Work hours are often irregular, and the work can be dangerous.
About 1 in 4 are self-employed.
Applicants typically have related experience in areas such
as law enforcement, insurance, the military, or government investigative
or intelligence jobs.
Despite faster-than-average employment growth, keen competition
is expected because of the large number of qualified people
who are attracted to this occupation; the most opportunities
will be found in entry-level jobs with detective agencies or
in stores that hire detectives on a part-time basis.
Nature of the Work
Private detectives and investigators use many methods to determine
the facts in a variety of matters. To carry out investigations,
they may use various types of surveillance or searches. To verify
facts, such as an individual’s place of employment or income,
they may make phone calls or visit a subject’s workplace. In other
cases, especially those involving missing persons and background
checks, investigators often interview people to gather as much
information as possible about an individual. In all cases, private
detectives and investigators assist attorneys, businesses, and
the public with legal, financial, and personal problems.
Private detectives and investigators offer many services, including
executive, corporate, and celebrity protection; pre-employment
verification; and individual background profiles. They investigate
computer crimes, such as identity theft, harassing e-mails, and
illegal downloading of copyrighted material. They also provide
assistance in civil liability and personal injury cases, insurance
claims and fraud, child custody and protection cases, missing
persons cases, and premarital screening. They are sometimes hired
to investigate individuals to prove or disprove infidelity.
Most detectives and investigators are trained to perform physical
surveillance. They may observe a site, such as the home of a subject,
from an inconspicuous location or a vehicle. They continue the
surveillance, which is often carried out using still and video
cameras, binoculars, and a cell phone, until the desired evidence
is obtained. This watching and waiting often continues for a long
Detectives also may perform computer database searches or work
with someone who does. Computers allow investigators to quickly
obtain massive amounts of information on individuals’ prior arrests,
convictions, and civil legal judgments; telephone numbers; motor
vehicle registrations; association and club memberships; and other
The duties of private detectives and investigators depend on
the needs of their clients. In cases for employers that involve
fraudulent workers’ compensation claims, for example, investigators
may carry out long-term covert observation of subjects. If an
investigator observes a subject performing an activity that contradicts
injuries stated in a worker’s compensation claim, the investigator
would take video or still photographs to document the activity
and report it to the client.
Private detectives and investigators often specialize. Those
who focus on intellectual property theft, for example, investigate
and document acts of piracy, help clients stop illegal activity,
and provide intelligence for prosecution and civil action. Other
investigators specialize in developing financial profiles and
asset searches. Their reports reflect information gathered through
interviews, investigation and surveillance, and research, including
review of public documents.
Legal investigators specialize in cases involving the
courts and are normally employed by law firms or lawyers. They
frequently assist in preparing criminal defenses, locating witnesses,
serving legal documents, interviewing police and prospective witnesses,
and gathering and reviewing evidence. Legal investigators also
may collect information on the parties to the litigation, take
photographs, testify in court, and assemble evidence and reports
Corporate investigators conduct internal and external
investigations for corporations. In internal investigations, they
may investigate drug use in the workplace, ensure that expense
accounts are not abused, or determine whether employees are stealing
merchandise or information. External investigations are typically
done to uncover criminal schemes originating outside the corporation,
such as theft of company assets through fraudulent billing of
products by suppliers.
Financial investigators may be hired to develop confidential
financial profiles of individuals or companies that are prospective
parties to large financial transactions. These investigators often
are certified public accountants (CPAs) who work closely with
investment bankers and other accountants. They search for assets
in order to recover damages awarded by a court in fraud or theft
Detectives who work for retail stores or hotels are responsible
for controlling losses and protecting assets. Store detectives,
also known as loss prevention agents, safeguard the assets
of retail stores by apprehending anyone attempting to steal merchandise
or destroy store property. They prevent theft by shoplifters,
vendor representatives, delivery personnel and even store employees.
Store detectives also conduct periodic inspections of stock areas,
dressing rooms, and restrooms, and sometimes assist in opening
and closing the store. They may prepare loss prevention and security
reports for management and testify in court against persons they
apprehend. Hotel detectives protect guests of the establishment
from theft of their belongings and preserve order in hotel restaurants
and bars. They also may keep undesirable individuals, such as
known thieves, off the premises.
Private detectives and investigators often work irregular hours
because of the need to conduct surveillance and contact people
who are not available during normal working hours. Early morning,
evening, weekend, and holiday work is common.
Many detectives and investigators spend time away from their
offices conducting interviews or doing surveillance, but some
work in their office most of the day conducting computer searches
and making phone calls. Those who have their own agencies and
employ other investigators may work primarily in an office and
have normal business hours.
When the investigator is working on a case away from the office,
the environment might range from plush boardrooms to seedy bars.
Store and hotel detectives work in the businesses that they protect.
Investigators generally work alone, but they sometimes work with
others during surveillance or when following a subject in order
to avoid detection by the subject.
Some of the work involves confrontation, so the job can be stressful
and dangerous. Some situations call for the investigator to be
armed, such as certain bodyguard assignments for corporate or
celebrity clients. Detectives and investigators who carry handguns
must be licensed by the appropriate authority. In most cases,
however, a weapon is not necessary, because the purpose of the
work is gathering information and not law enforcement or criminal
apprehension. Owners of investigative agencies have the added
stress of having to deal with demanding and sometimes distraught
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
There are no formal education requirements for most private detective
and investigator jobs, although many private detectives have college
degrees. Private detectives and investigators typically have previous
experience in other occupations. Some work initially for insurance
or collections companies, in the private security industry, or
as paralegals. Many investigators enter the field after serving
in law enforcement, the military, government auditing and investigative
positions, or Federal intelligence jobs.
