Private Detectives and Investigators

Career, Salary and Education Information

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What Private Detectives and Investigators Do[About this section] [To Top]

Private detectives and investigators search for information about legal, financial, and personal matters. They offer many services, such as verifying people’s backgrounds and statements, finding missing persons, and investigating computer crimes.

Duties of Private Detectives and Investigators

Private detectives and investigators typically do the following:

  • Interview people to gather information
  • Search public or court records to uncover clues
  • Conduct surveillance
  • Collect evidence to present in court or to a client
  • Verify employment and income
  • Check for civil judgments and criminal history
  • Investigate computer crimes and information theft

Private detectives and investigators offer many services for individuals, attorneys, and businesses. Examples are performing background checks, investigating employees for possible theft from a company, proving or disproving infidelity in a divorce case, and helping to locate a missing person.

Private detectives and investigators use a variety of tools when researching the facts in a case. Much of their work is done with a computer, allowing them to obtain information such as telephone numbers, details about social networks, descriptions of online activities, and records of a person’s prior arrests. They make phone calls to verify facts and interview people when conducting a background investigation.

Investigators may go undercover to observe people and to obtain information.

Detectives also conduct surveillance when investigating a case. They may watch locations, such as a person’s home or office, often from a hidden position. Using cameras and binoculars, detectives gather information on people of interest.

Detectives and investigators must be mindful of the law when conducting investigations. Because they lack police authority, their work must be done with the same authority as a private citizen. As a result, they must have a good understanding of federal, state, and local laws, such as privacy laws, and other legal issues affecting their work. Otherwise, evidence they collect may not be useable in court and they could face prosecution.

The following are examples of types of private detectives and investigators:

Computer forensics investigators specialize in recovering, analyzing, and presenting information from computers to be used as evidence. Many focus on recovering deleted emails and documents.

Legal investigators help prepare criminal defenses, verify facts in civil lawsuits, locate witnesses, and serve legal documents. They often work for lawyers and law firms.

Corporate investigators conduct internal and external investigations for corporations. Internally, they may investigate drug use in the workplace or ensure that expense accounts are not abused. Externally, they may try to identify and stop criminal schemes, such as fraudulent billing by a supplier.

Financial investigators may be hired to collect financial information on individuals and companies attempting to make large financial transactions. These investigators are often certified public accountants (CPAs) who work closely with investment bankers and other accountants. Investigators might search for assets to recover damages awarded by a court in fraud and theft cases.

Work Environment for Private Detectives and Investigators[About this section] [To Top]

Private detectives and investigators held about 34,900 jobs in 2014. The industries that employed the most private detectives and investigators were as follows:

Investigation, guard, and armored car services 30%
Government 7
Finance and insurance 6
Retail trade 6

Nearly 1 in 4 private detectives and investigators were self-employed in 2014.

Private detectives and investigators work in many environments, depending on the case. Some spend more time in offices, performing computer searches and making phone calls. Others spend more time in the field, conducting interviews or performing surveillance.

Although investigators often work alone, some work with others while conducting surveillance or carrying out large, complicated assignments.

Some of the work can involve confrontation, and some situations may call for the investigator to be armed. In most cases, however, a weapon is not necessary because private detectives and investigators’ purpose is to gather information, not to enforce laws or apprehend criminals.

Private detectives and investigators may have to work with demanding, and sometimes distraught, clients.

Private Detective and Investigator Work Schedules

Private detectives and investigators often work irregular hours because they conduct surveillance and 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, depending on what the subject of the investigation is doing.

How to Become a Private Detective or Investigator[About this section] [To Top]

Get the education you need: Find schools for Private Detectives and Investigators near you!

Private detectives and investigators typically need several years of work experience in law enforcement or the military. Workers must also have a high school diploma, and the vast majority of states require private detectives and investigators to have a license.

Private Detective and Investigator Education

Education requirements vary greatly with the job, but most jobs require a high school diploma. Some, though, may require a 2- or 4-year degree in a field such as criminal justice or police science.

Corporate investigators typically need a bachelor’s degree. Often, coursework in finance, accounting, and business is preferred. Because many financial investigators have an accounting background, they typically have a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field and may be certified public accountants (CPAs).

