Private Investigator

A private investigator typically works on an independent basis and is hired by individuals and organizations to conduct investigations and do detective work. Private investigators may work for an agency, or for a corporation such as a law firm or insurance company, while others may work on their own by starting a private investigation business. Many of their duties and responsibilities are similar to that of a police officer, such as conducting investigations, evaluating evidence, and interviewing witnesses. Private detectives may also be armed, but usually do not wear a uniform. One of the primary differences between a police officer and a private investigator is that a private investigator cannot make an arrest whereas a police officer can.

What Does a Private Investigator Do?

The vast majority of private detectives focus their time and energy on gathering information and fact-finding, which is accomplished by conducting interviews, surveillance, forensic computer investigation, forensic accounting, and going undercover. It is common for private detectives to conduct follow-up investigations on cold cases, investigate worker’s compensation and insurance fraud, and to provide general investigative services that require time spent collecting photographic or recorded evidence.

Private Investigator Job Duties & Responsibilities

Although private investigators are not sworn officers with police powers, they must adhere to established legal codes, rules of evidence, and evidence gathering protocols like police detectives. A private investigator must also have the following skills to be successful at the job:

  • Prepare investigative reports, case summaries, or incident reports to document investigations
  • Perform surveillance and gather information
  • Conduct personal background investigations, including background checks, personal history, and pre-employment checks
  • Search public records, credit reports, computer databases, and tax or legal filings to investigate criminal activity
  • Uncover stolen funds or fraudulent insurance claims
  • Observe and document the activities of suspects to identify criminal activity or to detect unlawful acts for court cases
  • Testify in court or present evidence at hearings
  • Understand legal codes, court procedures, laws, evidence-gathering protocols, and rules of evidence

Types of Private Investigative Work

The work of a private investigator can vary greatly and there are many types of work that a private detective can engage in, such as:

Investigation and Research

In addition to “tailing” the subject of an investigation and uncovering information through research, a private investigator may interview witnesses or related third parties. Some have regular connections with police investigators, journalists or other people “in the know” who can provide insight on where to look next. The classic case of a private investigator is to look for signs of infidelity or misconduct among spouses, especially for the purposes of providing evidence during a divorce trial or custody battle. Common areas of specialization include:

  • Financial advisors who investigate potential business partners for a history of fraud or misconduct as part of due diligence
  • Counter-surveillance specialists who try to intercept “bugs” placed in physical spaces or on computing systems so that their client can maintain privacy
  • Corporate investigators, who specialize in preventing loss, managing risk or investigating internal misconduct
  • Surveillance specialists, who often provide testimony in court after observing and documenting the behavior of select individuals
  • Undercover investigators, who often gather evidence in secret under an assumed identity or without disclosing their full motives

Process Serving

Private investigators can work as process servers who deliver court subpoenas, summons, and other types of legal documents that need to be personally handed off. This is done to ensure the document is received by the person it is for. Some collection agencies may also hire a private investigator to track down debtors to provide contact information when the agency has previously been unable to locate the debtor to begin collections activity.


Also called “skip tracing”, this is the pursuit of an individual who has "disappeared”, often for the purposes of hiding, usually with the intent of escaping a debt. Private investigators are highly trained in tools and techniques to find missing people on behalf of their client and will continue investigations for as long as it takes for the individual in question to be located. A private investigator can also use the science of tracing to locate missing adults and children for the purposes of finding adoptees and birth parents, for child custody cases, or in rescue operations.

Cyber Intelligence

Some private investigators specialize in cyber intelligence and technical surveillance. They often employ countermeasures to remove forms of intrusive surveillance such as bugged telephone lines and offices, or unwanted physical surveillance of an individual by another private investigator or agency. They may also employ covert surveillance tools in operations designed to dismantle terrorism, organized crime, and drug trafficking. Typically, private investigators who enter this niche should have a strong background in cyber intelligence and counterintelligence.


Other private detectives and investigators can work as corporate investigators and are often employed by private corporations. They may help organizations identify theft, fraud (such as in workers’ compensation cases), employee misconduct, piracy, insurance fraud, copyright infringement, and cybercrime activity. Corporate investigators can also assist companies with due diligence investigations, computer forensics, and the protection of trade secrets and highly guarded intellectual property.


Private investigators can also start their own firms where they become a "detective-for-hire" available to anyone who wishes to employ their services. These investigators have complete control over the types of cases they take on and may work for individuals, private companies, or public agencies. Detectives-for-hire usually charge by the hour and can be hired to work as a security guard, to expose cheating partners or domestic violence in family legal matters, to locate missing persons, conduct background checks, and more. Depending on the job, they may go deep undercover.

Additional Careers in Law Enforcement

Consider these additional careers in law enforcement.

Police Officer
Crime Scene Investigator
FBI Agent
Game Warden
Police Detective
State Trooper
U.S. Marshal