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 online, public, and court records to uncover clues
  • Conduct surveillance
  • Collect evidence for clients
  • Check for civil judgments and criminal history

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

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, detectives and investigators 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.

Skip tracers specialize in locating people whose whereabouts are unknown. For example, debt collectors may employ them to locate people who have unpaid bills.

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Work Environment

Private detectives and investigators held about 33,000 jobs in 2018. The largest employers of private detectives and investigators were as follows:

Investigation, guard, and armored car services                               35%
Finance and insurance 10
Government 8
Self-employed workers 6

Private detectives and investigators work in many environments, depending on the case. Some spend more time in offices, researching cases on computers and making phone calls. Others spend more time in the field, conducting interviews or performing surveillance. In addition, private detectives and investigators may have to work outdoors or from a vehicle, in all kinds of weather, in order to obtain the information their client needs.

Although investigators often work alone, some work with others while conducting surveillance or carrying out large, complicated assignments.

Work Schedules

Private detectives and investigators often work irregular hours because they conduct surveillance and contact people outside of normal work hours. They may work early mornings, evenings, weekends, and holidays.

Education and Training

Private detectives and investigators typically need several years of work experience and a high school diploma. In addition, 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.

Training

Most private detectives and investigators learn through on-the-job training, typically lasting between several months and a year.

Although new investigators must learn how to gather information, additional training depends on the type of firm that hires them. For example, investigators may learn to conduct remote surveillance, reconstruct accident scenes, or investigate insurance fraud. Corporate investigators hired by large companies may receive formal training in business practices, management structure, and various finance-related topics.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Private detectives and investigators must typically 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 may have previously worked as bill and account collectors, claims adjusters, paralegals, or process servers.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Most states require private detectives and investigators to have a license. Check with your state for more information; Professional Investigator Magazine has links to most states’ 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.

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 other investigators, ASIS International offers the Professional Certified Investigator certification.

Personality and Interests

Private detectives and investigators typically have an interest in the Persuading and Organizing interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Persuading interest area indicates a focus on influencing, motivating, and selling to other people. The Organizing interest area indicates a focus on working with information and processes to keep things arranged in orderly systems.

If you are not sure whether you have a Persuading or Organizing interest which might fit with a career as a private detective and investigator, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Private detectives and investigators should also possess the following specific qualities:

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

Decision-making skills. Detectives and investigators must be able to think on their feet and make quick decisions, based on the 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 on 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. 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.

Pay

The median annual wage for private detectives and investigators was $50,510 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $30,390, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $89,760.

In May 2019, the median annual wages for private detectives and investigators in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Finance and insurance $60,300
Government 60,120
Investigation, guard, and armored car services                                  45,530

Private detectives and investigators often work irregular hours because they conduct surveillance and contact people outside of normal work hours. They may work early mornings, evenings, weekends, and holidays.

Job Outlook

Employment of private detectives and investigators is projected to grow 8 percent from 2018 to 2028, faster than the average for all occupations.

Continued lawsuits, fraud and other crimes, and interpersonal mistrust create demand for investigative services in industries such as legal services.

Background checks will continue to be a source of work for some investigators, as online investigations are not always sufficient.

Job Prospects

Strong competition for jobs can be expected because private detective and investigator careers attract many qualified people, including relatively young retirees from law enforcement and the military.

Candidates with related work experience, as well as those with strong interviewing skills and familiarity with computers, may find more job opportunities than others.

For More Information

For more information about private detectives and investigators, including information on certification, visit

National Association of Legal Investigators

ASIS International

For more information about state licensing requirements, visit

Professional Investigator Magazine

 

FAQ

Where does this information come from?

The career information above is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. This excellent resource for occupational data is published by the U.S. Department of Labor every two years. Truity periodically updates our site with information from the BLS database.

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I am not sure if this career is right for me. How can I decide?

There are many excellent tools available that will allow you to measure your interests, profile your personality, and match these traits with appropriate careers. On this site, you can take the Career Personality Profiler assessment, the Holland Code assessment, or the Photo Career Quiz.

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