonable expenses to be paid on top, and the cost of mileage per vehicle is often also added on at a rate of between 0.60 & .75c per mile traveled.


Surveillance costs for operators globally can vary from $50.00 an hour up to $175.00 an hour, again dependent on the skill level and ability of the firm you engage, but again, this price could increase significantly if the risk associated with the task is greater to the team.


Agencies will often not provide services where there is less than a four- or five-hour block allocated for the surveillance deployment. Deploying for 1 or 2 hours is just not financially viable for any agency to undertake so don't be surprised if this is the case. For these example costs provided, clients should receive images, video, written reports and updates as to how their instructions / investigation is developing.


The most crucial factor to bear in mind when engaging a firm for surveillance is where the deployment is taking place, the risk involved at that location, and how many operatives are needed for a successful deployment. All this needs to be factored in when discussing the requirement and managing local expectations.


It is common practice, and strongly advised that a 2-x person surveillance team is the minimum requirement for any operation to be remotely successful. As an example in Hong Kong, New York, and London our surveillance teams deploy mainly in teams of three, a necessity in densely populated cities.


Due Diligence

One of the other most common investigations to be undertaken outside of locating people is due diligence investigations. Due diligence packages can vary significantly, from small investigations on one subject prior to their employment offer, these can range from $800 to $2,500 dependent on the detail required. The more complex levels of due diligence and enhanced due diligence packages can cost anywhere between $5,000 to $15,000 where investigators and analysts are reviewing complex company matters involving numerous subject persons located in different jurisdictions, social media, litigation records, global assets, local media, PEP checks, to name just a few areas.

Then there are Pre IPO-Investigations which are costed on a case-by-case scenario and are incredibly detailed in the information required to report on to ensure regulatory compliance when companies are applying to go public on a relevant stock exchange.


Investigations

Investigation agencies are hired to assist with a number of varied investigations.


Ø Fraud Investigations

Ø ESG Investigations - (Environmental, Social & Governance)

Ø Criminal Defence

Ø Digital Forensics

Ø Asset Tracing


These are just a handful of examples where the hourly rate of an investigative team can vary considerably based on the skill set and background of the firm you hire. Investigators who undertake this work will commonly offer clients a day rate which can be anywhere from $650.00 a day to $1,100.00 USD a day for an accomplished Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) or career homicide detective (ret'd).


Cost is always the greatest factor in a decision to use an investigation or intelligence agency to assist in a particular matter or unexpected crisis you find yourself or your organisation in. The key to ensuring you are paying only for what you need is being specific in your requirement, keeping to it and understanding what exactly your getting for the fees quoted.


To ensure you are getting value for money, and paying the right price, it is critical you ask these top five questions, which should give you the confidence that the service you are paying for is worth every dollar, and if you are not satisfied, like any other trade or industry, shop around.


1. What professional qualifications do you have as an investigator, and are you a member of any accredited associations in your industry?


2. Can you show me previous report examples of your work?


3. Can you outline previous cases you have worked on where a similar problem was brought to you, and then how you went about solving it?


4. How long has your firm been operating?


5. Do you need the full fees up front? Or can I pay a retainer and the balance of the fees paid on completion? (This is crucial in safeguarding yourself from a loss of monies for work that isn’t completed)


Using this information, should confidently guide you into the making the right decision about the fees you are being charged for your investigative and intelligence services globally.


For further information and help, feel free to contact the team at I-OnAsia https://www.ionasia.com.hk/
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