What Do Private Investigators Do?

Investigator Desk

Columbo, Magnum PI, Jim Rockford, Sam Spade & many more have graced the screen and left many a misconception about the world of private investigators. Some principles of what they do or how they do it are accurate, but as a private investigator, I know that no one would watch a show which recorded the vast majority of what PI's actually do during a given day.

All that said, I still love what I do and find the majority of my work exciting and rewarding. In part because I love puzzles and digging out the evidence needed to give my clients closure or help them win cases, find loved ones, catch a stealing employee or the many other solutions I often provide. But, to give clarity to some of the confusion in our profession, I offer the following Q&A that may help others understand what we do.

What Skills And Traits Make A Good Private Investigator?

While there are many characteristics that make someone a good investigator, being ethical and honest are surely among those that will keep that person successful in the profession and keep them out of hot water. Private investigators are privy to large amounts of personal and confidential data from their clients, targets and others associated with a particular case. Therefore, discretion and privacy are critical to ensuring the integrity of someone's information.

Additional qualities that one should possess are good intuition, common sense, patience and discipline. Because much of the work can require a person to be a self-starter and to initiate various steps for resolution to a case, it is imperative that the investigator be able to think on their feet and use solid analytical thinking to determine the most appropriate next steps. They should also have the fortitude to stay with a particular case until all leads are exhausted.

Lastly (although there are surely more), other good traits which will aid in the success would be that the person possess strong communication skills, computer literacy, listening ability and desire to learn. A private investigator is a profession where you wear many different hats and one must be flexible enough to adapt to various scenarios. The learning curve can be quite steep at times and being open-minded and humble will also help one to see facts which are pertinent that others may not necessarily see as important.

What Are The Requirements To Become A Private Investigator?

Laws vary by state, some of which do not require a license at all, and others that are quite strict. While the list is too long to detail the requirements for every state, only Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota and Wyoming have no specific license for Private Investigators.

In North Carolina, where our firm is located, a private investigator is required to possess 3 years of experience or 3,000 hours of investigative experience in order to obtain their full license. Those hours are most frequently obtained through prior law enforcement, military police or other investigative jobs. However, hours are also awarded for a qualified college degree although only a portion of the requirement comes through this manner.

For those that do not possess enough experience, they can still apply for an "Associate Private Investigator" license where they are supervised and will be required to keep detailed logs until they obtain the necessary hours. This allows someone with any amount of experience to enter the profession and still become qualified for the full license at a later date.

While this description applies only to North Carolina Statutes and Requirements, other States will have similar policies and laws regarding their licensing process.

What Do Private Investigators Do?

There are many myths related to this question, with most people believing that all PI's do is sit in a car on surveillance in an attempt to catch cheating spouses. A recent survey by PINow found that the most common specialty among private investigators is background checks. The primary reason for this pattern is that regardless of whether a firm handles infidelity or not, the vast majority are going to offer background investigations at least as an ancillary service even if it's not their core competency.

While the list of investigations is large, here is a list of some of the more popular specialties, services and offerings of private investigation companies:

  • Accident Reconstruction
  • Arson Investigation
  • Asset Search
  • Civil Investigation
  • Computer/Cellular Forensics
  • Corporate Investigation
  • Criminal
  • Due Diligence
  • Embezzlement/Fraud
  • Executive Protection
  • Infidelity/Child Custody
  • Insurance Investigation
  • Process Service
  • Surveillance

Typical Day At Work?

One of the positive aspects of this line of work is the variation and diversity of any given day or week. I may begin my day checking email or conducting a free consultation with a potential new client and then find myself traveling across town to get in place for surveillance before a subject leaves the area. Or it may start off at 4am with me sitting in my car, staring at the front door of a house for 6 hours in the freezing cold and unable to crank the car to warm up. Then the night might finish with an interview at 8pm with a witness that an attorney has had trouble getting in touch with.

