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How to Become a Private Investigator

By Lace Brunsden

Published:

Have you ever dreamed of living life on the edge, solving mysteries, and uncovering secrets? If so, the world of private investigation might just be calling your name. In this article, we’ll embark on a journey to demystify the path to becoming a private investigator, shedding light on the skills, qualifications, and steps you need to take to enter this captivating and enigmatic profession.

Career Summary

Private Investigator Salary

Private Investigator Salary

The average Private Investigator salary can vary a great deal depending on where you live and the demand for your services, as well as the type of services you offer.

According to Glassdoor, the average salary of a PI across the United States can be estimated as follows:

  • Entry Salary (US$50k)
  • Median Salary (US$66k)
  • Executive Salary (US$88k)

The United States Bureau of Labour Statistics estimates the average salary across the US to be US$ 61,900. The median private investigator salary is slightly higher.

What does a Private Investigator do?

Private investigators, often referred to as PIs or detectives, perform a wide range of investigative tasks to gather information, uncover facts, and provide solutions for their clients. 

It’s essential to note that the specific duties of a private investigator can vary greatly depending on their specialization and the needs of their clients. They must be well-versed in both legal and ethical guidelines to ensure their investigative activities are conducted within the boundaries of the law.

Private Investigator Career Progression

  • Trainee or Apprentice Investigator: You will work under the guidance of experienced PIs to learn the basics of investigative techniques, including surveillance, report writing, and legal procedures.
  • Junior Investigator: You may handle simpler cases and gradually take on more responsibilities, such as conducting background checks or basic surveillance.
  • Experienced Investigator: With a few years of experience, you can take on more challenging cases and specialize in a specific area. 
  • Senior or Principal Investigator: You often provide guidance and mentorship to junior investigators and may be responsible for critical decision-making in cases.
  • Lead Investigator or Supervisor: You manage cases, delegate tasks, and ensure that investigations are conducted efficiently and effectively. You often have more administrative and leadership responsibilities within the agency.
  • Private Investigator Agency Owner: Agency owners manage the entire operation, handle client relationships, hire and supervise investigators, and handle business administration.
  • Consultant or Expert Witness: Experienced private investigators may become consultants, providing expert advice to individuals, businesses, or legal professionals. They can also serve as expert witnesses in court, offering their insights and testimony in legal cases.
Private Investigator Career Progression

The Pros and Cons of Working as a Private Investigator

Pros: 

  • Diverse and Challenging Cases
  • Independence and Autonomy
  • Opportunity to Make a Difference
  • Varied Work Environments
  • Potential for High Earnings

Cons: 

  • Irregular and Long Hours
  • Exposure to Potentially Dangerous Situations
  • Ethical and Legal Challenges
  • Uncertain Income and Job Security
  • Emotional Toll from Sensitive Cases

Useful Skills to Have as a Private Investigator

  • Observation Skills
  • Research and Information Gathering
  • Communication and Interviewing
  • Surveillance Techniques
  • Analytical Thinking

Popular Private Investigator Specialties

  • Infidelity Investigations
  • Insurance Fraud Investigation
  • Corporate and Business Investigations
  • Missing Persons Investigations
  • Criminal Defense Investigations

How to Become a Private Investigator

Private Investigator 6 Steps to Career

When considering how to become a private investigator, it is important to note that the specific steps can vary depending on your location and the agency or organization you plan to work for.

However, there are common steps that many aspiring private investigators can follow:

Step 1: Obtain Relevant Education and Training

Consider pursuing a degree in criminal justice, law enforcement, or a related field. Additionally, you may want to complete courses or training programs specific to private investigation.

Do I Need a Degree to Become a Private Investigator?

Whether you need a degree to become a private investigator varies by location and the specific agency or organization you plan to work for. In many cases, having a degree is not a strict requirement to enter the field of private investigation. However, having a relevant degree in a field like criminal justice, law enforcement, or a related area can be advantageous. 

Can I Become a Private Investigator Through Online Education?

Yes, it is possible to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to become a private investigator through online education and training. Many reputable institutions and organizations offer online courses and programs specifically designed for aspiring private investigators.

Here are some ways you can use online education to pursue a career in private investigation:

  • Online Degree Programs: Some colleges and universities offer online bachelor’s or associate’s degree programs in fields like criminal justice, criminology, or law enforcement. These programs provide a comprehensive education that can be a valuable asset in your private investigator career.
  • Online Certification Programs: There are online courses and certification programs that focus on specific aspects of private investigation, such as surveillance techniques, legal and ethical standards, and investigative report writing. Completing these courses can enhance your knowledge and skills.
  • Professional Associations: Many private investigator associations and organizations provide online resources, webinars, and courses to help individuals learn more about the field and stay updated on best practices.

