Private detectives and investigators search for information about legal, financial, and personal matters.
What they do
Private detectives and investigators offer many services, such as verifying people’s backgrounds and statements, finding missing persons, and investigating computer crimes.
They typically do the following:
- Interview people to gather information
- Search online, public, and court records to uncover clues
- Conduct surveillance
- Collect evidence for clients
- Check for civil judgments and criminal history
Private detectives and investigators offer many services for individuals, attorneys, and businesses. Examples include performing background checks, investigating employees for possible theft from a company, proving or disproving infidelity in a divorce case, and helping to locate a missing person.
Private detectives and investigators use a variety of tools when researching the facts in a case. Much of their work is done with a computer, allowing them to obtain information such as telephone numbers, details about social networks, descriptions of online activities, and records of a person’s prior arrests. They make phone calls to verify facts and interview people when conducting a background investigation.
Detectives also conduct surveillance when investigating a case. They may watch locations, such as a person’s home or office, often from a hidden position. Using cameras and binoculars, detectives gather information on people of interest.
Detectives and investigators must be mindful of the law when conducting investigations. Because they lack police authority, their work must be done with the same authority as a private citizen. As a result, detectives and investigators must have a good understanding of federal, state, and local laws, such as privacy laws, and other legal issues affecting their work. Otherwise, evidence they collect may not be useable in court and they could face prosecution.
Skip tracers specialize in locating people whose whereabouts are unknown. For example, debt collectors may employ them to locate people who have unpaid bills.
Private detectives and investigators work in many environments, depending on the case. Some spend more time in offices, researching cases on computers and making phone calls. Others spend more time in the field, conducting interviews or performing surveillance. In addition, private detectives and investigators may have to work outdoors or from a vehicle, in all kinds of weather, in order to obtain the information their client needs.
Although investigators often work alone, some work with others while conducting surveillance or carrying out large, complicated assignments.
Private detectives and investigators often work irregular hours because they conduct surveillance and contact people outside of normal work hours. They may work early mornings, evenings, weekends, and holidays.
How to become a Private Detective and Investigator
Private detectives and investigators typically need several years of work experience and a high school diploma. In addition, the vast majority of states require private detectives and investigators to have a license.
Education requirements vary greatly with the job, but most jobs require a high school diploma. Some, though, may require a 2- or 4-year degree in a field such as criminal justice.
Most private detectives and investigators learn through on-the-job training, typically lasting between several months and a year.
Although new investigators must learn how to gather information, additional training depends on the type of firm that hires them. For example, investigators may learn to conduct remote surveillance, reconstruct accident scenes, or investigate insurance fraud. Corporate investigators hired by large companies may receive formal training in business practices, management structure, and various finance-related topics.
Private detectives and investigators must typically have previous work experience, usually in law enforcement, the military, or federal intelligence. Those in such jobs, who are frequently able to retire after 20 or 25 years of service, may become private detectives or investigators in a second career.
Other private detectives and investigators may have previously worked as bill and account collectors, claims adjusters, paralegals, or process servers.
Most states require private detectives and investigators to have a license. Check with your state for more information; Professional Investigator Magazine has links to most states’ licensing requirements. Because laws often change, jobseekers should verify the licensing laws related to private investigators with the state and locality in which they want to work.
Candidates may also obtain certification, although it is not required for employment. Still, becoming certified through professional organizations can demonstrate competence and may help candidates advance in their careers.
For investigators who specialize in negligence or criminal defense investigation, the National Association of Legal Investigators offers the Certified Legal Investigator certification. For other investigators, ASIS International offers the Professional Certified Investigator certification.
The median annual wage for private detectives and investigators was $50,510 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $30,390, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $89,760.
Employment of private detectives and investigators is projected to grow 8 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations. However, because it is a small occupation, the fast growth will result in only about 3,000 new jobs over the 10-year period.
Continued lawsuits, fraud and other crimes, and interpersonal mistrust create demand for investigative services in industries such as legal services.
Background checks will continue to be a source of work for some investigators, as online investigations are not always sufficient.
Similar Job Titles
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The trade associations listed below represent organizations made up of people (members) who work and promote advancement in the field. Members are very interested in telling others about their work and about careers in those areas. As well, trade associations provide opportunities for organizational networking and learning more about the field’s trends and directions.
- ASIS International
- Association of Certified Fraud Examiners
- Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association
- Fraternal Order of Police
- National Association of Legal Investigators
- National Association of Professional Process Servers
- National Council of Investigation and Security Services
- Organization of Racing Investigators
Magazines and Publications
Movies and TV can make the work of private detectives and investigators look pretty glamorous, but the modern P.I. is more researcher than action hero. As an investigator, you might search for missing persons or proof of marital infidelity. But most work for stores, hotels, or security companies to investigate theft, fraud, and other crimes involving money. Their tools are computers… phones… and cameras… along with a persuasive manner and a knack for thinking creatively. You’ll need to be persistent and resourceful to gather the information your clients need— and discreet enough to do it without being noticed. Investigators and private detectives have responsibilities as varied as court record searches… accident reconstruction… and surveillance. Legal investigators usually work for law firms to help prepare criminal defenses. Hours may fluctuate dramatically when you need to contact people outside of normal work hours. Requirements for entering this career depend on the area of specialization, from a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, computer science, or finance, to a high school diploma and on-the-job-training. A background in the military or law enforcement is common. Most states require a professional license. Many investigators are willing to put up with the long hours and drudgery in exchange for those moments of excitement and discovery. In this field—being nosey is a virtue.
Content retrieved from: US Bureau of Labor Statistics-OOH www.bls.gov/ooh,
CareerOneStop www.careeronestop.org, O*Net Online www.onetonline.org