Private Investigator Career and Job Description

You won’t find too many PIs living on a vast Hawaiian estate or driving around in a flashy red Ferrari, and you can forget about the idea of high school students moonlighting after school to solve murders and crack computer hacking cases without compensation.

The gritty reality of investigative work is actually far more fascinating, challenging and rewarding than anything that could conform to the Hollywood depictions that have come to define what most people think a career in private investigations is all about.

If you got the right skill-set, temperament and training, PI work could pay off for you in more ways than one.

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

Fact is, if a PI case makes the news, it usually means the investigator screwed up badly. 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.

Unlike in the movies and on TV, cases like these 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 TV gets right about being a PI, though, is you get to pick who you do that 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 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

Do a web search or open a phone book and you’ll find no shortage of private investigators that provide general services:

  • Missing persons 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. 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 – According to the Washington Post, more than five million Americans hold security clearances. 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. 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 the man might not be every investigator’s idea of a good time, but the man has a reliable checkbook and the work is steady and often every bit as challenging and interesting as you will find in the private sector.

Legal Investigators

Legal investigators assist lawyers in preparing cases for litigation by researching the facts of the dispute and 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.

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

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

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.

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 into suspicious claims, and insurance investigators are the people to do it.

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 preserve evidence for investigations.

Computer forensics investigators have several major advantages over traditional law enforcement that mean 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 persons 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.

The reason that many missing persons cases are a low priority is that often times, 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 persons PI worth every penny.

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