Separating Fact from Fiction: The Real World of Private Investigators (2024)

You’ve likely seen private investigators in movies and TV shows, following people in trench coats and sitting in dark sedans. While some of the mystique around private investigators is certainly intriguing, the reality is often far more mundane. As with any profession, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about what PIs do and what skills they need. This article will explore some of the common myths and contrast them with the day-to-day reality.

an unidentified man browsing through files


Myth #1: Private Investigators Spend All Their Time Following People

One of the most prevalent myths is that PIs spend most of their time trailing people to catch them in nefarious acts. You see this portrayed frequently in movies and books—the investigator photographs a cheating spouse meeting up with their lover or gives live updates on a person’s activities.

In reality, surveillance is only a small part of their work. Stakeouts require a tremendous amount of time and patience. Sitting in a car for eight hours straight isn’t glamorous or exciting. Most investigators rely on surveillance sporadically but spend more time researching public records, conducting interviews, and compiling evidence for their clients.

Does surveillance still play an important role in some investigations? Absolutely. Documenting someone’s activities and whereabouts can prove useful. However, it requires discretion and is generally conducted only when absolutely necessary. Most spend more time behind a computer than staking out buildings with binoculars and cameras.


Myth #2: They Can Access All Your Personal Data

an individual in a vehicle who is using a computer

Another common misperception is that investigators have unlimited access to your personal data—phone records, bank statements, travel details, and more. Movies sometimes show them magically producing comprehensive dossiers on a subject with everything imaginable.

In reality, they must work within the confines of the law like anyone else. There are limits on the types of private data they can access, even for clients. Phone records, bank statements, and other sensitive information generally require a subpoena. Investigators can research public records and databases but cannot pull your private data at will.

This myth likely persists because of the image of private investigators having expansive access. But the rules still apply, and responsible investigators work through proper legal channels. Unlawful data access can lead to lawsuits, criminal charges, and loss of one’s PI license.


Myth #3: They Can Go Anywhere They Want

Fictional PIs sometimes walk into restricted areas undercover or sneak onto property to gather evidence. Movies portray investigators picking locks or sneaking onto private property with relative ease.

However, trespassing and unlawful entry are still illegal, regardless of your profession. Investigators cannot simply walk onto private property without permission or a legal right to be there. They also cannot impersonate people or lie to gain access to restricted areas.

They can lawfully observe subjects in public areas where no expectation of privacy exists. But they cannot enter private spaces like homes and businesses without permission or a legal basis. Responsible investigators follow applicable laws around trespassing, privacy, impersonation, and other issues. Unlawful tactics can jeopardize a case and bring criminal charges.


Myth #4: They Make Their Own Rules

a person spying from his vehicle

Some fictional PIs play fast and loose with legal and ethical rules to get results. They misrepresent themselves, collect data illegally, and use questionable methods without regard for laws or ethics.

Real-world private investigators still have rules, regulations, and ethical guidelines to follow. Laws around privacy, trespassing, surveillance, and more apply equally to them. Those who cut corners or disregard regulations face consequences like lost licenses, lawsuits, and criminal charges.

Most belong to professional associations with strict codes of ethics. They undergo licensing and often have backgrounds in law enforcement or law. Responsible investigators get results through legal means and ethical practices. While dramatized ones may make their own rules, real PIs understand the importance of working within laws and regulations.


Myth #5: They Can Guarantee Results

Some fictional investigators make bold promises about getting to the bottom of cases and uncovering the truth no matter what. In reality, investigations involve uncertainties. There are no guarantees of finding conclusive evidence or definitive answers.

Outcomes depend on factors like:

  • The availability of records, witnesses, and data
  • Subjects being traceable and observable
  • Evidence being in existence and discoverable
  • Cooperation from third parties


They can only work with the information accessible to them. Even a thorough investigation may fail to uncover clear or conclusive evidence. Ethical investigators avoid guaranteeing specific results or absolute resolutions. They can pursue all available avenues but cannot promise outcomes dependent on so many variables.


Reality: The Job Requires Patience and Discretion

a man sneakily photographing a couple

While dramatized investigations rely on car chases, fights, and gunplay, the real work is generally far less glamorous. It involves patience, discretion, research skills, and attention to detail.

Instead of shootouts, a typical day may consist of:


Investigators need persistence to locate pieces of information across various sources and put together a complete picture. They must be patient enough to track subjects discreetly over extended periods. And they require attention to detail while compiling extensive notes and evidence.

