Claude Bookout is President of United Investigations International, a private investigations firm located in Austin, Texas. ( Texas license number: C9472

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United International Investigations is an experienced private investigations firm with a reputation for integrity, dependability, and thoroughness. The firm provides its clients with a broad range of investigative assistance. Corporations, law firms, and prominent individuals have relied on its professional team of investigators to obtain power and control over their particular situations.

Five questions to ask your private investigator

Tom Cruise is being sued for $5 million dollars because he hired the wrong private investigator (PI). According to court documents, published by Radaronline, Cruise is being sued by Michael David Sapir, a magazine editor, who believes Cruise hired Anthony Pellicano to illegally wiretap his phone. Pellicano, a former high-profile Los Angeles private investigator, is currently serving a 15-year federal prison sentence for illegal wiretapping and conspiracy to commit wiretapping.

Whether Cruise and his attorney, who is also mentioned in the suit, knew Pellicano tapped the phone is irrelevant. They could still be in hot water. Nevertheless, Pellicano should have known that he could not record any conversation, in person or over the phone, without every participant’s knowledge and consent. In California, along with twelve other states, one must haveall-party consent before recording a conversation (even in person!). If Cruise did request such activities, Pellicano should have told Cruise he would not do it. In short, Pellicano should have stayed committed to his state association’s professional ethics and California and federal statutes.

Of course, Tom Cruise is not expected to know what is legal and ethical. Neither are you. But so that you don't find yourself in a similar legal situation as Cruise, or have your evidence become inadmissible in court, you had better hire a high quality PI. So how do you know if your PI is good for you? Here are a few questions you can ask to get a better sense if she or he is a qualified professional:

1. Are you licensed and insured? While licensing varies by state, most require a minimum three years investigative experience, annual continuing education, and up to million-dollar insurance policies. If an investigator says she or he is licensed and insured, verify this with your state’s regulatory agency. Here are a list of some state agencies:

§ California

§ Texas

§ Georgia

§ New York

§ Check other states

2. What are your areas of specialization and background? While most investigative agencies will do just about anything, from finding a lost pet to investigating workplace deaths, some are more qualified than others to do different investigations. If you need surveillance work, hire a company that specializes in surveillance. If you need electronic countermeasures, hire a company that has the training and equipment. You want someone to feel motivated about your case. If your needs don’t match the investigator’s business, your case may not receive priority. A good private investigator will admit to his or her limitations and inform you about his experience and background. Most importantly, an investigator working in his or her area of knowledge is likely to know all of the rules and legal procedures that apply--he or she will not jeopardize your case.

3. Can I see your contract? The first time you see an investigator’s agreement for services should not be when you’re signing it. A high quality investigator will let you see his or her agreement in advance. You are entitled to know your rights and obligations before your first meeting. This information could save you and your investigator time and money. Some investigators even keep a contract on their website so you can look at it any time. Look at the contract, does it appear professional? If this legal document is not important to the investigator, then don’t expect other legal documents will be either.

4. How do you deliver your reports, what do they look like? You can learn a lot about the way investigators do their reports. This is the product you will receive at the conclusion of an investigation. An investigator that provides proof of all services rendered, in various formats (e.g. video and print), likely takes their work seriously.

5. Are you available 24-7? Believe it or not, some investigative agencies maintain banker’s hours. It is important to know that if something urgent comes up you can reach somebody with the company any time of day, any day of the week. Then try it out. Call the agency late at night and see what happens. While this question may not allow you to know if the investigator is being ethical, you’ll know at least if she or he was being honest about phone access.

Other questions you may want to ask, depending on your personal situation, are “How many clients do you serve at once?”; “How many field investigators work for you?”; “What are your success rates?”; “How much is your retainer?”; “How do charges appear on my credit card?”; “What was the outcome of your last case?”; “Are their additional charges for court appearance fees?”

Of course, these questions are just general guidelines. While they are likely to be help you appear as a knowledgeable consumer, they do not guarantee success. Do your homework. Search to see if the company you are about to hire has outstanding claims with the Better Business Bureau or other consumer groups. But most importantly, go to your state's regulatory agency (links above) and verify that his or her license is active. In many states, they list any disciplinary actions taken against an agency. Tom Cruise should have known better than to trust a private investigator who said he was willing to use, as Pellicano claimed, “unorthodox methods.”