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.


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 law suits, 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

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 services 37%
Finance and insurance 8
Government 8
Legal services 4

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.

Education and Training

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 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.


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.


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 services 47,080
Government 46,690
Investigation, guard, and armored car services 43,640

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

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.

For More Information

For more information about private detectives and investigators, including certification information, visit

National Association of Legal Investigators

ASIS International

Professional Investigator Magazine