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Working As a Private Detective

  • Getting Information
  • Identifying Objects, Actions, and Events
  • Documenting/Recording Information
  • Interacting With Computers
  • Making Decisions and Solving Problems
  • Mostly Sitting

  • Make Decisions

  • Stressful

  • $57,000

    Average Salary

What Does A Private Detective Do

Private detectives and investigators search for information about legal, financial, and personal matters. They offer many services, such as verifying people’s backgrounds and statements, finding missing persons, and investigating computer crimes.

Duties

Private detectives and investigators typically do the following:

  • Interview people to gather information
  • Search public or court records to uncover clues 
  • Conduct surveillance
  • Collect evidence to present in court or to a client
  • Verify employment and income
  • Check for civil judgments and criminal history
  • Investigate computer crimes and information theft

Private detectives and investigators offer many services for individuals, attorneys, and businesses. Examples are 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.

Investigators may go undercover to observe people and to obtain information.

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, they 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.

The following are examples of types of private detectives and investigators:

Computer forensics investigators specialize in recovering, analyzing, and presenting information from computers to be used as evidence. Many focus on recovering deleted emails and documents. 

Legal investigators help prepare criminal defenses, verify facts in civil lawsuits, locate witnesses, and serve legal documents. They often work for lawyers and law firms.

Corporate investigators conduct internal and external investigations for corporations. Internally, they may investigate drug use in the workplace or ensure that expense accounts are not abused. Externally, they may try to identify and stop criminal schemes, such as fraudulent billing by a supplier.

Financial investigators may be hired to collect financial information on individuals and companies attempting to make large financial transactions. These investigators are often certified public accountants (CPAs) who work closely with investment bankers and other accountants. Investigators might search for assets to recover damages awarded by a court in fraud and theft cases.

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How To Become A Private Detective

Private detectives and investigators typically need several years of work experience in law enforcement or the military. Workers must also have a high school diploma, and the vast majority of states require private detectives and investigators to have a license.

Education

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 or police science. 

Corporate investigators typically need a bachelor’s degree. Often, coursework in finance, accounting, and business is preferred. Because many financial investigators have an accounting background, they typically have a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field and may be certified public accountants (CPAs). 

Computer forensics investigators often need a bachelor’s degree in computer science or criminal justice. Some colleges and universities now offer certificate programs in computer forensics, and others offer a bachelor’s or a master’s degree.

Training

Most private detectives and investigators learn through on-the-job experience, often lasting several years.

Although new investigators must learn how to gather information, additional training depends on the type of firm that hires them. For instance, at an insurance company, a new investigator will learn on the job how to recognize insurance fraud. Corporate investigators hired by large companies may receive formal training in business practices, management structure, and various finance-related topics. 

Because computer forensics specialists need to both use computers and possess investigative skills, extensive training may be required. Many learn their trade while working for a law enforcement agency for several years. At work, they are taught how to gather evidence and spot computer-related crimes.

Continuing education is important for computer forensics investigators because they work with changing technologies. Investigators must learn the latest methods of fraud detection and new software programs. Many accomplish this task by attending conferences and courses offered by software vendors and professional associations.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Private detectives and investigators typically must 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 previously may have worked for insurance or collections companies, as paralegals, in finance, or in accounting.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

The vast majority of states require private detectives and investigators to have a license. Requirements vary with the state. Professional Investigator Magazine has links to each state’s 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.

In most states, detectives and investigators who carry handguns must meet additional requirements.

Although there are no licenses specific to computer forensics investigators, some states require them to be licensed private investigators. Even in states and localities where they are not required to be licensed, having a private investigator license is useful because it allows computer forensics investigators to perform related investigative 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 investigators who specialize in security, ASIS International offers the Professional Certified Investigator certification.

Important Qualities

Communication skills. Private detectives and investigators must listen carefully and ask appropriate questions when interviewing a person of interest.

Decisionmaking skills. Private detectives and investigators must be able to think on their feet and make quick decisions, based on the limited information that they have at a given time.

Inquisitiveness. Private detectives and investigators must want to ask questions and search for the truth.

Patience. Private detectives and investigators may have to spend long periods conducting surveillance while waiting for an event to occur. Investigations may take a long time, and they may not provide a resolution quickly—or at all.

Resourcefulness. Private detectives and investigators must work persistently with whatever leads they have, no matter how limited, to determine the next step toward their goal. They sometimes need to anticipate what a person of interest will do next.

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Top Skills for A Private Detective

  1. Fraud Investigations
  2. Background Checks
  3. Undercover Operations
You can check out examples of real life uses of top skills on resumes here:
  • Performed complex fraud investigations utilizing research, record tracking, and interviewing techniques to identify areas of theft and potential recovery.
  • Provide fingerprinting services to various individuals requiring state and/or federal background checks and conduct background investigations.
  • Prepared detailed reports on undercover operations and outcomes for clients.
  • Assisted various law enforcement agencies with investigations including Federal Bureau of Investigation, State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies.
  • Submit detailed investigative reports to insurance companies based on stationary and mobile surveillance efforts.

Private Detective Demographics

Gender

Male

64.9%

Female

19.9%

Unknown

15.1%
Ethnicity

White

62.0%

Hispanic or Latino

15.4%

Black or African American

13.0%

Asian

6.8%

Unknown

2.8%
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Foreign Languages Spoken

Spanish

46.2%

Arabic

15.4%

Portuguese

7.7%

Turkish

7.7%

Braille

7.7%

Greek

7.7%

Armenian

7.7%
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Private Detective Education

Schools

The Academy

15.1%

Liberty University

7.5%

University of Phoenix

7.5%

Caribbean Forensic and Technical College

5.7%

Indiana University of Pennsylvania

5.7%

Montgomery College

5.7%

Temple University

3.8%

Boston University

3.8%

John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York

3.8%

University of New Haven

3.8%

Community College of the Air Force

3.8%

Johnson County Community College

3.8%

Pennsylvania State University

3.8%

Kaplan University

3.8%

Rhode Island College

3.8%

Western Illinois University

3.8%

Western New England College

3.8%

University of Wisconsin - Whitewater

3.8%

Tennessee State University

3.8%

University of Maryland - Baltimore

3.8%
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Majors

Criminal Justice

48.4%

Business

12.1%

Law

4.5%

Law Enforcement

4.5%

Political Science

3.2%

Homeland Security

3.2%

Criminology

3.2%

Accounting

2.5%

Biology

1.9%

Human Services

1.9%

Project Management

1.9%

Health Care Administration

1.9%

Information Technology

1.9%

Specialized Sales And Merchandising

1.3%

Psychology

1.3%

School Counseling

1.3%

Medical Technician

1.3%

Social Sciences

1.3%

Finance

1.3%

Engineering

1.3%
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Degrees

Bachelors

35.3%

Other

27.9%

Associate

13.5%

Masters

10.2%

Certificate

10.2%

Diploma

1.4%

Doctorate

1.4%
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Updated May 19, 2020