What is a Private Investigator?

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Private investigators must have a keen eye, excellent observation skills, and an analytical mind. Often referred to as private detectives, these professionals use a number of surveillance and investigative techniques to gather accurate information on the subject or situation in question. Private investigators are licensed to practice in the state in which they work, and may either work full time as employees or be contracted to work with private detective firms, police departments, private businesses and organizations, as well as individual clients.

Although the services they provide may differ depending on the case or industry in which they work, their skill sets are often very similar, as they are called upon to uncover facts and evidence, analyze information, and provide their clients with the results of their investigation.

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines private investigators as professionals who must “gather clues and verify facts for their cases,” while P.I. Magazine, an industry magazine, defines private investigators as professionals who “work to gather information and evidence pertaining to a case or event…”

Regardless of the career path or niche chosen by private investigators, their talents lie in being able to gather and analyze information. This may include:

  • Performing undercover investigations
  • Performing surveillance activities
  • Documenting and reporting the results of investigations
  • Interviewing people
  • Researching

Where Do Private Investigators Work?

The private investigation industry is an in-demand and swiftly growing profession in a number of industries. The skills and expertise of private investigators are of value in a large number of areas, including:

  • Computer forensics services
  • Personal protection services
  • Undercover investigations
  • Supplier, vendor and employee screening programs
  • Crisis intervention services
  • Retail loss and prevention
  • Criminal investigation services
  • Polygraph services
  • Missing persons services
  • Pre-employment screenings
  • Personal investigations

Some private investigators specialize their careers in a specific area, such as private security, fugitive recovery, or criminal justice. The United States Association of Professional Investigators recognizes a number of specialty tracks for private investigators, including:

  • Civil investigation
  • Criminal investigation
  • Investigative business administration
  • Criminology and behavioral sciences
  • Terrorism and intelligence
  • Investigative law and ethics
  • Special victims/child abuse/nursing homes
  • Security
  • Computer forensics/Internet
  • Insurance investigation

Private investigators may concentrate their careers on finding mission persons, performing background checks, performing investigative services, or conducting marital investigations. Private investigators may work alongside law enforcement officials during criminal investigations, or they may work as skip tracers alongside bail bondsmen or bounty hunters. They may also specialize in uncovering insurance fraud or finding missing children.

Finally, private investigators may work in a more general capacity, providing a wide array of investigative services to clients. Regardless of the area or industry in which they work, private investigators follow a strict set of standards, which are generally dictated by state law. Many private investigators are members of state professional investigator associations, which also require them to work under a set of bylaws or a code of ethics.

What are the Requirements to Become a Private Investigator?

Although not generally a requirement for state licensure, many private investigation firms require their employees to possess a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a similar program. Further, because many private investigators have worked in other areas of law enforcement or in the criminal justice field, they generally possess some type of formal education or training.

For example, it is quite common for retired police officers, police detectives, and military personnel to seek careers as private investigators.

To date, 43 states require state licensure to practice as a private investigator. Even those states without state licensure often require licensing at the local level. Therefore, becoming a private investigator the majority of the time involves not only seeking a formal education and training, but state licensure, as well. State licensure ensures that private investigators work within the parameters of the law at all times and adhere to a strict set of laws and regulations.

Requirements for state licensure differ from state to state, although most states require the following:

  • A high school diploma or GED
  • A minimum age (state requirements range from 18 to 25)
  • A clean criminal record of felony convictions or convictions involving crimes of moral turpitude
  • Industry experience and/or a college education
  • A United States citizen or legal resident

Some states require passing a state jurisprudence examination prior to becoming licensed, while other states require the completion of continuing education during every license renewal period.

A standard requirement for licensure as a private investigator is a thorough background investigation, which often involves providing the licensing board or agency with a full set of fingerprints.

Finally, private investigators must carry a surety bond to practice, although the minimum amount of the bond often varies according to state law.

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