The point is that much like my career in law enforcement, you never really know what to expect if you offer a diverse array of investigative services. Sure, if all you ever do is traffic accident follow-up, then things will be pretty consistent and hours will be fairly normal, 8-5 Monday through Friday job. But mix some infidelity into your service offering and all bets are off as to when you will work and how much notice you can give your family when you have to drop and run.

Biggest Challenges?

Not unlike other businesses, this one is very feast or famine for most investigators. This is because the majority of PI companies are operating with small staff and minimal "consistent" clients. If the owner is also doing much of the investigating, then they will spend all of their time on cases instead of marketing, thus creating a roller coaster of too much work followed by nearly none. Finding a way to balance the investigative work with the marketing of ones services to maintain an even flow is the trick to growing the business and being successful.

However, far more difficult than keeping the business running is the task of breaking bad news to a client. I have had to give a death notification to a family on a missing person case and to tell a client their spouse was cheating with the same person they had an earlier affair with. Another difficult case involved me telling a 70-year-old woman that her husband was not cheating on her, but rather the computer that we did a forensic scan on actually had child pornography on it. Not an easy conversation to have when the result is actually worse than infidelity.

Yet another challenge is helping a client understand that they have to pay regardless of the results. I generally give the analogy of going to a doctor because you think that you might have the flu. Regardless of whether they confirm you have it or tell you that you don't, there is still a bill at the end of your appointment. The same rule applies in our profession. Clients are paying for our efforts not the results, primarily because we cannot guarantee anything. And because many of our cases are predicated upon the actions of the target of the investigation, it is impossible to always get evidence if the subject does not provide the opportunity to obtain it. The last thing that I often tell clients is "nothing is something." Meaning, if we sit on surveillance on a workers compensation fraud case and after 7 days of watching the subject, they do nothing but sit in the house and go to the doctor then it is not money wasted on the case. Simply put, the surveillance has proven the person has a legitimate claim and is likely not malingering or otherwise committing any fraudulent actions.

Most Satisfying Part Of Being A Private Investigator?

While it may not be the most satisfying for the client, any investigator who works infidelity would be lying if they didn't get excited when they catch the spouse cheating on their client. That is not to say that we wish this on anyone, as these cases place a heavy heart on those investigators who still believe in the sanctity of marriage. However, when you know it is happening and your client wants to know the truth, it is great to get them the evidence they need to prove it.

Sometimes though, you get nothing. But remember, "nothing is something!" And that information can also give your client the closure they need to move on and work on the marriage. Either way, finding the facts and the truth are what we are after and I personally try to get it as quick as possible to minimize the expense for everyone involved.

What Are The Common Misconceptions Of Private Investigators?

People would be blown away by the requests that we get and the misconceptions there are about our profession. Following are just a few of the more common ones:

  1. We cannot get copies of cell phone records. Not without a subpoena or permission from the owner, that is. And this goes for medical records, credit history, banking information and other sensitive documents too.
  2. Private investigation work is often quite boring, pouring over public records, scouring the internet for hours or trying to stay awake and focused on surveillance when you would rather be at home with the family. Don't get me wrong though, surveillance can also be one of the more exciting parts of the job, weaving through traffic trying to stay with someone without them spotting you can be a bit exhilarating. Or finding that piece of evidence that you know will make for a big settlement for the attorney in a major personal injury suit. The point is that we aren't driving Ferrari's and getting in shoot-outs, but the job can be just as rewarding as it is boring.
  3. The "smoking gun" is a very difficult and rare thing to acquire in an investigation. The advent of cell phones and computers have dramatically changed that though as people leave a substantial "digital footprint" which can be very damaging in any type of investigation. Ever since we started doing computer/cellular forensics, it has definitely improved our success rate on getting the necessary evidence we need.
  4. It is illegal to record a conversation that you are not part of. And in some states there is even a two-party or all party law, which requires everyone to be made aware the discussion is being recorded.
  5. As mentioned earlier in this article, there are far more types of cases that investigators do than just cheating spouses. In fact, it is only a small part of our overall cases.