The job requires rigor, care, and discretion over flair or bold moves. However, helping to right wrongs and uncover truths can still provide immense satisfaction.


Reality: It’s a Profession Requiring Diverse Skills

Fictional investigators tend to have one defining skill set, like martial arts prowess or marksmanship. The reality has more range—investigators wear many hats. Key skills include:

Research expertise: Extracting and compiling data from diverse sources.

Interviewing abilities: Questioning subjects and witnesses skillfully to draw out information.

Surveillance capabilities: Discreetly observing and documenting activities.

Analytical thinking: Reviewing evidence thoroughly and connecting dots.

Documentation skills: Recording complete and accurate notes.

Technological savvy: Using databases, cameras, GPS trackers, and more.

Legal knowledge: Understanding relevant laws and processes to work within bounds.

The most successful investigators have an assortment of strengths. They know how to leverage various skills to build strong cases and get results the right way.


Reality: It’s More Documentation than Detection

a detective reviewing paperwork

A large chunk of the work is compiling extensive documentation. Investigations produce huge amounts of data—surveillance notes, photos/videos, records, interviews, and more.

Investigators need to:

  • Log every detail in well-organized notes
  • Record thorough interviews with witnesses
  • Comprehensively document activities under surveillance


This allows them to recall specifics and piece together timelines. Sloppy or incomplete documentation can compromise cases. While fact-finding is important, diligent documentation makes those discoveries meaningful.


Reality: Investigators Must Build Strong Relationships

In reality, building relationships is key. Investigators need to cultivate contacts to access data sources, conduct interviews, gather surveillance footage, and more.

Cultivating goodwill with sources like:

  • Police contacts
  • Lawyers
  • Government officials
  • Journalists
  • Eyewitnesses


This gives investigators more resources and avenues of information. Charm, discretion, and integrity help build the relationships that can take a case from stuck to solved.

Even clients require relationship-building. Investigators work closely with clients to understand needs, provide updates, explain legal limits, and deliver results. Clear communication and transparency help gain trust and cooperation.


Reality: Ethical Judgment Is Critical

A man with an iPad and what appears to be a scale icon floating

With limited oversight, they must exercise sound judgment. Is a tactic ethical and legal? Is a source reliable? Are they serving client interests or overstepping? Investigators must weigh such questions daily.

They should:

  • Avoid conflicts of interest
  • Be truthful with clients and sources
  • Maintain confidentiality
  • Follow laws and regulations
  • Document accurately
  • Limit intrusions of privacy


A strong moral compass steers investigators away from unethical actions. It also makes them reliable resources for clients and colleagues. Judgment calls must balance client priorities, legal limits, and moral principles.


Key Takeaways: Separating Fiction from Reality

While movies and shows dramatize private investigations, the real work looks quite different. Key truths about the profession include:

  • Surveillance plays a limited role for most investigators
  • Accessing private data still requires legal procedures
  • Laws and ethics apply equally to investigators
  • Outcomes involve uncertainties, not guarantees
  • Patience, subtlety, and care matter more than daring
  • Diverse skills get results, not just detective cunning
  • Strong documentation is crucial
  • Relationships provide information pipelines
  • Ethical judgment ensures professionalism


The reality involves more diligence than drama. But helping crack mysteries and uncover facts still provides immense satisfaction. With open eyes, realistic expectations, and care for ethical principles, private investigators can achieve achievements and make a real difference.


What are the educational requirements to become a private investigator?
There are no mandatory educational requirements, but most have a bachelor’s degree. Coursework in criminal justice, police science, and law is helpful. Many have prior law enforcement experience.
Infidelity, missing persons, fraud, asset searches, background checks, due diligence, accident reconstructions, intellectual property theft, insurance claims, and more. Case variety is extensive.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a median salary around $50,000. Pay varies based on experience, location, specialty, and firms. Many investigators are well compensated but not extravagantly.
Methods include lawful access of public cameras, discreet recording in legal areas, obtaining copies via warrants or subpoenas, collaborating with police, and requesting voluntarily shared private footage.
Rarely, but potentially if confronting unstable people. Most pursue discretion over confrontation. Safety training and lawful self-defense methods help investigators avoid undue risk.
Share This Article:
Share This Article:
Accelerating Solid Intelligence, From Every Corner of the Globe.

Believing that creative intelligence and strategic security are key, our team specializes in creating custom solutions for highly complex scenarios.


Personal Risk Management Solutions for Any Crisis, Anywhere.

We’ve got your back when others just can’t.