Former law enforcement officers, military investigators, and
government agents, who are frequently able to retire after 25
years of service, often become private detectives or investigators
in a second career. Others enter from such diverse fields as finance,
accounting, commercial credit, investigative reporting, insurance,
and law. These individuals often can apply their prior work experience
in a related investigative specialty. A few enter the occupation
directly after graduation from college, generally with associate’s
or bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice or police science.
The majority of States and the District of Colombia require private
detectives and investigators to be licensed. Licensing requirements
vary, however: seven States—Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho,
Mississippi, Missouri, and South Dakota—have no statewide licensing
requirements, some States have few requirements, and many other
States have stringent regulations. A growing number of States
are enacting mandatory training programs for private detectives
and investigators. For example, the Bureau of Security and Investigative
Services of the California Department of Consumer Affairs requires
private investigators to be 18 years of age or older; have a combination
of education in police science, criminal law, or justice and experience
equaling 3 years (6,000 hours) of investigative experience; pass
a criminal history background check by the California Department
of Justice and the FBI (in most States, convicted felons cannot
be issued a license); and receive a qualifying score on a 2-hour
written examination covering laws and regulations. There are additional
requirements for a firearms permit.
For private detective and investigator jobs, most employers look
for individuals with ingenuity, persistence, and assertiveness.
A candidate must not be afraid of confrontation, should communicate
well, and should be able to think on his or her feet. Good interviewing
and interrogation skills also are important and usually are acquired
in earlier careers in law enforcement or other fields. Because
the courts often are the ultimate judge of a properly conducted
investigation, the investigator must be able to present the facts
in a manner that a jury will believe.
Training in subjects such as criminal justice and police science
is helpful to aspiring private detectives and investigators. Most
corporate investigators must have a bachelor’s degree, preferably
in a business-related field. Some corporate investigators have
a master’s degree in business administration or a law degree,
while others are CPAs. Corporate investigators hired by large
companies may receive formal training from their employers on
business practices, management structure, and various finance-related
topics. The screening process for potential employees typically
includes a background check for a criminal history.
Some investigators receive certification from a professional
organization to demonstrate competency in a field. For example,
the National Association of Legal Investigators (NALI) confers
the Certified Legal Investigator designation to licensed investigators
who devote a majority of their practice to negligence or criminal
defense investigations. To receive the designation, applicants
must satisfy experience, educational, and continuing-training
requirements and must pass written and oral exams administered
by the NALI.
Most private-detective agencies are small, with little room for
advancement. Usually, there are no defined ranks or steps, so
advancement takes the form of increases in salary and assignment
status. Many detectives and investigators work for detective agencies
at the beginning of their careers and, after a few years, start
their own firms. Corporate and legal investigators may rise to
supervisor or manager of the security or investigations department.
Private detectives and investigators held about 43,000 jobs in
2004. About 26 percent were self-employed, including many who
held a secondary job as a self-employed private detective. Around
27 percent of jobs were in investigation and security services,
including private detective agencies, while another 15 percent
were in department or other general merchandise stores. The rest
worked mostly in State and local government, legal services firms,
employment services companies, insurance agencies, and credit
mediation establishments, including banks and other depository
Keen competition is expected because private detective and investigator
careers attract many qualified people, including relatively young
retirees from law enforcement and military careers. The best opportunities
will be in entry-level jobs with detective agencies or in stores
that hire detectives on a part-time basis. The best prospects
for those seeking store detective jobs will be with large chains
and discount stores.
Employment of private detectives and investigators is expected
to grow faster than the average for all occupations through 2014.
In addition to growth, replacement of those who retire or leave
the occupation for other reasons should create many job openings.
Increased demand for private detectives and investigators will
result from fear of crime, increased litigation, and the need
to protect confidential information and property of all kinds.
The proliferation of criminal activity on the Internet, such as
identity theft, spamming, e-mail harassment, and illegal downloading
of copyrighted materials, will increase the demand for private
investigators. Employee background checks, conducted by private
investigators, will become standard for an increasing number of
jobs. Growing financial activity worldwide will increase the demand
for investigators to control internal and external financial losses
and to monitor competitors and prevent industrial spying.
Median annual earnings of salaried private detectives and investigators
were $32,110 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between
$24,080 and $43,260. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $19,260,
and the highest 10 percent earned more than $58,470. Earnings
of private detectives and investigators vary greatly by employer,
specialty, and geographic area.
Private detectives and investigators often collect information
and protect the property and other assets of companies and individuals.
Others with related duties include bill and account collectors;
claims adjusters, appraisers, examiners, and investigators; police
and detectives; and security guards and gaming surveillance officers.
Investigators who specialize in conducting financial profiles
and asset searches perform work closely related to that of accountants,
auditors, financial analysts, and personal financial advisors.
Sources of Additional Information
For information on local licensing requirements, contact your
State Department of Public Safety, State Division of Licensing,
or local or State police headquarters.
For information on a career as a legal investigator and about
the Certified Legal Investigator credential, contact: