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Private Investigator - Career Guide

How do I become a private investigator?

That's a complicated question with several parts that largely depend upon in which state you plan on working. You have two options; you either work for a licensed private investigations agency or you go to work for yourself and obtain your own PI company license. Either way, you there are two considerations you must address at some point:

The first consideration is licensing; all but only a handful of states require a state-issued license to be a private investigator. Each state has different background, education and experience requirements that may vary from simply attending a state-approved training course to pre-licensing education, exams, years of work experience and obtaining a sizable professional liability insurance policy with "errors and omissions" coverage. To make matters just a little more confusing, there are some cities that require private investigators to either register or obtain a municipal license in states that do not otherwise require them.

The second consideration is training. Private investigation specific training is the most important investment you can make in yourself! Since most new PIs don't have the ability or are not ready to start up their own investigations company you will most likely be looking for employment with an established agency. As an owner of an established and well respected detective agency I get resumes all of the time; the first thing I look for before considering a candidate is to ask the question, "How has this person invested in themselves before asking me to invest in them?"

What if I do not have the minimum experience required by the state to obtain my own company license? How will I ever break into the industry?

If your goal is to eventually own your private investigations agency, no problem... every state that requires experience also has a program in place to see that new investigators have access to eventually obtaining their own license. For example, in Texas where we hold an agency license those who are too new simply go to work for an established company until they have the required number of hours to be able apply for their own license. In Florida (where we also have an agency license) they specifically provide internship licenses. Again, every state is a little bit different but thousands of successful private investigators are working today and tens of thousands have come before us; we all had to get started someplace... you can too.

Also, consider your own background and employment related experience carefully some of it may apply. I have known loss prevention agents, security guards (in specific roles), accountants, firemen, bail bondsmen, alarm installers, teachers, and even a librarian use their previous employment experiences to apply for their own agency license.

What type of training should I be looking into?

Any amount of training is great though most PI companies don't place a whole lot of credibility with the courses from PCDI, Harcourt, and Thompson Direct. You could honestly do much better and at less cost.

Instead, look for academies or training programs that have been created by private investigators. Who knows better about what a new or an aspiring private detective needs to know than an investigator who has been in the field for a considerable amount of time?

Also... look to see that the sponsoring company is active in the industry as well. Are they still providing regular private investigative services to a robust clientele? It's sad, but many PIs who wash out over a very short period of time in the business look to teaching. In reality, you will learn very little from those who could not make it themselves; success breeds success!

Lastly, I have a little secret I would like to share with you...

Look over the education provider's entire website and see if you find boastful claims or where the company is bashing other educators. This is a very tight-knit industry and you will find that students who complete training programs from educators that spend time "bad mouthing the competition" have a terrible time getting a break simply because of the animosity created through their educator's use of negative advertising. I know that seems unfair but it is a reality in this business. This does not mean, however, that you should dismiss the negative press but the first thing an excellent private investigator learns is how to evaluate a claim, identify the source and make a judgment based on additional facts and research. Some statements will have merit while others will not; it's up to you to make that decision.

What is the difference between a private investigator and a private detective?

Nothing. The terms are used interchangeably but some states choose to use the term "detective" while most use the term "investigator."

I really just want to help my friends and family to find old friends or people who owe them money. Do I need a PI license?

That's a great question. Generally speaking, in those states where it is a requirement you will need to obtain a license if you hold yourself out for hire or accept payment from another person or business and participate in or provide the following services:

o Surveillance

o Obtaining or furnish information related to a crime or the identity, habits, business, occupation, knowledge, movement, location, affiliations, associations,transactions, acts, reputation, or character of a person, group or company.

o Securing evidence for use before a court, board, officer, or committee

o Locating or recovering lost or stolen property and unclaimed funds.

o Determining the cause or responsibility for a fire, libel, loss, accident, damage, or injury to a person or to property.

Some states may specifically include such things as service of process, bail enforcement, personal protection and genealogical research under those activities that require a private investigator's license as well.

Do I have to have a degree in Criminal Justice from a college or university?

No, though some states may accept a degree in Criminal Justice, Administration of Justice or Police Sciences in lieu of the minimum experience requirements. One recent study conducted on behalf of the Virginia Department of Justice concluded that almost 57% of all private investigators do not have a college education.

If I do not have a college education do I have to have a background as a police officer or other law enforcement related profession?

No. Most private investigators do not have a law enforcement background before entering into this industry. It is true that many private investigators may have once had a career in criminal justice but the bottom-line is that private investigation and law enforcement is very different and my experience has been that very few who make the transition from law enforcement are prepared for this type of work, either technically or creatively, on their own. Most of them recognize this and seek industry specific training as well.

What type of person makes a successful private investigator?

This business requires a rare blend of logic and creativity; it's rare because logical people tend to not be very creative and vice-versa.

