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Steps to Becoming a Private Detective

Updated on December 23, 2011

The real life of a private detective is much different than is usually portrayed on your favorite crime drama. Still, becoming a private detective or investigator can be an exciting and lucrative job field where experience counts for much more than an academic education. It is best suited for people with some type of law enforcement or criminal investigations background. These career fields provide the on-the-job training and practical knowledge that a private detective would need to be successful. But there are other jobs, such as an insurance claims adjuster, or even military intelligence officers that utilize many of the same skills as private investigators. Any type of position that requires canvassing, questioning, or researching public records could potentially develop the skills necessary for a career as a private investigator.

For those interested in becoming private detectives, but lack the experience, there are private detective schools and courses available in most states and online. You’ll learn techniques for things like skip-tracing, surveillance and report writing which are critical skills for an investigator. Penn Foster career Schools has an excellent online private investigator course for as little as $798 which can give you a good foundation to start building on. Check the link at the end of this article for more information.

How to Become a Private Detective
How to Become a Private Detective

Personal Attributes of a Private Detective

There are several traits that Private detectives should possess to be effective in their work. They need to be mature, professional, intelligent, level-headed self-starters. Much of the work of a private investigator is done alone and requires the proper diligence and work ethic to be completed. The ability to prioritize and organize is also important because the successful investigator will undoubtedly be working with more than one client at a time.

Social and technical skills are also critical for becoming a private investigator. Investigators spend a great deal of time talking with clients, witnesses, suspects and attorneys and asking questions. Being a genuine “people person” can make the job much easier and lead to more helpful business contacts or clients. A good working knowledge of electronic surveillance tools like video and audio recorders, as well as photography equipment are also essential for a productive investigator.

What Do Private Detectives Do?

Private detectives perform a wide variety of jobs for their clients. Generally, these tasks can be broken down to investigations of people, businesses, accidents, incidents and crimes. Investigators are hired for such activities as serving subpoenas, interviewing witnesses, conducting inspections, surveillance of people or places, or even evaluate law enforcement actions related to a case.

Insurance fraud is a common area where investigators are hired, which is why claims adjusters could potentially be good investigators in this niche. Divorce attorneys also use private investigators regularly during divorce proceedings to investigate matters relating to alimony or child custody rights. Businesses hire PI’s when they have issues with things like false workman’s compensation claims, employee theft, background checks and drug problems. A huge reason individuals secure the services of a private detective is to locate a missing person. This could range from being a long lost family member to a defendant in a civil suit who still owes the plaintiff money.

The investigations business is not a typical 9-to-5 job. In order to accomplish his duties, a PI will conduct numerous in-depth interviews and spend countless hours researching hundreds of public, private and online records for important information regarding a particular case. An investigator may be required to spend long hours alone conducting surveillance, waiting for the opportunity to catch and preserve important evidence that will be beneficial to the client. All of these actions require detailed reports and accurate record-keeping which consume a large amount of the detective’s time.

How to Break Into the Private Investigation Business

Many large private investigation agencies consider some type of degree in criminal justice or psychology to be an advantage, but most regard a law enforcement, security or military experience as good fit due to familiarity and proper mind-set. Those type of backgrounds instill the attributes that detective agencies are looking for in their investigators. Some agencies will even foot the cost to send a new hire to a nearby private detective school or course if they can demonstrate the right qualities for doing investigative work.

The best way to get into the private investigation field is to research the licensing requirements for the state you want to work in and try to land a job or internship with one of the larger investigation companies to gain experience. While learning the ropes, you could begin accruing the necessary skills and equipment to start your own business as a private detective. You’ll need things like a top-notch video and still picture camera, computer, audio recording devices, night vision devices, and communications equipment. These tools can become expensive are better bought over time.

Most states have a regulatory agency that oversees licensing of private investigators. Obtaining a private investigator license may require passing an exam designed to demonstrate proficiency and may also include annual renewal or in-service training. Currently there are five states that don’t require private investigators to have a license. Those states are Colorado, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota and Wyoming. These states may, however, require a private detective to obtain a business license. Contrary to popular belief, most states limit a private investigator’s carrying of concealed firearms to the same provisions as any other ordinary citizen of the state.


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