How to Become a Private Investigator
Your idea of a private investigator, also known as a private detective or PI, is probably based on movies, television, and novels. As you might expect, those depictions don’t always show the reality of life as a PI. However, in both fiction and reality, investigators conduct systematic examinations that seek to answer questions, often involving crime.
If you’ve ever considered the possibility of becoming a private investigator, then read on. We’ll tell you:
- What a private investigator does
- Who private investigators work for
- The skills and traits needed to become a successful private investigator
- How much private investigators earn and the outlook for this career
- How to become a private investigator
- About private investigator schools
- How to get a private investigator’s license
What Does a Private Investigator Do?
A private investigator is a detective who carries out investigations on behalf of private clients. The ultimate goal of a private investigator is to obtain information, as specified by the client.
An investigator may conduct different types of investigations in different areas. Examples are outlined in the next section, but almost all investigations will include one or more of these basic tasks:
- Search for clues to gather evidence
- Interview people
- Verify information
- Conduct surveillance
- Gather vital facts for cases
- Create reports about their findings
- Find missing persons or items
Types of Investigations
The field of private investigations covers many different types of investigations, but the two overarching types are criminal and civil. In a criminal investigation, a PI gathers evidence in order to solve a crime, while a PI in civil investigation gathers evidence for a civil trial. Some investigators choose to specialize while others choose to offer multiple services.
Here are some of the more common types of investigations and techniques an investigator may use:
|Type of Investigation||Description||Investigative Techniques|
|Background check||A check into a person’s personal or professional history to assess character/identity
Often done before hiring an employee, making financial transactions, electing public officials
Done for both civil and criminal investigations
|Conducting internet research
Doing social media surveillance
Searching physical records
(a form of insurance that provides wage replacement and medical benefits to employees injured in the course of employment)
|An investigation conducted to see whether a worker is making a false claim, or whether a corporation is denying a legitimate claim
May involve civil or criminal action
|Reviewing employee, witness, and supervisor statements
Reviewing medical reports
Reviewing employment history and other records
Conducting interviews/taking depositions
Conduction social media surveillance
|Personal injury||An investigation conducted to identify and collect evidence regarding physical injuries received by one or more parties caused by an intentional or negligent act||Interviewing injured parties
Reviewing police reports, medical records, and other relevant documents
Checking for previous claims
Reviewing social media
|Accident/reconstruction||A reconstruction of an accident in order to determine what happened: the cause, location, and circumstances
Determines who’s at fault in order to establish or reduce liability
|Inspecting an accident site
Inspecting vehicles involved as appropriate
Reviewing photographs and documentation
Using computer software tools for analysis or to recreate a scenario
Collecting evidence for a court case
|Missing persons||An examination of circumstances surrounding a missing individual||Reviewing school and work information
Interviewing the person reporting the individual as missing
Determining when, where, and with whom the individual was last seen
Circulating physical descriptions and photographs of the missing person
Interviewing family, friends, and business associates
Checking social media
Obtaining items that may contain DNA
Utilizing media outlets as appropriate
|Child custody and abuse||An investigation that involves objective observations of a child’s well-being, including assessment of a child’s treatment by their parents
Often part of a divorce, separation, or custody case
|Making background checks on custodial parties
Interviewing family members, neighbors, and other relevant parties
Conducting surveillance (in-person, audio, video)
Reviewing social media accounts, documents, photographs, and public records
Examining living conditions
|Marital (Infidelity)||An investigation of an unfaithful spouse or partner||Interviewing the client
Gathering evidence (photographs, audio, video)
|Marital (Spousal abuse)||An investigation into abusive conduct between intimate partners who are married, dating, or residing in the same residence||Taking photographsMaking police reports
Obtaining a protective order if necessary
|Corporate||An investigation of a corporation or business to uncover wrongdoing by management, employees, or third parties
Wrongdoing may involve finance, R&D, electronics, or corruption
|Methods vary depending on the type of investigation. May include:
Conducting surveillanceDoing security penetration checks
Using accounting and other types of forensics
Investigating legal, financial, commercial, and technology, personnel
|Identify theft||Identification of fraudulent acquisition and use of a person’s private identifying information
Financial identity theftCriminal identity theft
Cloning (assuming another’s identity)
Medical identity theft
Child identity theft
|Reporting to banks, credit card companies, local law enforcement, FTC, and other applicable parties
Placing fraud alerts at credit reporting agencies
Closing any new accounts opened in a client’s name
Removing bogus charges and asking for a letter confirming removal
Obtaining official copies of the fraudulent application
|Crime scene||An investigation of a location associated with a crime||Helping law enforcement to secure a scene as to prevent the contamination of evidence
Collecting, preserving, and packaging the physical evidence
Maintaining detailed reports about the evidence
Testifying in court about evidence from the crime scene
|Specific crimes||An investigation of specific crimes such as:
|Methods vary depending on the type of investigation, but will likely include:
InterviewingReviewing police reports and relevant documents
Who Do Private Investigators Work For?
