What is a Private Detective?

Private detectives find facts and analyze information about legal, financial, and personal matters. They offer many services, including verifying people's backgrounds, tracing missing persons, investigating computer crimes, and protecting celebrities.

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What does a Private Detective do?

Private detectives typically do the following:

  • Interview people to gather information
  • Do various types of searches, using a computer or non-computerized records
  • Conduct surveillance (looking for, following, or watching a person without that person noticing)
  • Collect evidence to present in court
  • Verify employment, income, and facts on a person's background
  • Investigate computer crimes, such as identity theft and illegal downloads
  • Help in cases of criminal and civil liability, missing-persons cases, and insurance claims and fraud.

Private detectives typically work for individuals, attorneys, and businesses. Some have their own investigative agency. Private detectives offer many services, based on clients' needs. They may perform pre-employment background checks or look into a charge that someone has been stealing money from a company. They might be hired to prove or disprove infidelity in a divorce case.

Private detectives use a variety of tools when researching the facts in a case. Much of their work is done with a computer, which allows them to quickly get information, such as records of a person’s prior arrests, telephone numbers, social networking-site details, and emails. They make phone calls to verify facts, such as a person's income and place of employment. They also interview people when conducting a background investigation. Investigators may go undercover, pretending to be someone else to go unnoticed, to get information, or to observe a suspect.

Detectives also conduct surveillance when investigating a case. They may watch a site, such as the person's home or office, often from an inconspicuous location or a vehicle. Using photographic and video cameras, binoculars, and global positioning systems (GPS), detectives gather information on persons of interest. Surveillance can be time consuming. Detectives and investigators must be mindful of the law when conducting investigations.

They must have a good understanding of federal and local laws, such as privacy laws, and other legal issues affecting their work. However, as the legality of certain methods may be unclear, investigators and detectives must make use good judgment when deciding how to pursue a case. They must collect evidence properly, so that it can be used legally in court.

What does it take to be a Private Detective?

Most private detectives learn on the job. 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 to recognize insurance fraud. Learning by doing, in which new investigators are put on cases and gain skills as they go, is a common approach. Corporate investigators hired by large companies, however, may receive formal training in business practices, management structure, and various finance-related topics.

Private detectives usually have some university education. Although some investigation jobs may not have specific education requirements, others require candidates to have a high school diploma.

Postsecondary courses in criminal justice and political science are helpful to aspiring private detectives and investigators. Although previous work experience is generally required, some people enter the occupation directly after graduating from college with an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or police science.

Corporate investigators typically need a bachelor’s degree. Coursework in finance, accounting, and business is often preferred. Because many financial investigators have an accountant’s background, they typically have a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field.
Many computer forensics investigators need a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as computer science or criminal justice. Many colleges and universities now offer certificate programs in computer forensics, and others offer a bachelor’s or a master’s degree. Because computer forensics specialists need both computer skills and investigative skills, extensive training may be required. Many computer forensic investigators learn their trade while working for a law enforcement agency, where they are taught how to gather evidence and to spot computer-related crimes. Many people enter law enforcement to get this training and to establish a reputation before moving on to the private sector.

Private detectives typically have previous work experience. Some have worked for insurance or collections companies, as paralegals, in finance, or in accounting. Many investigators enter the field after serving in law enforcement, the military, or federal intelligence jobs. These people, who frequently are able to retire after 25 years of service, often become private detectives or investigators as a second career.

Because laws change, jobseekers should verify the licensing laws related to private investigators with their jurisdiction and locality in which they want to work. There are no licenses specifically for computer forensic investigators, but some places require them to be licensed private investigators. Even in localities where licensure is not required, having a private investigator license is useful, because it allows computer forensic investigators to do follow-up and related investigative work.

What is the workplace of a Private Detective like?

Private detectives work in a wide variety of environments, depending on the case that they are working on. Some spend more time in their offices conducting computer searches and making phone calls. Others spend more time in the field, conducting interviews or doing surveillance.

Investigators generally work alone, but they may work with others while conducting surveillance or following a subject. Some of the work involves confrontation, so the job can be stressful and dangerous. Some situations, such as certain bodyguard assignments for corporate or celebrity clients, call for the investigator to be armed. In most cases, however, a weapon is not necessary because private detectives and investigators’ purpose is information gathering and not law enforcement or criminal apprehension.

Owners of investigative agencies have the added stress of having to deal with demanding and, sometimes, distraught clients. Private detectives often work irregular hours because they need to conduct surveillance and to contact people outside of normal work hours. They may work early mornings, evenings, weekends, and holidays. In addition, they may have to work outdoors, or from a vehicle, in all kinds of weather.

How much does a Private Detective earn?

The median annual wage of private detectives was $42,870 in May 2010. (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% earned less than $25,760, and the top 10% earned more than $74,970.

Learn more about being a Private Detective

Employment Stats

Certificate or Associate's degree required

Growing by 11.2% over the next 8 years

$51K Average annual salary