Private detective

A private detective


Private detectives research and analyse information to uncover facts for personal, corporate or legal reasons, depending on their clients. They conduct surveillance activities, which includes taking photos, doing background checks and interviewing individuals. Private detectives may help in criminal and civil cases, child custody, financial fraud, on-line harassment and may search for missing people. They compile all the information into a file and hand it to their clients for further action.

The duties of a private detective typically include, but are not limited to:

  • Meeting with clients
  • Researching legal information
  • Performing background checks
  • Researching personal information
  • Conducting surveillance
  • Photographing suspicious activity
  • Researching financial information
  • Interviewing people
  • Obtaining witness statements
  • Investigating consumer, banking and online fraud
  • Preparing reports
  • Verifying information
  • Investigating computer crimes and identity theft
  • Assembling evidence
  • Locating missing persons
  • Locating assets
  • Observing potential criminal activity
  • Studying public and court records

Private detectives must be mindful of the law when conducting investigations. Because they lack police authority, their work must be done with the same authority as a private citizen. As a result, private detectives and investigators must have a good understanding of national and local laws, such as privacy laws and other legal issues affecting their work. Otherwise, evidence they collect may not be useable in court, and they could face prosecution.

Other titles

The following job titles also refer to private detective:

private dick
private investigator
private eye

Working conditions

Private detectives work in many environments, depending on the case. Some spend more time in offices, researching cases on computers and making phone calls. Others spend more time in the field, conducting interviews or performing surveillance. In addition, private detectives may have to work outdoors or from a vehicle in all kinds of weather to obtain the information their client needs.

Although private detectives often work alone, some work with others while conducting surveillance or carrying out large, complicated assignments.

Private detectives often work irregular hours because they conduct surveillance and contact people outside of normal work hours. They may work early mornings, evenings, weekends, and holidays.

Minimum qualifications

Most private detectives have previous experience in investigative work, as well as some college education. It is not required to have a degree; however, in many locations, it is required to be licensed.

Experience in law enforcement, the military, insurance, or a government intelligence agency is helpful when seeking private detective positions. Those in such jobs, who can frequently retire after 20 or 25 years of service, may become private detectives or investigators in a second career. Other private detectives and investigators may have previously worked as bill and account collectors, claims adjusters, paralegals, or process servers.

Those with a college education usually graduate with an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or police science. Corporate investigators must have a bachelor’s degree with a concentration in a business-related area.

Private detectives learn mainly on the job. Training begins with computer usage, including how to use databases to gather vital information. Corporate investigators, however, are usually provided formal training offered by their employer.

ISCO skill level

ISCO skill level is defined as a function of the complexity and range of tasks and duties to be performed in an occupation. It is measured on a scale from 1 to 4, with 1 the lowest level and 4 the highest, by considering:

  • the nature of the work performed in an occupation in relation to the characteristic tasks and duties
  • the level of formal education required for competent performance of the tasks and duties involved and
  • the amount of informal on-the-job training and/or previous experience in a related occupation required for competent performance of these tasks and duties.

Private detective is a Skill level 3 occupation.

Private detective career path

Similar occupations

These occupations, although different, require a lot of knowledge and skills similar to private detective.

police detective
police inspector
store detective
criminal investigator
court bailiff

Long term prospects

These occupations require some skills and knowledge of private detective. They also require other skills and knowledge, but at a higher ISCO skill level, meaning these occupations are accessible from a position of private detective with a significant experience and/or extensive training.

intelligence officer
police commissioner
polygraph examiner

Essential knowledge and skills

Essential knowledge

This knowledge should be acquired through learning to fulfill the role of private detective.

  • Check methods: Procedures used for investigative purposes such as surveillance by physical and electronic means, interrogations of witnesses, collection of objects and data for assessment and analysis and physical and electronic research for collecting data.
  • Interview techniques: The techniques for getting information out of people by asking the right questions in the right way and to make them feel comfortable.
  • Law enforcement: The different organisations involved in law enforcement, as well as the laws and regulations in law enforcement procedures.
  • Criminal law: Th legal rules, constitutions and regulations applicable for the punishement of offenders.
  • Civil law: The legal rules and their applications used in disputes between different parties.

Surveillance methods: Surveillance methods used in the gathering of information and intelligence for investigation purposes.

Essential skills and competences

These skills are necessary for the role of private detective.