Private detectives work in a variety of settings. According to PInow.com, a network of private investigators, the breakdown of places of work is as follows:
Backgrounds and Traits of Private Investigators
Private investigators come from all walks of life. However, they often have certain similar traits and abilities.
What Backgrounds Do Private Investigators Have?
|Former law enforcement||51%|
|Private or online training||20%|
Skills and Traits of a Private Investigator
Good private detectives have a keen eye and the ability to notice small details. These skills are referred to as near vision — the ability to notice details at close range — and far vision — the ability to notice details at a distance.
Another essential trait is the ability to use inductive and deductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning refers to combining information to form a conclusion, including information and events that are seemingly unrelated. Deductive reasoning refers to applying general rules to specific problems to find solutions.
Effective communication skills are also important, both in written and oral form. PIs also need to be able to listen well and evaluate expressions and body language.
Today, good research and computer skills are also important, along with the ability to use the many online investigative tools to find credible information, which can be the key to solving a case. Strong intuitive senses help a detective discern when something is off.
Patience and persistence are also important traits for any detective.
Career Outlook and Salary Information for Private Investigators
Private Investigator Salary
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the mean annual wage for PIs in May, 2018 was $56,810.
At that time the top paying states for private investigators were:
|State||Annual mean wage|
|District of Columbia||$72,190|
The outlook for private investigators is good: Employment for PIs is projected to grow 7% to 10% between 2018 and 2028, which is significantly faster than the growth averages of other occupations.
The five states with the highest employment level of private investigators are California, Pennsylvania, Florida, New York, and Texas.
Steps to Becoming a Private Investigator
Most people have no idea how to become a private investigator. Here’s what you need to know: The steps needed to become a private investigator vary from state to state, so it’s important to check with your state’s licensing authority to find out what’s required.
You’ll find the basic steps typically include:
- Get a degree.
- While some states may not have specific education requirements, a degree may open doors to opportunities you might not otherwise get.
- Get experience.
- Get a license from the state where you plan to work.
- Be aware that you’ll probably have to go through a background check. Additionally, you’ll probably want to obtain a concealed weapons license.
- On-the-job training and working with a mentor can be invaluable. This is true for all phases of your career — before, during, and after getting your degree.
- Get a job that will provide experience and help you develop your knowledge, skills, and abilities.
Private Investigator Schools
People who become private investigators tend to have a strong interest in criminal justice, so getting an associate or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice is a good starting point for this career. These degrees will provide a solid foundation for moving into a wide range of positions. When you’re considering a private investigator school, you’ll want to evaluate the strength of their criminal justice programs.
Since many law enforcement agencies now require at least some college in order to be considered for employment, individuals interested in becoming investigators often choose to get an associate degree in criminal justice knowing it will help them gain an understanding of the criminal justice system.
It typically takes two years of full-time study to earn this degree. A benefit of getting an associate degree in criminal justice is that the credits earned for your associate degree can usually be applied toward a bachelor’s degree, which might be required for a job you want or a step necessary to advance your career.
As you earn your degree you’ll gain a strong understanding of criminology, psychology, the criminal justice system, law, procedures, and how to conduct good investigations.
A variety of career paths and higher level jobs may be available to you if you hold a bachelor’s degree. You’ll often find that some employers, such as corporations and federal agencies, require a bachelor’s degree, preferably in criminal justice.
On average, a bachelor’s degree requires 120 credit hours, which takes four years as a full-time student to complete, or an additional two years if you hold an associate degree in criminal justice.
There are a number of online criminal justice degree programs. Some programs offer internship opportunities; others will require you to seek out these opportunities, such as a summer internship with a law enforcement or government agency, on your own.
Here are a few things to think about when considering an online program:
- Online programs are convenient.
- Online programs offer greater flexibility because you don’t have to be in a classroom at a set time.
- Online degree programs are generally less expensive. Even if tuition costs are the same, you save money on gasoline, parking, and meals out.
- Many people miss the live social interactions with other students and instructors.
- Online programs require good time management skills and self-discipline.
- An online program requires good technology.
Getting a Private Investigator License
Most states require that private investigators be licensed. Licenses are regulated by professional boards, state police departments, and other state agencies. Requirements vary by state. In some instances a license may be required only at the city or county level.
Common requirements for obtaining a PI license include:
- Meeting a minimum age requirement (ranging from 18 to 25)
- Meeting education requirements (typically an associate degree in criminal justice or a related field)
- Passing a background check and fingerprinting
- Providing proof of relevant experience
- Passing an exam
- A number of states require you to pass an exam that demonstrates knowledge of applicable local laws and regulations plus the skills necessary to handle the work in a competent manner. Questions typically focus on elements of the job such as legally obtaining information, rules of evidence, surveillance, trial preparation, and ethics.
- In order to renew a license, some states have continuing education requirements.
- Holding a valid, current surety bond
- A surety bond of at least $10,000 is common; however, this amount varies, so make sure to check the requirements for your state.
In addition to state PI license requirements, private investigators who have their own practice are subject to applicable business laws.