In a recent online voting poll for the best private detective character in fiction, one of the choices was the character Stephanie Plum in author Janet Evanovich’s popular series that began with the novel One for the Money. Actually Stephanie Plum is a bounty hunter, not a private detective, but this isn’t the first time I’ve noticed people confusing the two professions. It’s easy to mix them up as both private investigators and bounty hunters perform a number of similar work tasks, which I’ll discuss later in this article.
But first, let’s briefly review job descriptions and titles for these two professions.
What Do Private Investigators and Bounty Hunters Do?
Private investigators accept employment from clients — such as law firms, corporations and private individuals — to obtain information on crimes or civil wrongs; locate people and property; analyze the cause of accidents, fires, or injuries to persons or to property; and locate evidence to be used before a court.
Bounty hunters work on behalf of a bail bondsman to re-arrest and put into jail the bondsman’s client who has defaulted on his/her bail contract. Typically, the client has failed to appear in criminal court as promised, and a judge has signed a warrant for the client’s arrest.
What Are They Called?
Both occupations have a variety of titles, from the professional to the slang, with some of the latter being viewed as derogatory within that vocation.
Having co-owned a private investigations agency for ten years, and currently working full-time as a legal investigator for several law firms, I know numerous private investigators across the U.S. Some prefer the job title professional private investigator as it adds esteem to a vocation that often gets a bad rap, thanks in part to the cynical, law-breaking private eye protagonist in early noir films.
Personally, I always referred to myself as a private investigator, and sometimes a private detective (although there are some private investigators who think the word detective should be used only by those who work in law enforcement). The abbreviation P.I., for private investigator, is also commonly used by my peers. I’ve also had law firms call and request to retain the services of an operative, another term for P.I., a term that always struck me as a bit old-fashioned.
Slang terms that are commonly viewed within the profession as having negative connotations, but which are often found in movies and stories, include the following:
- Private dick
On the other hand, some P.I.s like to play with these terms, using them in their businesses or related projects, including the author of this article who co-wrote the book How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths.
Some who work in this profession prefer the title fugitive recovery agent because the term bounty hunter to them conjures derogatory images of the Old West dead or alive posters, which advertised rewards in exchange for the fugitive.
More professionally accepted titles for bounty hunters include:
- Bail bond recovery agent
- Bail agent
- Bail enforcement agent
- Bail officer
- Fugitive recovery agent
- Fugitive recovery officer
P.I.s and Bounty Hunters: What Do They Have in Common?
Private investigators and bounty hunters perform some similar tasks in their work, which is why it can be easy to confuse the two occupations. For example, both professions perform the following:
- Tracking people to a current residence or location (also called “skip tracing”)
- Conducting interviews
- Performing surveillances
- Contacting the subject
- After the subject is located, the P.I. or bail recovery agent might perform “legal process” (a P.I. might serve legal papers on the non-fugitive, and a bounty hunter might serve a warrant on the fugitive).
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