  • Develop investigation strategy: Develop strategies used in an investigation to gather information and intelligence in the most productive way, compliant with legislation, ensuring that the strategy is adapted to each individual case in order to obtain intelligence as efficiently and quickly as possible.
  • Handle evidence: Handle evidence important for a case in a manner compliant with regulations, in order to not affect the state of the evidence in question and to ensure its pristine condition and usability in the case.
  • Analyse legal evidence: Analyse evidence, such as evidence in criminal cases, legal documentation regarding a case, or other documentation that can be regarded as evidence, in order to obtain a clear image of the case and reach resolutions.
  • Identify suspicious behaviour: Rapidly spot and identify individuals or customers who behave suspiciously and keep them under close observation.
  • Identify customer’s needs: Use appropriate questions and active listening in order to identify customer expectations, desires and requirements according to products and services.
  • Provide information: Ensure the quality and correctness of provided information, depending on the type of audience and context.
  • Document evidence: Document all evidence found on a crime scene, during an investigation, or when presented in a hearing, in a manner compliant with regulations, to ensure that no piece of evidence is left out of the case and that records are maintained.
  • Conduct research interview: Use professional researching and interviewing methods and techniques to gather relevant data, facts or information, to gain new insights and to fully comprehend the message of the interviewee.
  • Manage contracts: Negotiate the terms, conditions, costs and other specifications of a contract while making sure they comply with legal requirements and are legally enforceable. Oversee the execution of the contract, agree on and document any changes.
  • Check subjects: Gather and check all relevant information on a person, company or other subject in the context of an investigation.
  • Check request legitimacy: Examine the customer’s interest in a private investigation before accepting the agreement in order to make sure the interest does not go against the law or public morals.
  • Practice vigilance: Practice vigilance during patrol or other surveillance activities in order to ensure safety and security, to look out for suspicious behaviour or other alarming changes in patterns or activities, and to respond quickly to these changes.

Optional knowledge and skills

Optional knowledge

This knowledge is sometimes, but not always, required for the role of private detective. However, mastering this knowledge allows you to have more opportunities for career development.

  • Criminology: The study of criminal behaviour, such as its causes and nature, its consequences, and control and prevention methods.
  • Court procedures: The regulations which are in place during the investigation of a court case and during a court hearing, and of how these events occur.

Optional skills and competences

These skills and competences are sometimes, but not always, required for the role of private detective. However, mastering these skills and competences allows you to have more opportunities for career development.

  • Present evidence: Present evidence in a criminal or civil case to others, in a convincing and appropriate manner, in order to reach the right or most beneficial solution.
  • Take pictures: Take photographs of individual people, families and groups, either in a studio setting or on location.
  • Develop criminology theories: Develop theories to explain why people behave as they do in specific situations and why they commit crimes, based on empirical observations and existing scientific literature in the field of criminology.
  • Examine crime scenes: Examine crime scenes upon arrival to ensure they are not tampered with, and to perform the initial assessments and analyses of what may have occurred, as well as examining the nature of the evidence present.
  • Ensure compliance with types of weapons: Use different kinds of firearms and other types of weapons and their matching ammunition, in compliance with legal requirements.
  • Assist police investigations: Assist in police investigations by providing them with specialised information as a professional involved in the case, or by providing witness accounts, in order to ensure the police have all relevant information for the case.
  • Acquire licences for the use of weapons: When using weapons, coordinate with technical staff on legal aspects such as licenses, authorisations and assurances related to weapons and munition used.
  • Trace people: Identify the whereabouts of people that are missing or do not want to be found.
  • Hear witness accounts: Hear witness accounts during a court hearing or during an investigation to assess the significance of the account, its impact on the case under scrutiny or investigation, and to aid in reaching a conclusion.
  • Liaise with security authorities: Respond quickly to security incidents and violations by calling the police and keep in touch with other relevant parties involved in the potential prosecution of the offender.
  • Ensure law application: Ensure the laws are followed, and where they are broken, that the correct measures are taken to ensure compliance to the law and law enforcement.

ISCO group and title

3411 – Legal and related associate professionals

  1. Private detective – ESCO
  2. Private Detectives and Investigators : Occupational Outlook Handbook – U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
  3. Private Detective and Investigator Job Description –
  4. How to Become a Private Investigator: Requirements and Duties –
  5. Featured image: By, CC BY-SA 3.0
Last updated on March 3, 2023

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