Guns, Gams & Gumshoes

A defense attorney & PI who also happen to be writers

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How to Become a Private Investigator

Posted by Writing PIs on December 29, 2010

Updated August 19, 2012

Because we get asked this question a lot (“How can I become a PI?”), we thought we’d cover some general guidelines, and bust a few myths.

Forget Sam Spade

Private investigators (PIs) aren’t like what you see in films or read about in books–we’re not living the noir life (racing cars, busting heads, carrying lead).  We don’t wear trench coats unless it’s raining outside and we happen to own such a coat.  We don’t drink on the job because that’s a sure-fire way to mess up an investigation and ruin our reputation (and reputation in this business is critical). We don’t break the law (look up “Anthony Pellicano” on Google, see how his illegal activities paid off).

Now for general guidelines.  Below we briefly discuss what kind of backgrounds PIs come from, some different kinds of investigative work, salaries, study courses, and licensing.  If you’re really interested in becoming a PI, it’d be a good idea to contact your state professional private investigator association and ask to speak to a real-life PI–maybe invite him/her out to lunch and ask your questions.

Backgrounds for Becoming a PI

PIs come from various backgrounds, many from law enforcement.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook 2010-2011 Edition:

Private detectives and investigators typically have previous experience in other occupations. Some have worked in other occupations for insurance or collections companies, in the private security industry, or as paralegals. Many investigators enter the field after serving in law enforcement, the military, government auditing and investigative positions, or Federal intelligence jobs. Former law enforcement officers, military investigators, and government agents, who frequently are able to retire after 25 years of service, often become private detectives or investigators in a second career. Others enter from jobs in finance, accounting, commercial credit, investigative reporting, insurance, and law. These individuals often can apply their previous work experience in a related investigative specialty.

In our experience, we’ve met many retired law enforcement who have second careers as PIs.  We know people who used their backgrounds in genealogy and communications to enter the investigations field–even a former pet walker who now specializes in finding lost pets.  When we started our agency, one of us was retired trial attorney, and that background opened doors to our starting a legal investigations business (since then, he’s returned to the practice of law, so we’re now a law firm and investigations agency).

PIs Do Different Kinds of Work

PIs might also do different kinds of work.  For example, many PIs do process service, which is the personal delivery of summons,

PIs specialize in different kinds of investigative work, from computer forensics to pet detectives

subpoenas and other legal documents to parties in a legal case.  Some PIs might specialize in locating people (skip tracing), with some pinpointing a specific type of person (tracing debtors, for example).  Today’s technical world offers other specializations, such as Internet investigations or technical surveillance countermeasures (locating/dismantling unwanted forms of electronic surveillance, such as in bugged vehicles or offices).

PI Salaries

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2011 the median hourly wage for U.S. private investigators is $21.01, and the the annual salary is $43, 710.  The state with the highest employment level of private investigators is New York–those PIs earn a median hourly wage of $24.69, and a median annual salary of $51, 360.  The top-paying state for private investigators is Washington–those PIs earn a median hourly salary of $31.47, and a median annual salary of $65,460.00

Private Investigation Study Courses

There is no set course of education to become a private investigator, although there are different study programs–some offered by qualified PIs–that train people interested in pursuing work in the private investigations field.  The below sites offer more information on private investigation study programs:

How to Become a Private Investigator

Detective Training Institute

Global School of Investigation

Private Investigator Academy of the Rockies

Private Investigator Licensing

Most states require PIs to be licensed (currently, 5 states do not require licensing).  Different states have different licensing requirements, from the minimum age (typically 18), to years of investigative (or related) experience, to hours of accredited course study.  Most licensing requirements stipulate a person must not have a felony on their record.

PI Magazine offers links to all states and their licensing requirements: State Licensing Requirements

Have a great week, Writing PIs

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