Private Investigator Career and Job Description

But the gritty reality of investigative work is actually far more fascinating, challenging and rewarding than any other job role that could conform to the Hollywood depictions that have come to define what most people think when it comes to private investigator careers and what all it takes to become one.

If you got the right skill-set, temperament, and training, PI work could pay off for you in more ways than one. If you are curious enough to discover what a private investigator world looks like, here’s what you need to know about the private investigator career.

Client confidentiality and discretion are part of the PI code, so very few of the most interesting cases for investigation get too much publicity. In this game, the big talkers aren’t the ones with the real stripes to back it up.

The fact is, if a PI case makes the news, it usually means that the investigator messed up big time. But every once in a while, a glimpse of their world slips out:

  • Private investigators in Maryland helped a victim of sexual harassment prove her case by wiring her up with a hidden body camera, transmitting wirelessly to a van in the parking lot of her place of business. With no witnesses in the building, the camera nonetheless caught her abuser in the act—and helped her get justice in court.
  • Other investigators in the state, investigating an adultery case by using hidden video surveillance, turned up unexpected evidence of child abuse in the process. The evidence was instrumental in obtaining an emergency protective order and removing the child from the custody of the abuser.
  • In Florida, a private investigator helping defend a hotel chain in a civil suit from a victim who had been raped and beaten tracked down and obtained evidence leading police to arrest and convict a man that no one else had suspected of the crime.

It is no surprise this kind of sorcery carried out whether you like it or not, is a common occurrence for any occupation or business. There are numerous such cases of PIs screwing up by participating in fraudulent practices. 

Unlike what you may find in the movies and on the TV, most of the cases of private investigators get solved through careful, painstaking work in tracking down information. Hours of surveillance, online searches, combing through records in libraries and courthouses, and conducting interviews are the bread and butter of investigations work.

One thing that the TVs might get right about being a PI is that you get to pick who you do that exciting work for. Maybe it’s a Fortune 500 company and you’re rocking a suit and tie every day, or maybe it’s a small three or four guy outfit working out of a shop front downtown, or maybe it’s just you and a cell phone and the front seat of your car, open for business. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost 25 percent of PIs are self-employed. A state license, in most of the states that require it, and a business license (the tax man trips up more PIs than lawyers do), is all you need to set up shop.

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General Investigators

By engaging yourself in a little bit of research and web search or trying to find more details related to your specific areas, you can open a phone book and you’ll find a number of labor shortages of private investigators that provide general services:

  • Missing person cases
  • Evidence in child custody battles or divorce
  • Marital infidelity cases
  • Debt collecting for businesses

And the list goes on.

General investigators handle pretty much anything that comes in the door or quite literally their way. From missing persons to unfaithful spouses to collections work, these PIs have to be adaptive and flexible in their approach to investigative work.

From conducting trash hits to gather evidence in custody battles to sitting all night in a cold car conducting surveillance jobs on divorce cases, general investigators may have the widest range of responsibilities and cases.

It is common for PI firms to operate a general investigative agency and employ a number of private investigators with expertise in a number of different specialty areas.

Investigators in the Government

You might be surprised to learn that most private investigators in the United States work for the government conducting background, fraud, and financial investigations.

Although it doesn’t fit the profile of a hard-boiled gumshoe pounding the pavement for his paycheck, it actually makes a lot of sense that government agencies would need a lot of non-law enforcement investigative work done. This usually falls into three categories:

  • Fraud and financial investigation – There are many government programs that are ripe for being defrauded, particularly taxes and social services, and investigators are constantly looking through records to identify abuses of the system.
  • Background checks – As of 1 October 2017, there were 4,030,625 individuals found eligible to hold a clearance, which was 50,103 fewer individuals on 1 October 2016 (1.2 percent decrease).  In FY 2019 there was a 4.2% increase in the number of security clearances, for a total number of 4.2 million individuals with eligibility to access classified information. That’s 169,122 more security clearances than October of 2018. That’s a lot, but they don’t just hand them out like candy… every one of those five million people had an investigator go through their personal history, interview friends and associates, and look them in the eye while asking hard questions about their past. And other government employees, such as police officers and firefighters, also often have mandatory background checks as a condition of being hired.
  • Legal investigations – There are a surprising amount of investigations that are required by the court system that do not rise to the level of law enforcement action. Whereas, investigators work for district attorney’s offices helping to prepare criminal cases, or directly for the court system to establish facts in probate cases or other matters of dispute.

