Private Investigators

Private investigators: They’re seldom murder mystery investigators, but they do investigate. Not only are they real, they represent a growing profession.

Private investigative firms employ tens of thousands. Often cases are civil, though involvement in criminal cases is possible. Martin Investigative Services, a California agency, notes the following as its most common case types:

• Finding people who have gone missing
• Carrying out very comprehensive background checks
• Locating hidden assets held by people who have judgments against them
• Locating monitoring devices
• Carrying out surveillance (e.g. finding evidence that a spouse is engaged in infidelity)

The agency notes that despite the image people may have gotten, surveillance is not the top investigative issue. In fact, it’s less than 10% of their cases. The agency provided case studies of some of its successes. The following are among them:Private investigators need to know more than just methods. They also need to understand what their role is within a larger societal context (e.g. what they can and cannot do). Their role may involve more than just investigation. Some present evidence.


Investigative and security service companies constitute the largest employer (and by no small amount). Some private investigators work for other businesses such as credit intermediation or legal services.

It is possible to work as a sole proprietor. The individual will need to meet the proprietor/ agency requirements of his or her state. This may require an agency bond as well as liability insurance.

Meeting Minimum Standards

Most states set legal mandates for private investigators. They focus on public trust and accountability. Fingerprinting is a typical requirement.

There may be a significant difference in requirements based on level of autonomy –whether a person works on his or her own as a private investigator or is employed by a private investigative firm.

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States vary in terms of who they license. Case in point: Florida. Here, investigators apply for licensing at the internship stage. Detective agency employees, though, may have mandatory training requirements but not be required to hold licenses or certifications.

There is typically an experience requirement for those who are truly independent. Experience may, depending on the state, include security officer work as well as police or investigative work. The experience requirement may be partially offset by education. (Degrees may be accepted as low as the associate’s level.) A prospective PI should also be prepared to take an examination cover things like legal responsibilities.

Georgia is illustrative of two-tier regulation. Professionals who run private detective agencies hold state licensing; they must have two years of qualifying experience. Agency employees, meanwhile, are subject to training requirements set down in state code. The total classroom requirement is 70 hours. It must follow a particular curriculum breakdown (for example, four hours in laws of arrest and two hours in interviewing suspects and witnesses).

There can be a big difference in what states require to meet those minimum legal states and what investigative firms want to hire.

Becoming a Private Investigator

How can one become a private investigator? It often helps to have a background in police work or federal investigation. A background in other related fields can help as well. The person may, for example, have had a prior role in countering cyber or financial crime. Private investigation is part of the security jobs career group. A person may work his or her way up.

While a bachelor’s is not mandated, it is frequently sought by employers. Degrees in criminal justice may prove useful.

There are some internship opportunities at the student stage. For example, one Dallas company recently sought a rising or graduating senior for healthcare fraud investigation.

Professional Certification

Private investigators can seek third party certification as a validation of their competency.

The Professional Certified Investigator credential is offered by ASIS International. It is for those who have established themselves in the investigations industry. With a bachelor’s degree but no qualifying base credential, the experience requirement is four years. (It increases to five years for those without bachelor’s degrees and decreases to three for those with master’s degrees. In all cases, there is a two-year case management experience requirement.

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A professional who holds the Associate Protection Professional (APP) credential will have his or her experience requirement reduced by one year. The APP, though, is itself dependent on industry experience. A professional with a bachelor’s degree would need two years of security management experience. Again, the amount of experience required is dependent on educational level. For this credential, many types of employment can potentially be credited.

Private Investigator Salary and Job Outlook

The private investigator occupation has been projected to see 8% growth between 2020 and 2030; this is above the national average for all jobs.

Private investigators earned a mean wage of $27.40 an hour in 2020; this translates to $57,000 for a full time year. Those at the 10th percentile earned $14.61 while those at the 90th percentile earned $43.15.

BLS figures do not include self-employed private investigators.


ASIS International

Types of Security Careers