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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:

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

Techniques Used:

  • Conducting internet research
  • Doing social media surveillance
  • Doing interviews
  • 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

Techniques Used:

  • Reviewing employee, witness, and supervisor statements
  • Reviewing medical reports
  • Reviewing employment history and other records
  • Conducting interviews/taking depositions
  • Conduction social media surveillance
  • Gathering evidence

An investigation conducted to identify and collect evidence regarding physical injuries received by one or more parties caused by an intentional or negligent act

Techniques Used:

  • Interviewing injured parties
  • Interviewing witnesses
  • Reviewing police reports, medical records, and other relevant documents
  • Checking for previous claims
  • Reviewing social media

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

Techniques Used:

  • Inspecting an accident site
  • Inspecting vehicles involved as appropriate
  • Interviewing witnesses
  • Reviewing photographs and documentation
  • Using computer software tools for analysis or to recreate a scenario
  • Collecting evidence for a court case

An examination of circumstances surrounding a missing individual

Techniques Used:

  • 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

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

Techniques Used:

  • 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

Infidelity: An investigation of an unfaithful spouse or partner

Techniques Used:

  • Interviewing the client
  • Conducting surveillance
  • Gathering evidence (photographs, audio, video)

Spousal Abuse: An investigation into abusive conduct between intimate partners who are married, dating, or residing in the same residence

Techniques Used:

  • Taking photographs
  • Making police reports
  • Interviewing witnesses
  • Obtaining a protective order if necessary

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

Techniques Used:

  • Conducting surveillance
  • Doing security penetration checks
  • Using accounting and other types of forensics
  • Investigating legal, financial, commercial, and technology, personnel

Identification of fraudulent acquisition and use of a person’s private identifying information

Includes financial identity theft, criminal identity theft, cloning (assuming another’s identity), medical identity theft, child identity theft

Techniques Used:

  • 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

An investigation of a location associated with a crime

Techniques Used:

  • 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

An investigation of specific crimes such as theft, homicide, sexual, kidnapping, assault

Techniques Used:

  • Interviewing
  • Reviewing police reports and relevant documents
  • Gathering evidence
  • Conducting surveillance
 

Backgrounds and Traits of Private Investigators

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:
Private Investigator Workplaces
Law Firms/Attorneys78%
Individuals55%
Private Companies41%
Insurance Firms37%
Corporations35%
Other11%
Source: PInow.com
  Private investigators come from all walks of life. However, they often have certain similar traits and abilities.
Private Investigator Backgrounds
Former Law Enforcement51%
Have a Bachelor’s Degree22%
Former Military21%
Have Private or Online Training20%
Legal Experience13%
Source: PInow.com
 

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

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:
Top Paying States
District of Columbia$72,190 per year
Alaska$69,210 per year
California$67,970 per year
Virginia$66,590 per year
New Jersey$64,250 per year
 

Career Outlook

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.
  • Get a job that will provide experience and help you develop your knowledge, skills, and abilities.
In addition to these steps, 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.

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.

Associate Degree

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.

Bachelor’s Degree

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.

Online Programs

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:

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • 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.