Step by step guide to becoming a private investigator

Private investigation is a highly respected field that has evolved significantly in the last decade. Private investigators now serve as contractors for law enforcement, cyber crime, surveillance and human resource teams. The services they provide are broad ranging, and can include everything from investigations into marital infidelity and missing persons, to the use of computer forensics to solve cases related to financial fraud or exploitation.

 Private investigators most often work for private investigation agencies or operate their own independent firms. They often work on a contract basis for both public and private sector clients, and almost always hold a state license permitting them to conduct legal investigations and surveillance with impunity. Since a state licensing and regulatory body often oversees the field of private investigations, becoming a PI means meeting state-specific requirements for licensure.

What does a private investigator do?

First and foremost, private investigators must work within the law at all times. Like a police officer, a private investigator can’t present evidence that wasn’t legally obtained. They also have less authority than police officers. For example, while a police officer might obtain a probable cause warrant to enter someone’s home, a private investigator has no such avenue.

You’ll find much of your time will be spent at a computer if you become a private investigator. A great deal of information can be found through digital formats and some investigators specialize in data retrieval. Database searches can turn up records of prior arrests, social networking information, criminal convictions, and personal associations. You might find yourself working surveillance in a number of ways. You could go undercover to learn more about a suspect. You might find yourself spending hours in an inconspicuous location waiting to get photographic evidence. Surveillance, however, doesn’t include methodologies such as wire-tapping or any other means that would require a legal warrant.

What kind of skills are required?

To become a private investigator, you will need to have:

  • good spoken and written communication skills
  • excellent observational skills
  • strong analytical skills
  • self-confidence to present information in court
  • basic computer skills
  • a knowledge of the law
  • honesty and integrity
  • the ability to work independently
  • a logical approach to your work
  • patience and perseverance
  • empathy with clients who may be distressed by your findings

The steps to becoming a private investigator

  1. Learn about state licensure
  2. Meet minimum requirements for licensure
  3. Meet education and experience requirements
  4. Pass the state exam for licensure
  5. Obtain mandatory firearm training
  6. Apply for state licensure
  7. Maintain state licensure