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A Day in the Life of a Private Investigator

These guys are usually only one step away from landing behind bars themselves. Like most professions portrayed in novels, movies and television, that’s not how it really is (sort of). Private detectives and investigators help people find things like lost loves and family members and information. P.I.s use various types of surveillance methods to find what you are looking for, including the phone, computers, cameras and microphones. The do their sleuthing in places as upscale as the board room, and as seedy as the local bar, often conducting surveillance and contacting people who are not available during normal working hours. Investigators are trained to perform physical surveillance in a car or van for long periods of time. Many detectives and investigators spend days “in the field,” but some work in their office most of the day conducting computer searches and making phone calls. Some of the work involves confrontation, so the job can be stressful and dangerous. Some investigators are licensed to carry handguns. But more often than not, investigators gather information and do not act as law enforcement officers, apprehending criminals. Investigators that own their own agencies sometimes have to deal with demanding and distraught clients. Private detectives also work for executive, corporate, and celebrity clientele. They do employee background checks, and provide protection. They also provide assistance in civil liability and personal injury cases, insurance claims and fraud, child custody and protection cases, and pre-marital screening. They are also hired to investigate cheating spouses. Some investigators work for law firms, preparing criminal defenses, finding witnesses, serving legal documents, interviewing police and witnesses, and gathering evidence. There is a need for private investigators to work in retail stores and hotels, providing property protection. They prevent theft by shoplifters, vendor representatives, delivery personnel, and even store employees. Store detectives also conduct periodic inspections of stock areas, dressing rooms, and rest rooms, and sometimes assist in opening and closing the store. They may prepare loss prevention and security reports for management and testify in court against persons they apprehend. Hotel detectives protect guests of the establishment from theft of their belongings and preserve order in the restaurants and bars in the building. They also may keep undesirable individuals, such as known thieves, off the premises. Detectives and private investigators are in a high-risk industry, but the rewards of solving a case can be very lucrative.

Paying Your Dues

Many private detectives have college degrees, generally a bachelors of criminal justice or police science degree. Although an advanced degree is not required for most detective work, some corporate investigators have MBAs, CPAs, or law degrees. Corporate investigators hired by companies may receive formal training from their employers on business practices, management structure, and various finance-related topics. Most private investigators have worked in related fields, such as police officers, store security, and military intelligent offices. Many have retired from these positions after twenty or more years, and turn to private investigations as a second career. Some P.I.s start their careers working on insurance or collections claims. The majority of states require private detectives and investigators to be licensed; the requirements for such licenses vary widely. The most stringent set of requirements can be found in California. They California Department of Consumer Affairs, Bureau of Security and Investigative Services, requires private investigators to be 18 years of age or older; have a combination of education in police science, criminal law, or justice, and experience equaling 3 years (6,000 hours) of investigative experience. Detectives also have to pass an evaluation by the Department of Justice and a criminal history background check; and receive a qualifying score on a two-hour written examination covering laws and regulations. There are additional requirements for a firearms permit. Some investigators receive certification from the National Association of C50Legal Investigators (NALI) to demonstrate competency in their field. Some private detectives join agencies, although there is little to no room for advancement. Increases in salary and difficulty of assignments separate more experienced P.I.s from everyone else. Some P.I.s may become supervisors in corporate and security or investigations departments. Most people looking to hire P.I.s want individuals with ingenuity who are persistent and assertive. A good detective must not be afraid of confrontation and able to think on his or her feet. P.I.s have to be excellent interviewers and able to work with law enforcement officers.

Present and Future

Cheating on your spouse, running insurance scams, embezzlement, these are not new crimes. Private investigation has been a healthy profession for many years. It is expected that this occupation will grow faster than most during the next decade. Competition is expected to be stiff as more and more qualified people enter the profession. The best chance to break into the business will be entry-level jobs with detective agencies or as store detectives with large chain and discount stores. More private detectives and investigators will find jobs as a result from fear of crime, increased litigation, and the need to protect confidential information and property. Private investigators also will be needed to assist attorneys working on criminal defense and civil litigation. As the global marketplace expands, large corporations will need investigators to help control internal and external financial losses, and to monitor competitors and prevent industrial spying.

Quality of Life


Whether starting out on their own, or working for a company, until they’ve built a reputation, private investigators work long, hard, varied hours. Detectives that come into the profession from similar occupations may have an easier time finding clients and solving cases.


Private investigators with five years of experience may start their own agency, employing more investigators to help them with their workload; in other words, do the grunt work. Agencies owners do most of their work in an office, with normal business hours. Store investigators with several years experience may be called upon to head up a store’s security department.


Although there are very few administrative roles in the private investigators world, detectives working with large corporations or security companies can find themselves managing groups of lower level security guards and investigators. A private investigator with ten years experience as a competent sleuth can expect a reputation that will bring in high paying jobs.