Step 2: Acquire a License or Certification

Research the licensing requirements in your state or country. Many regions require private investigators to be licensed, and you may need to pass an exam and meet other criteria.

Is It Difficult to Get a Private Investigator License?

Obtaining a private investigator license can vary in difficulty depending on your location and the specific requirements established by your state, country, or jurisdiction. The difficulty of getting a private investigator license is influenced by factors such as education, experience, background checks, and any required examinations.

Here are some key points to consider:

  • Education and Experience: Some jurisdictions require a specific level of education or experience in the field of investigations. Having a degree or relevant work experience in a related field, such as law enforcement, can be an advantage.
  • Background Checks: Licensing authorities often conduct background checks on applicants. A clean criminal record and good moral character are typically prerequisites for licensure.
  • Examinations: Many areas require applicants to pass a written exam that assesses their knowledge of investigation techniques, laws, and ethics. These exams can vary in difficulty, and successful preparation is essential.
  • Insurance: Some jurisdictions mandate that private investigators carry liability insurance as part of the licensing process.
  • Fees: Licensing can involve application fees, examination fees, and renewal fees. The cost of licensing can vary widely.
  • Continuing Education: Some states require licensed private investigators to complete continuing education courses to maintain their license. This ensures that investigators stay up-to-date with industry trends and legal regulations.
  • Licensing Authority: Different regions have their own licensing authorities responsible for overseeing private investigator licensure. It’s essential to research the specific requirements and procedures set by your local authority.
  • State vs. National Licensure: In the United States, private investigator licensing is typically done at the state level. Therefore, requirements can vary significantly from one state to another. In other countries, national or regional regulations may apply.

Step 3: Gain Experience

Entry-level positions, such as an apprentice or trainee investigator, can provide valuable on-the-job experience. Work under the supervision of an experienced PI to learn the ropes.

What Are Internship Opportunities for a Private Investigator

Internship opportunities for aspiring private investigators can be valuable for gaining practical experience. These opportunities allow individuals to work with experienced professionals and gain insights into the field.

Here are some potential internship options:

  • Private Investigation Agencies: Many private investigation agencies offer internship or apprentice programs where individuals can shadow and work with experienced investigators. These internships may involve assisting with surveillance, background checks, and report writing.
  • Legal Firms: Law firms often hire private investigators to gather evidence for cases. Interning with a law firm that specializes in areas like criminal defense, family law, or civil litigation can provide exposure to investigative work.
  • Insurance Companies: Insurance companies frequently employ investigators to assess and validate insurance claims. Interning with an insurance company’s investigative unit can provide insight into insurance fraud investigations.
  • Corporate Security Departments: Large corporations may have in-house security or investigation departments. Interning with such a department can involve investigating internal issues, including theft, fraud, or security breaches.
  • Government Agencies: Some government agencies, such as district attorney’s offices or public defender’s offices, may offer internships for those interested in criminal justice and investigations.
  • Skip Tracing Companies: Companies specializing in skip tracing, which is the process of locating individuals who have moved or are trying to evade capture, may offer internship opportunities.

What Skills Will I Learn as a Private Investigator?

As a private investigator, you’ll develop a diverse set of skills that are essential for conducting successful investigations. These skills are valuable not only for gathering information and evidence but also for ensuring your safety and maintaining the ethical standards of the profession.

Here are some of the key skills you’ll learn as a private investigator:

  • Observation Skills: The ability to keenly observe and pay attention to details is crucial for noticing subtle clues and behaviors that can be significant in an investigation.
  • Research and Information Gathering: Proficiency in researching public records, databases, and other sources to obtain information about individuals and events.
  • Surveillance Techniques: Learning how to discreetly monitor and track individuals, collect evidence, and maintain situational awareness while remaining undetected.
  • Interviewing and Interrogation: Developing effective questioning techniques to extract information from witnesses, informants, or persons of interest.
  • Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving: The capability to analyze complex situations, make informed decisions, and develop strategies to overcome challenges during an investigation.
  • Report Writing: Creating clear, accurate, and detailed reports of your findings, including evidence and witness statements.
  • Legal Knowledge: Understanding the legal framework and regulations governing private investigation, including rules of evidence, privacy laws, and ethical standards.
  • Technological Proficiency: Becoming skilled in using various investigative tools and technology, such as GPS devices, surveillance cameras, databases, and software for data analysis.
  • Time Management: Efficiently managing your time to prioritize tasks and meet deadlines, often in multiple cases simultaneously.
  • Communication Skills: Effectively communicating with clients, law enforcement, attorneys, and other professionals involved in a case, as well as providing testimony in court if required.
  • Ethical Conduct: Maintaining high ethical standards in all aspects of your work, including respecting privacy, confidentiality, and following the law.
  • Adaptability: Being flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances, as investigations can take unexpected turns.
  • Risk Assessment and Safety: Assessing potential risks and taking precautions to ensure your safety during investigations.
  • Networking: Building professional relationships and a network of contacts within the investigative field and related industries.
  • Crisis Management: Knowing how to respond in high-stress situations or crises and make quick decisions when necessary.

