Private Detectives and Investigators

Summary

private detectives and investigators image
Private detectives and investigators obtain information for clients.
Quick Facts: Private Detectives and Investigators
2012 Median Pay $45,740 per year
$21.99 per hour
Entry-Level Education High school diploma or equivalent
Work Experience in a Related Occupation Less than 5 years
On-the-job Training Moderate-term on-the-job training
Number of Jobs, 2012 30,000
Job Outlook, 2012-22 11% (As fast as average)
Employment Change, 2012-22 3,300

What Private Detectives and Investigators Do

Private detectives and investigators find facts and analyze information about legal, financial, and personal matters. They offer many services, including verifying people's backgrounds, finding missing persons, and investigating computer crimes.

Work Environment

Private detectives and investigators work in many places, depending on the case. Some spend more time in offices doing computer searches, while others spend more time in the field conducting interviews and performing surveillance. They often work irregular hours. About 1 in 5 were self-employed in 2012.

How to Become a Private Detective or Investigator

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

Pay

The median annual wage for private detectives and investigators was $45,740 in May 2012.

Job Outlook

Employment of private detectives and investigators is projected to grow 11 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Demand for private detectives and investigators will stem from security concerns and the need to protect confidential information. Strong competition can be expected for jobs.

Similar Occupations

Compare the job duties, education, job growth, and pay of private detectives and investigators with similar occupations.

More Information, Including Links to O*NET

Learn more about private detectives and investigators by visiting additional resources, including O*NET, a source on key characteristics of workers and occupations.

What Private Detectives and Investigators Do About this section

Private detectives and investigators
Private detectives must properly collect and document evidence so that it may be used in a court of law.

Private detectives and investigators find facts and analyze information about legal, financial, and personal matters. They offer many services, including verifying people's backgrounds, finding missing persons, and investigating computer crimes.

Duties

Private detectives and investigators typically do the following:

  • Interview people to gather information
  • Search records to uncover clues  
  • Conduct surveillance
  • Collect evidence to present in court
  • Verify employment, income, and other facts about a person
  • Investigate computer crimes and information theft

Private detectives and investigators offer many services for individuals, attorneys, and businesses. They may perform background checks or look into charges that someone has been stealing money from a company. They might be hired to prove or disprove infidelity in a divorce case.

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, social networking-site details, 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 suspects 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 an inconspicuous position. Using various hand-held devices, video cameras, binoculars, and GPS tracking, detectives gather information on persons of interest.

Detectives and investigators must be mindful of the law when conducting investigations. Because they lack police powers, 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.

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

Computer forensic 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 do large financial transactions. These investigators often are 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.

Store detectives, also known as loss prevention agents, catch people who try to steal merchandise or destroy store property.

Work Environment About this section

Private detectives and investigators
Many investigators spend time away from their desks while conducting surveillance in the field.

Private detectives and investigators held about 30,000 jobs in 2012. About 1 in 5 were self-employed.

The industries that employed the most private detectives and investigators in 2012 were as follows:

Investigation, guard, and armored car services37%
Finance and insurance8
Government8
Legal services4

Private detectives and investigators work in many places, depending on the case. Some spend more time in offices doing 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 working on a large and complicated assignment. 

Some of the work can involve confrontation. Some situations, such as certain bodyguard assignments, call for the investigator to be armed. In most cases, however, a weapon is not necessary because private detectives and investigators’ purpose is information gathering and not law enforcement or criminal apprehension.

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

Work Schedules

Private detectives and investigators often work irregular hours because they conduct surveillance and contact people outside of normal work hours.

In addition, they may have to work outdoors or from a vehicle, in all kinds of weather, depending on what the subject of investigation is doing.

How to Become a Private Detective or Investigator About this section

Private detectives and investigators
Although most learn on the job, many people entering this field have a law enforcement background.

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

Education

Education requirements vary greatly depending on the job. However, a high school diploma is usually required.

Some jobs may require a 2- or 4 year degree. Although previous work experience is usually the most important requirement, candidates sometimes enter the occupation directly after graduating from college with an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or police science.  

Corporate investigators typically need a bachelor’s degree. Coursework in finance, accounting, and business is often preferred. Because many financial investigators have an accountant’s 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. Many colleges and universities now offer certificate programs in computer forensics, and others offer a bachelor’s or a master’s degree.