I would say that any successful detective must first have the ability to communicate. This means that he or she must have the ability to connect with people of all walks of life, regardless of economic status, ethnicity or education. It also means that the investigator must have the ability to clearly present a simple fact or a complex investigation in writing. The end result of an investigation is the investigative report, which is given to the client upon conclusion of the assignment; this is essentially our work product. If you cannot write reasonably well, your reputation will surely suffer as a result.

Secondly, great investigators have a burning desire to answer any question that is put to them only after a careful and determined effort to identify the facts and circumstances that contribute to a complete and unbiased explanation. We are in the business to provide facts, not opinions; we let our clients draw their own conclusions from our report. Oftentimes in order to get to those facts, we must be relentless in our pursuit of information. This is where logic meets creativity. Dead-ends often only require a different approach!

Lastly, I believe that every investigator should possess a varied set of experiences and knowledge. One characterization of the private detective industry I can make is that by and large we represent a vastness of experience, skills, and trades. One of the most accomplished investigators I have ever met listed "Mom" on her resume. When she decided to become a private investigator she had no appreciable skills that she could put in her resume but through her own experiences she had developed an intuition that was almost never wrong and she could simplify complex problems into there most basic parts. I have personally hired a plumber, building contractor, car salesman, and a host of other seemingly unrelated career types into my own company, CompassPoint Investigations, because they had certain intangibles that made them great in this business!

The bottom line is that anyone can train to become a wildly successful private investigator, just like one can train to become a barber or an attorney, but an aspiring detective has to bring some things to the table that cannot be easily taught: creativity, logic, the ability to communicate and an insatiable curiosity!

I have a criminal conviction in my background from many years ago. Will this affect my ability to become a private eye?

Every state that requires a license to be a PI also requires a background investigation as a part of the licensing process. I believe that a felony conviction will be an automatic disqualification in almost every instance (though I know a felon who has a PI license issued by the city of Columbus, MO.), while misdemeanors may be considered depending upon the crime, its seriousness and the amount of time that has passed since the conviction; again this will vary by state.

Will my military discharge affect my ability to become a private investigator?

In some cases a discharge that is anything but honorable may prevent you from becoming a PI. Just as in the answer to the criminal conviction history above, some states require PI applicants be free from negative military discharge classifications- Bad Conduct Discharge, Less than Honorable or Other Than Honorable service characterizations are grounds for denial of a PI license in several states and jurisdictions.

Perhaps the Florida Division of Licensing put it best: "Private investigators and private investigative agencies serve in positions of trust. Untrained and unlicensed persons or businesses, or persons not of good moral character, are a threat to the public safety and welfare. The private investigative industry is regulated to ensure the interests of the public are adequately served and protected."

Can I just specialize in a particular type of investigation or will I have to do the surveillances and cheating spouse investigations too?

I absolutely recommend that investigators find their niche and specialize in only a few types of investigations! There are several important reasons for this, which I discuss in my training programs, but it can be summed up this way: when you are the most notable investigator in your region of the country for a specific type of investigation, you will find MANY additional opportunities to make a lot more money than if you advertise yourself as a "jack of all trades." This has been proven across the country time and time again and is a major topic of discussion in our upcoming private investigation marketing manual.

What types of assignments do private investigators typically take?

Wow, the options are endless and the subject really deserves its own entire section! I have listed the most obvious types of private investigator assignments in an article you can find by going to my Articles Page. I will eventually briefly describe each type of investigation in the next couple of weeks. Continue to check in as we are constantly making additions.

What type of investigation or specialty assignment pays the most?

I don't know that anyone can answer that question definitively, but I will say that surveillance is typically the most lucrative type of assignment a private investigator can get because it is solid, billable, blocks of time. I am aware that there are particular types of investigations where investigators are making anywhere between $300 and $500 an hour for activities like forensic computer evaluation, security consulting, automobile repossession, and a few others specialties. I personally have made $10,000 in an hour on several occasions in 14 years doing bail fugitive recovery work, those types of paydays are few and far between. Overall I average almost $150 an hour while engaged in bail enforcement, not too bad by most people's standards, though many investigators just don't have the stomach for that type of work. It can be extremely dangerous, it is a very competitive field and you get paid only if you can complete the case.

Is private investigation dangerous work?

Obviously, there are some PI jobs that are more dangerous than others like collateral repossession or bounty hunting but, generally speaking, private investigation is not a dangerous job. We all have heard the stories of PIs getting caught while on surveillance by an irate cheating husband or being chased out of a yard at the business end of a shotgun while serving a subpoena. Most episodes of Magnum PI had Tom Selleck dodging bullets, too. Certainly, scary things can and do happen on rare occasions but like all war stories, the ones that seem to get a lot of attention play out more like fiction than reality. Safety is always at the forefront of every trained investigator's mind.