Working for someone, in particular, might not be every investigator’s best idea devoting their good time, but if that particular someone has a reliable checkbook and the work is steady and often every bit as challenging and interesting as you will find as a private investigator job and market sector.

Read on to learn more about private investigator job descriptions and some of these exciting and exhilarating types of investigators.

Legal Investigators

Legal investigators assist lawyers in preparing cases for litigation by researching the facts of the dispute by locating and interviewing witnesses to help uncover evidence that could be of benefit to the attorney’s client.

Legal investigators may work on any sort of case, either civil or criminal, and have to have a solid understanding of the law in addition to expertise in investigative work, in order to understand both what types of evidence to look for and how to collect it without compromising its admissibility in a court of law.

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Many legal investigators have backgrounds in law enforcement or have trained as lawyers or paralegals. Knowledge and understanding of both police procedures and the processes of the criminal justice system come in handy. Many rules of evidence and deadlines are involved in legal casework that does not apply in other types of private investigations.

Legal investigators often find employment in criminal defense cases, acting as a sort of investigative service on the side of the defendant rather than for the state. They may find and interview witnesses that the police did not, or uncover other physical or documentary evidence in a case. Others work for prosecutors, performing the same type of work but expanding on police investigations and looking for more evidence to prove the defendant guilty.

Corporate/Financial Fraud Investigators

Fraud underlined word and financial data for business audit.

It goes without a doubt that when you came across this job title, you must have wondered what a corporate investigator is. Investors or large businesses often hire corporate investigators to investigate either other businesses or employees within the business. Their primary job is to:

  • Perform due diligence work to investigate a company’s history and financial performance before proceeding with a merger or acquisition
  • Investigate a company’s interests and investments
  • Conduct background investigations on new employees
  • Review financial, computer, telephone, etc. records of employees suspected of fraud, embezzlement, or theft

Corporate investigations are primarily accounting investigations, which means many corporate investigators are also CPAs or at least come from a background in corporate accounting.

A corporate investigator can expect to spend much of their time making numbers add up. In the course of fraud investigations, careful comparisons of corporate records from different sources can be the primary evidence of a crime. Corporate investigators will also look carefully to try to determine potential tampering with such records, sometimes going beyond the records themselves to analyze record-keeping systems for potential vulnerabilities and looking at motives that individual employees might have for committing fraud.

Financial experts are also called in when companies plan to merge or make major acquisitions. Investors require due diligence of financial information provided in these transactions – when bad data isn’t isolated, millions or billions of dollars can be at stake.

In 2012, for example, when Hewlett Packard purchased Autonomy, a data analysis software company, they failed to detect altered income statements, balance sheets, and cash flow analyses. HP ended up taking significant losses as a result of the deal and shareholders sued for $5-billion.

Another example of such a case In 2012, was that Standard Chartered was also accused of money laundering by New York’s Department of Financial Services (DFS) for the Iranian government’s failures in anti-money laundering controls that helped clear the U.S. regulations for a period of $ 265 billion. 

Insurance Fraud Cases

Insurance companies and government agencies (primarily workmen’s compensation programs) all have private investigators on staff to investigate claims for signs of fraud. Estimates for insurance fraud losses in the United States range between $80 and $100 billion annually, so it pays to check suspicious claims, and insurance investigators are the people to do it.

It is reported that insurance fraud causes about $80 billion worth of damage to consumers! Around 78% of American citizens worry about insurance fraud since insurance scams cause $29 billion of damage to auto insurers annually.

Whether working on personal injury or property claims, this is a role that demands a great deal of surveillance in the field. Insurance investigators observe people at work, in their own homes, and out around town looking for evidence that physical disabilities are not as severe as has been claimed.

In property cases, they may attempt to determine whether the claimant damaged the property themselves, like in cases of arson. Or they may be asked to interview witnesses to accidents, to help determine fault.

The job can require meticulous investigative work in reviewing claim records and interviewing witnesses, but it can also take a bit of luck, such as when one investigator ran into a supposedly injured worker at the bowling alley… where the man was the best bowler in the place! Video evidence quickly exposed his fraudulent claim.