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 to recognize insurance fraud on the job. And 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 both computer skills and investigative skills, extensive training may be required. Many learn their trade while working for a law enforcement agency for several years where they are taught how to gather evidence and spot computer-related crimes.

Continuing education is important in this area because computer forensic investigators work with changing technologies. Investigators must learn the latest methods of fraud detection and new software programs. Many accomplish this 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 jobs.

Some have worked for insurance or collections companies, as paralegals, in finance, or in accounting. Many of these people, who retire after 25 years of work, often become private detectives or investigators as a second career. 

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

The vast majority of states require private detectives and investigators to have a license. Requirements vary, depending on 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.

Some states require an additional license to work as a bodyguard.

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

Candidates also can obtain certification. Although not required, becoming certified through professional organizations can demonstrate competence. In addition, certification 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

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

Decision-making skills. Detectives and investigators must be able to think on their feet and make quick decisions, based on the 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 on 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. 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.

Pay About this section

Private Detectives and Investigators

Median annual wages, May 2012

Private detectives and investigators

$45,740

Protective service occupations

$36,620

Total, all occupations

$34,750

 

The median annual wage for private detectives and investigators was $45,740 in May 2012. 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 $27,670, and the top 10 percent earned more than $79,790.

In May 2012, the median annual wages for private detectives and investigators in the top four industries in which these law enforcement agents worked were as follows:

Finance and insurance$55,660
Legal services47,080
Government46,690
Investigation, guard, and armored car services43,640

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 investigation is doing.

Job Outlook About this section

Private Detectives and Investigators

Percent change in employment, projected 2012-22

Total, all occupations

11%

Private detectives and investigators

11%

Protective service occupations

8%

 

Employment of private detectives and investigators is projected to grow 11 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

Increased demand for private detectives and investigators will stem from heightened security concerns and the need to protect property and confidential information.

Technological advances have led to an increase in cybercrimes, such as identity theft 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, as both employers and personal contacts wish to verify a person’s credibility.

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 interviewing and strong computer skills, may find more job opportunities than others.

Employment projections data for private detectives and investigators, 2012-22
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2012 Projected Employment, 2022 Change, 2012-22 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Private detectives and investigators

33-9021 30,000 33,300 11 3,300 [XLS]

Similar Occupations About this section

This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of private detectives and investigators.

Occupation Job Duties ENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION Help 2012 MEDIAN PAY Help
Bill and account collectors

Bill and Account Collectors

Bill and account collectors, sometimes called collectors, try to recover payment on overdue bills. They negotiate repayment plans with debtors and help them find solutions to make paying their overdue bills easier.

High school diploma or equivalent $32,480
Accountants and auditors

Accountants and Auditors

Accountants and auditors prepare and examine financial records. They ensure that financial records are accurate and that taxes are paid properly and on time. Accountants and auditors assess financial operations and work to help ensure that organizations run efficiently.

Bachelor’s degree $63,550
Claims adjusters, appraisers, examiners, and investigators

Claims Adjusters, Appraisers, Examiners, and Investigators

Claims adjusters, appraisers, examiners, and investigators evaluate insurance claims. They decide whether an insurance company must pay a claim, and if so, how much.

See How to Become One $59,850
Financial analysts

Financial Analysts

Financial analysts provide guidance to businesses and individuals making investment decisions. They assess the performance of stocks, bonds, and other types of investments.

Bachelor’s degree $76,950
Personal financial advisors

Personal Financial Advisors

Personal financial advisors give financial advice to people. They help with investments, taxes, and insurance decisions.

Bachelor’s degree $67,520
Police and detectives

Police and Detectives

Police officers protect lives and property. Detectives and criminal investigators, who are sometimes called agents or special agents, gather facts and collect evidence of possible crimes.

High school diploma or equivalent $56,980
Security guards and gaming surveillance officers

Security Guards and Gaming Surveillance Officers

Security guards and gaming surveillance officers patrol and protect property against theft, vandalism, terrorism, and illegal activity.

High school diploma or equivalent $24,020
Financial examiners

Financial Examiners

Financial examiners ensure compliance with laws governing financial institutions and transactions. They review balance sheets, evaluate the risk level of loans, and assess bank management.

Bachelor’s degree $75,800
Suggested citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Private Detectives and Investigators,
on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/private-detectives-and-investigators.htm (visited July 29, 2014).

Publish Date: Wednesday, January 8, 2014