Computer forensics investigators often need a bachelor’s degree in computer science or criminal justice. Some colleges and universities now offer certificate programs in computer forensics, and others offer a bachelor’s or a master’s degree.

Private Detective and Investigator Training

Most private detectives and investigators learn through on-the-job experience, often lasting several years.

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 on the job how to recognize insurance fraud. Corporate investigators hired by large companies may receive formal training in business practices, management structure, and various finance-related topics.

Because computer forensics specialists need to both use computers and possess investigative skills, extensive training may be required. Many learn their trade while working for a law enforcement agency for several years. At work, they are taught how to gather evidence and spot computer-related crimes.

Continuing education is important for computer forensics investigators because they work with changing technologies. Investigators must learn the latest methods of fraud detection and new software programs. Many accomplish this task by attending conferences and courses offered by software vendors and professional associations.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Private detectives and investigators typically must have previous work experience, usually in law enforcement, the military, or federal intelligence. Those in such jobs, who are frequently able to retire after 20 or 25 years of service, may become private detectives or investigators in a second career.

Other private detectives and investigators previously may have worked for insurance or collections companies, as paralegals, in finance, or in accounting.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

The vast majority of states require private detectives and investigators to have a license. Requirements vary with the state. Professional Investigator Magazine has links to each state’s licensing requirements. Because laws often change, jobseekers should verify the licensing laws related to private investigators with the state and locality in which they want to work.

In most states, detectives and investigators who carry handguns must meet additional requirements.

Although there are no licenses specific to computer forensics investigators, some states require them to be licensed private investigators. Even in states and localities where they are not required to be licensed, having a private investigator license is useful because it allows computer forensics investigators to perform related investigative work.

Candidates may also obtain certification, although it is not required for employment. Still, becoming certified through professional organizations can demonstrate competence and may help candidates advance in their careers.

For investigators who specialize in negligence or criminal defense investigation, the National Association of Legal Investigators offers the Certified Legal Investigator certification. For investigators who specialize in security, ASIS International offers the Professional Certified Investigator certification.

Important Qualities for Private Detectives and Investigators

Communication skills. Private detectives and investigators must listen carefully and ask appropriate questions when interviewing a person of interest.

Decisionmaking skills. Private detectives and investigators must be able to think on their feet and make quick decisions, based on the limited information that they have at a given time.

Inquisitiveness. Private detectives and investigators must want to ask questions and search for the truth.

Patience. Private detectives and investigators may have to spend long periods conducting surveillance while waiting for an event to occur. Investigations may take a long time, and they may not provide a resolution quickly—or at all.

Resourcefulness. Private detectives and investigators must work persistently with whatever leads they have, no matter how limited, to determine the next step toward their goal. They sometimes need to anticipate what a person of interest will do next.


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Private Detective and Investigator Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

The median annual wage for private detectives and investigators was $45,610 in May 2015. 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 percent earned less than $26,920, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $85,190.

In May 2015, the median annual wages for private detectives and investigators in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Government $49,540
Finance and insurance 48,950
Investigation, guard, and armored car services 44,480
Retail trade 33,180

Private detectives and investigators often work irregular hours because they conduct surveillance and 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, depending on what the subject of the investigation is doing.

Job Outlook for Private Detectives and Investigators[About this section] [To Top]

Employment of private detectives and investigators is projected to grow 5 percent from 2014 to 2024, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

Technological advances have led to an increase in cybercrimes, such as identity theft, credit card fraud, and spamming. Internet scams, as well as other types of financial and insurance fraud, create demand for investigative services, particularly by the legal services industry.

Background checks will continue to be a source of work for many investigators, because both employers and personal contacts wish to verify a person’s credibility.

Private Detectives and Investigators Job Prospects

Strong competition for jobs can be expected because private detective and investigator careers attract many qualified people, including relatively young retirees from law enforcement and the military.

The best job opportunities will be for entry-level positions in detective agencies. Candidates with related work experience, as well as those with strong interviewing skills and familiarity with computers, may find more job opportunities than others.

Employment projections data for Private Detectives and Investigators, 2014-24
Occupational Title Employment, 2014 Projected Employment, 2024 Change, 2014-24
Percent Numeric
Private detectives and investigators 34,900 36,700 5 1,800


*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Used by permission.

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