Useful Web Resources to Learn Skills To Become a Private Investigator

There are several web resources where you can learn skills and gain knowledge relevant to becoming a private investigator. These resources include online courses, websites, forums, and professional associations.

Here are some valuable web resources to help you get started:

  • National Association of Legal Investigators (NALI): Provides resources, certification programs, and networking opportunities for legal investigators.
  • Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE): Offers online courses and resources for professionals interested in fraud investigation.
  • International Association of Special Investigation Units (IASIU): Offers training webinars on insurance fraud investigation.
  • Public Records Databases: Websites like PublicRecordsNow or Spokeo can be useful for accessing public records and conducting background checks.
  • PInow.com: Features a directory of private investigators and a forum where you can interact with experienced professionals.
  • Online Magazines and Publications: Read online magazines like PI Magazine to stay updated on industry news, trends, and best practices.
  • Podcasts: Search for podcasts related to investigations and surveillance techniques to learn from experienced professionals.

Step 4: Build Networking Connections

Networking within the industry can help you learn about job opportunities, gain mentorship, and establish a reputation as a reliable investigator. Attend industry-related events, join professional associations, and connect with seasoned investigators to exchange knowledge and experiences. Building strong relationships in the field can lead to valuable insights and referrals for your investigative career.

Step 5: Consider Specialization

Consider specializing in a specific area, such as infidelity investigations, insurance fraud, or missing persons, to enhance your expertise and marketability. By focusing on a niche, you can become an expert in that field and offer specialized services that attract clients seeking your particular skill set. Your specialized knowledge can also lead to increased demand and higher earnings.

Step 6: Continue Education and Training

Stay updated with industry trends and legal regulations by attending workshops and seminars, and obtaining advanced certifications. Continuous learning is essential in the field of private investigation, as laws and technology are constantly evolving. Invest in your professional development by taking advanced courses, obtaining certifications in specialized areas, and keeping up-to-date with the latest tools and techniques. This commitment to ongoing education will not only improve your investigative skills but also instill confidence in your clients that you are a competent and up-to-date investigator.

What’s the Career Outlook for a Private Investigator?

According to the BLS, the projected job outlook from 2022 to 2023 is 6%, which is faster than the average. Most of this increase can be attributed to current workers retiring. 

Private Investigator Popular Career Specialties

What Are the Job Opportunities of a Private Investigator?

Private investigators have job opportunities in various sectors and can hold different positions within the field. The specific roles and positions available can vary depending on an individual’s experience, skills, specialization, and location.

Here are some common job opportunities and positions for private investigators:

  • General Private Investigator: Conducts a wide range of investigations, including background checks, surveillance, and skip tracing.
  • Infidelity Investigator: Specializes in cases involving suspicions of spousal or partner infidelity.
  • Insurance Fraud Investigator: Investigates insurance claims to determine their validity and uncover fraudulent activities.
  • Corporate Investigator: Works on cases related to corporate fraud, embezzlement, intellectual property theft, or internal investigations within businesses.
  • Missing Persons Investigator: Specializes in locating missing individuals, such as runaways, abducted children, or long-lost family members.
  • Criminal Defense Investigator: Assists defense attorneys by gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses, and building cases for clients facing criminal charges.
  • Digital Forensic Investigator: Specializes in retrieving and analyzing digital data from computers, mobile devices, and other electronic sources as part of criminal or civil investigations.
  • Counter-Surveillance Specialist: Detects and counters electronic surveillance and eavesdropping to protect individuals’ privacy.
  • Arson Investigator: Investigates fires and explosions to determine their origin and cause, often working for fire departments or insurance companies.
  • Child Custody and Family Investigator: Examines cases involving child custody disputes, ensuring the well-being of children and gathering evidence for court proceedings.
  • Background Check Specialist: Focuses on conducting comprehensive background checks for pre-employment screening, tenant screening, or due diligence in business transactions.
  • Polygraph Examiner: Administers lie detector tests to assess truthfulness in legal, corporate, or personal matters.
  • Surveillance Specialist: Primarily conducts surveillance operations to monitor subjects and gather evidence.
  • Intellectual Property Investigator: Investigates cases involving intellectual property theft, including copyright and trademark violations.
  • Cold Case Investigator: Specializes in reviewing and reopening unsolved or “cold” criminal cases to seek new leads and evidence.
  • Environmental Investigator: Examines environmental issues, such as pollution or hazardous waste disposal, to gather evidence for legal or regulatory cases.
  • Personal Protection Specialist: Provides security and protection services for high-profile individuals or executives, often working in the field of executive protection.
  • Fraud Investigator: Specializes in cases involving various types of fraud, such as credit card fraud, identity theft, or financial fraud.

