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What is a Private Investigator?

By Cathy Rogers
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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Though glamorized by television, a career as a private investigator is often a stressful, dangerous and irregular one. A private investigator or private detective provides surveillance, investigative, research and interviewing services to the public, attorneys or businesses. Specialties in the field of private investigation include legal, corporate and financial investigators, and store and hotel detectives.

The primary duties of a private investigator are to verify facts and gather information. Many who choose the private investigator field have a background in law enforcement, insurance, the military or government investigation or intelligence. No formal education is required to be a private investigator, although most states require investigators to be licensed. Some states are initiating training requirements that require specific education, a criminal background check and the successful completion of a written exam. The education portion requires courses in political science or criminal law and justice.

A private investigator must often face confrontation, so he or she must be assertive and a quick thinker. Often, the duties of a private investigator require interrogation and interviewing; therefore, good communication skills are necessary. Some investigators perform background or pre-employment checks. Others investigate computer crimes, including piracy, e-mail harassment and identity theft.

The private investigator performs a great deal of work at irregular hours, such as early mornings, nights, weekends and holidays. However, work such as computer searches and phone calls may be performed at an office during normal working hours. Investigators perform most work, especially surveillance and interviewing, alone.

Some private investigators are licensed to carry a firearm, although one is not necessary in most cases. Many investigators are retired from law enforcement or the military or government. Although certification is not required, the National Association of Legal Investigators (NALI) awards a Certified Legal Investigator designation to those who have the required experience, education and continuing-training requirements and have passed the necessary written and oral exams. This certification is for those licensed investigators who specialize in negligence or criminal defense investigations.

Legal investigators often work for law firms, where they assist in locating witnesses, serving legal documents and gathering evidence. A corporate private investigator performs internal or external investigations, some related to drug use or theft. A financial investigator may also be a certified public accountant and might assist in investigative services related to large financial dealings. Store private investigators protect a business from theft, both externally and internally, and hotel detectives do the same for their employers and may also serve as a safety or protection officer.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By SauteePan — On Sep 04, 2010

Mutsy- I saw a show the other day about mothers that were providing private investigator services.

They took their kids to school and picked them up, but at night they went to work. They do work very irregular hours. One mom did not get home until three in the morning one night.

It is a dangerous field, and most of these women carried guns. I think I saw it on the Dr. Phil show. It kind of looked like Charlie’s Angels because a group of women worked for this man.

But all of the women working at this agency were licensed private investigators.

By mutsy — On Sep 04, 2010

Comfyshoes- In order to get private investigator training it is best to seek an accredited school that provides hands on training.

If you already have a law enforcement background then it is not as critical as it is for someone just breaking into the field with no experience.

If you have experience as a police officer, you should not have problems seeking a private investigator job with private investigator agencies.

By comfyshoes — On Sep 04, 2010

Bhutan-I think that individuals seeking information on a person in their life retain private investigator services.

Sometimes the person seeking information might be looking for a long lost relative as in most adoption cases, or they may want to verify suspicions that their spouse or significant other might be unfaithful.

A PI private investigator normally sets up private investigator surveillance in order to gather proof of an unfaithful spouse or partner. Often in this case, a decoy will enter the scene and flirt with the subject while in plain view of the camera.

This activity further cements the proof for the party seeking the information. The private investigator will be wearing a wire and the conversations and video footage would be recorded as evidence toward the infidelity.

By Bhutan — On Sep 04, 2010

Anyone interested in private investigator training should get the book entitled, “Trade Secrets of Private Investigation” by Kevin Jacques.

In the book, Jacques provides detailed information on how to conduct various investigations and what sort of equipment the investigator should use. It provides a detailed account of the private investigator job and what you can realistically expect from it.

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