What Does a Private Investigator Do?

When you think of private investigators, you may have visions of Sam Spade or Sherlock Holmes rushing down dark alleys in hot pursuit of a shady character. Real-world private investigators, also known as private detectives, actually have very different jobs. Keep reading to learn more about the world of private investigators. Schools offering Law Enforcement degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Job Description

First and foremost, private investigators must work within the law at all times. Like a police officer, a private investigator can't present evidence that wasn't legally obtained. They also have less authority than police officers. For example, while a police officer might obtain a probable cause warrant to enter someone's home, a private investigator has no such avenue.

You'll find much of your time will be spent at a computer if you become a private investigator. A great deal of information can be found through digital formats and some investigators specialize in data retrieval. Database searches can turn up records of prior arrests, social networking information, criminal convictions, and personal associations. You might find yourself working surveillance in a number of ways. You could go undercover to learn more about a suspect. You might find yourself spending hours in an inconspicuous location waiting to get photographic evidence. Surveillance, however, doesn't include methodologies such as wire-tapping or any other means that would require a legal warrant.

Important Facts About Private Investigators

Required Education High school diploma, or equivalent
On-the-Job Training Typically several years
Key Skills Excellent oral and written communication, decision making, observational, patience, ingenuity
Similar Occupations Accountant, auditor, bill and account collections, claims adjuster, appraiser, examiner, and investigator, police and detectives, security guard, gaming and surveillance officer

Potential Employers

As a private investigator, you may find yourself assisting corporations or legal offices in fact-finding missions. Insurance companies hire private investigators to perform surveillance on someone who is suspected of filing a fraudulent claim. Companies may need a background check done on a prospective employee. You may be called to help with identity theft cases or track the origin of threatening e-mail.

On a smaller scale, you might be hired by an individual who suspects a significant other of infidelity. In missing person cases, the police can only investigate so far before they must redirect their attention to other civil issues, but a private investigator can continue a missing person search where the police left off. On occasion, someone might hire you to investigate a cold case - one that law enforcement agencies have stopped pursuing.


As of 2015, 42 states require private investigators to become licensed, according to PI Magazine (www.pimagazine.com). Many states will consider you eligible for a license after you've worked for investigative services companies for some time. You'll need to check with your individual state licensing board for specific requirements.

Salary Info and Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, www.bls.gov), the median annual salary earned by private detectives and investigators was $44,570 in May 2014. The employment of such professionals is expected to grow by 5% between 2014 and 2024, per the BLS.

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