What Type of Companies Hire a Private Investigator?

Private investigators are hired by a wide range of companies and organizations across different industries to help with various investigative tasks.

Some common types of companies that hire private investigators include:

  • Private Investigation Agencies: These are firms that specialize in investigative services and often employ a team of investigators to handle cases for individuals, law firms, corporations, and other clients.
  • Law Firms: Private investigators are often contracted by law firms to gather evidence for legal cases, including criminal defense, civil litigation, and family law disputes.
  • Insurance Companies: Insurance companies hire private investigators to verify the validity of insurance claims, especially in cases of potential fraud, worker’s compensation claims, and disability claims.
  • Security Firms: Some security companies employ private investigators to conduct background checks on prospective employees or clients and to investigate security breaches and breaches of confidentiality.
  • Financial Institutions: Banks and financial institutions may hire private investigators to investigate cases of fraud, embezzlement, or money laundering.
  • Human Resources Departments: HR departments within organizations may hire private investigators to conduct pre-employment screening, including criminal background checks and reference checks.
  • Collection Agencies: Private investigators can help collection agencies locate debtors and recover outstanding debts.
  • Real Estate Agencies: Real estate agencies may use private investigators to conduct background checks on potential tenants or buyers and investigate property-related issues.
  • Retail and Loss Prevention: Retailers and stores may hire investigators to combat theft and shoplifting, monitor employee behavior, and investigate thefts and losses.
  • Private Individuals: Private citizens may hire private investigators for personal matters, such as investigating infidelity, locating missing persons, or conducting background checks on potential partners or employees.
  • Government Agencies: Some government agencies may hire private investigators for specialized tasks, such as child custody investigations or environmental investigations.
  • Legal and Compliance Departments: Legal departments and compliance units within corporations may hire investigators to ensure regulatory compliance and investigate potential legal issues.

What Is The Work-Life Balance of a Private Investigator?

The work-life balance of a private investigator can vary significantly based on several factors, including the type of cases they handle, their level of experience, and the organization they work for.

Here are some key points to consider:

  • On-Call and Emergency Situations: Some investigations, such as missing persons or crisis management cases, can require immediate attention and may disrupt personal plans or free time.
  • Client Expectations: Meeting client deadlines and expectations can sometimes lead to extended work hours or last-minute assignments.
  • Autonomy and Flexibility: Self-employed private investigators, or those who operate their agencies, might have more control over their schedules and be able to plan their work to achieve a better work-life balance.
  • Stress and Emotional Toll: Dealing with sensitive or emotionally challenging cases can affect a private investigator’s well-being. Finding ways to cope with stress and maintain mental health is essential.
  • Continual Learning: Staying up-to-date with the latest investigative techniques and legal regulations might require ongoing education and training, which can impact free time.
  • Long-Distance Travel: Depending on the nature of the cases, private investigators might need to travel frequently or spend time away from home.

Should I Become a Private Investigator?

In conclusion, the decision to become a private investigator is a personal one that depends on your interests, skills, and career goals. As we’ve explored in this article, a career as a private investigator offers a diverse range of opportunities, from uncovering secrets and solving mysteries to providing invaluable support in legal cases and security matters.

Before making this career choice, carefully consider the demands and challenges associated with the profession, including irregular work hours, the potential for exposure to sensitive and emotionally challenging cases, and the need for continuous learning and adaptation to evolving technologies and legal regulations.

If you have a passion for investigative work, strong analytical and communication skills, and a commitment to ethical conduct, a career as a private investigator can be both rewarding and fulfilling. Whether you choose to work in a specialized niche or offer general investigative services, the field offers the chance to make a positive impact by uncovering the truth and serving the needs of your clients.

Ultimately, the decision to become a private investigator should align with your interests and career aspirations. If the prospect of being a detective, problem solver, and guardian of truth appeals to you, then embarking on the path to becoming a private investigator may be the right choice for you.

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Lace Brunsden

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