Computer Forensic Investigators

Increasingly, most non-violent crimes are becoming computer crimes. Fraud, identity theft, infidelity, and almost every other type of case private investigators routinely investigate almost all have something that can be exposed by examining computer records. Whether this means looking at Facebook profiles during a background check or digging into hacking cases by means of detailed forensic analysis of compromised hard drives, technical experts use specialized tools and keep up-to-date with the latest tricks for uncovering and preserving evidence for investigations.

Computer forensics investigators have several major advantages over traditional law enforcement that means they often get the first call when a large company has been hacked:

  • Their technical expertise often greatly exceeds what local law enforcement or even federal agencies can bring to bear on computer crime cases.
  • In a world where it’s as easy to hack a business from halfway around the world as next door, the fact that private investigators do not have to respect jurisdictional boundaries means they can pursue criminal leads wherever they take them.

Many of the most famous cases of catching criminal hackers have been primarily due to private investigations putting in the hours to follow electronic breadcrumbs back to the source. Even Kevin Mitnick, perhaps the world’s most notorious hacker, was tracked and apprehended by the FBI with the assistance of a private security researcher who noticed signs of intrusion in an information system.

Tracking logs and setting up traps, the IT security specialist worked with other system owners to pin down Mitnick and gather enough evidence to hand the case to the FBI on a platter. Mitnick was in the game for kicks but didn’t find the five years he got in a federal slammer much fun.

Civil/Domestic Investigators

The ugly, seedy underbelly of divorce is laid wide open to private investigators who specialize in divorce and domestic disputes. Also called marital investigators, PIs who specialize in this staple have found their roles diminished in the modern era of no-fault divorce. But many cases of custody or the division of assets still revolve around digging up dirt on a spouse… in one case in a rural community, investigators sifting through a woman’s trash to find evidence of drug and alcohol abuse were able to use the evidence to get the children out of her custody and returned to their father.

Trash hits, surveillance work, and interviews all feature prominently in this line of investigative work. Due to the sensitive nature of the disputes, marital investigators rarely identify themselves as such but may attempt to get close to either the target of their surveillance or other friends and family by masquerading as old acquaintances or new friends… fishing for salacious details and rumor as a prelude to pursuing hard evidence.

Because of the passions involved, this can be one of the more risky pursuits for private investigators as well. It’s not unusual to work in teams or to maintain close contact with local police when investigating domestic cases.

Missing Persons Cases

Missing persons cases are rarely nefarious but often stressful and troubling for families. Because police tend to place a low priority on most missing person reports, private investigators often get the call to track down a loved one who may not want to be found. They may do so instead of or in cooperation with law enforcement authorities, depending on the circumstances of the case.

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The reason that many missing persons cases are a low priority is that oftentimes, the person has intentionally gone missing. Although painful, this is rarely illegal. But families who are concerned or want closure may have the resources to hire a private investigator to look into matters.

These PIs are experts in examining financial records and analyzing lifestyle and social media evidence to identify likely places that people disappear to. They also have an advantage over the police in that they can pursue leads anywhere in the world without stepping on any jurisdictional toes. In cases where there is suspected foul play, this can be an enormous advantage that makes hiring a missing person PI worth every penny.

Arson Investigators

Fire and arson investigators try to examine the physical attributes of a fire scene by identifying and gathering as much physical evidence from the scene as they can, which is then analyzed to help determine if the cause of the fire was set accidentally or was the fire being set as a deliberate attempt. During the scene examination, arson investigators may find evidence such as accelerants, tampered utilities, and specific burn patterns, which may further lead them to examine any signs of criminal activity.

This may be as chemistry-related as it could get but it might be one of the most important gigs that PIs have to work for as in the United States, fires set intentionally or arson cause around $700 million worth of damage every year.

It was reported that in 2019, local fire departments responded to an estimated 1.3 million fires which caused roughly 3,700 civilian fire deaths and 16,600 reported civilian fire injuries. Property damage was estimated at $14.8 billion. More than half of all arson fires are set in occupied structures that tremendously increases the danger of fire being spread in the vicinity endangering the lives of several.

Interested in becoming a Private Investigator? Find private investigator licensing requirements in your state .

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