What Do Private Investigators Really Do? (2024)

So you’re curious about the work of private investigators. As experienced, licensed professionals, private investigators (PIs) take on a wide range of assignments, applying diverse skillsets to gather information and provide clients with answers. Read on for an in-depth look at exactly what tasks PIs handle on a regular basis.


Typical Assignments Handled by Private Investigators

a detective taking pictures from his car

As a PI conducts their work each day, they may take on cases involving:

  • Infidelity Investigations – If you suspect your spouse is cheating, a PI can provide concrete proof of the infidelity through surveillance techniques and asset searches. They may photograph/videotape the unfaithful spouse, perform background checks on suspected paramours, and more.
  • Background Checks – Many clients hire PIs to supplement employment screening processes and verify credentials. PIs run database searches, contact references, confirm education and licenses, and compile a complete profile.
  • Finding Missing Persons – For missing children or lost loved ones, PIs use various tracing methods to track the individual down. They access phone records, surveillance camera footage, databases, social media activity and more.
  • Process Serving – When a hard-to-reach defendant needs legal documentation, a PI can locate and deliver the paperwork. Skiptracing techniques are used to pinpoint the subject’s whereabouts.
  • Locating Heirs & Assets – Probate lawyers hire PIs to find beneficiaries named in wills/estates and uncover assets associated with the deceased. Public records provide genealogy clues and financial information.
  • Insurance Fraud Investigations – Insurance companies contract PIs to conduct surveillance and gather evidence proving fraudulent claims and activity. Thorough documentation helps dispute bogus claims.
  • Pre-Litigation Investigations – Attorneys planning for a trial or lawsuit may retain a PI early on to do a comprehensive investigation. This provides information to develop the legal strategy.


The Daily Routine of Private Eyes

Wonder what a typical day looks like for a PI? Here’s a glimpse into common daily activities:

  • Checking messages and calling clients to touch base on case progress.
  • Researching by accessing public records, proprietary databases, search engines, genealogy sites and more.
  • Conducting database searches to uncover addresses, employment history, criminal records, assets, and other background info.
  • Performing surveillance with cameras, binoculars, GPS trackers, and other monitoring equipment.
  • Following up on leads uncovered through interviews with sources and witnesses.
  • Coordinating with clients, law enforcement, and attorneys to exchange case findings.
  • Documenting field activity through written logs, photography, videos and other records.
  • Compiling detailed reports to update clients on investigations.
  • Testifying in court if investigations lead to trials requiring expert witness testimony.


Of course, no two days are exactly alike. PIs must continually adapt to make progress on diverse cases requiring creativity and persistence.


The Skills they Use

an individual in a vehicle who is using a computer

To succeed in this work, PIs rely on specialized skillsets:

Surveillance Skills

  • Inconspicuous Observation – Blending into the surroundings and watching subjects discreetly without detection.
  • Photography & Videography – Proficiency with cameras, angles, lighting, zoom lenses, and other photography/videography techniques.
  • Undercover Work – Assuming alternate identities and disguises to get closer to investigation subjects when necessary.


Analytical Skills

  • Deductive Reasoning – Making logical inferences from evidence and connecting clues to reach conclusions.
  • Critical Thinking – Evaluating all sides of a case objectively, asking probing questions, considering alternative explanations.
  • Research – Finding reliable information through interviews, public records, databases, online searches, observation and more.


Interpersonal Skills

A professional security guard standing next to a luxury vehicle

  • Interviewing – Using conversational techniques to obtain candid details from witnesses while building trust.
  • Intuition – Having strong instincts about when sources are truthful or deceptive.
  • Persuasion – Securing cooperation from reluctant sources to obtain insider information.


Administrative Skills

  • Documentation – Keeping meticulous notes, activity logs, photographic/video evidence, and files on all aspects of cases.
  • Organization – Staying on top of numerous cases simultaneously and managing the information methodically.
  • Reporting – Distilling findings into clear, comprehensive reports for clients explaining the facts.


This diverse expertise allows PIs to assemble an accurate picture of the truth and bring contested situations to a resolution.


Legal Limitations on Private Investigations

While PIs have expansive capabilities to pursue evidence, they must operate within legal bounds. Some key regulations include:

  • PIs cannot impersonate law enforcement or government officials when conducting investigations.
  • Trespassing on private property without permission is prohibited. Stakeouts must be done from public vantage points.
  • Phone tapping, hacking emails, and recording conversations without consent is illegal.
  • PIs cannot harass, threaten, endanger, or slander investigation subjects.
  • Background and financial records can only be accessed through legitimate channels like databases or public documents.
  • Surveillance in non-public areas like restrooms, changing rooms, etc. is forbidden.


Private Investigators vs. Police Investigations

two individuals in the operating room

While PIs and police both investigate, key differences exist:

  • Authority – Police have law enforcement authority allowing access to crime scenes, warrants, etc. PIs are private citizens with no special authority.
  • Purpose – Police investigate criminal activity. PIs address civil matters like infidelity, insurance claims, missing people, etc.
  • Privacy – Police investigations are public record. PI findings are confidential client reports.
  • partiality – Police remain neutral parties. PIs are hired by and loyal to a specific client.
  • Evidence – Information police uncover can be used criminally. PI findings apply in civil settings only.


The powers of police and PIs are complementary. Collaborations between the two are common on applicable cases.


Specializations within Investigations

While all PIs are generalists to some degree, many develop niches:

  • Computer Forensics Investigators – Perform digital evidence recovery, tracing online activity and analyzing electronic devices.
  • Financial Investigators – Probe white collar crimes like embezzlement, fraud, money laundering and misuse of funds.
  • Corporate Investigators – Handle internal theft, harassment claims, compliance issues and liability cases for companies.
  • Insurance Investigation – Verify validity of insurance claims through extensive documentation and surveillance.
  • Legal Investigators – Assist lawyers building cases for trials, locating witnesses, serving documents and investigating claims.


Advanced education and hands-on training develops these specific investigative proficiencies. But core skills remain essential across all specialties.


Becoming a PI

Two investigators hold onto a working file.

If exploring this career path, understand that PIs:

  • Complete a high school diploma or GED as a baseline qualification.
  • Pursue college coursework related to investigation like criminal justice or police science. A bachelor’s degree is preferred but not mandatory.
  • Gain relevant experience through security work, law enforcement, insurance investigation, paralegal work, or related fields.
  • Get licensed in their state after completing all requirements which vary by region but often include training hours and exams.
  • May opt for voluntary certification through organizations like The National Association of Legal Investigators which denotes mastery of various investigative standards.
  • Continuously keep abreast of evolving laws, technology, and techniques through ongoing training.


It also helps to cultivate curiosity, integrity, resourcefulness and discretion – traits of stellar PIs.

So in summary, as experienced specialists licensed in their states, private investigators handle diverse assignments for various clients, conducting ethical investigations using observation, research and analysis to uncover facts and provide answers. It’s an endlessly fascinating career path for the right individual.


How long do most private investigator cases take?
Simple background checks may only take hours. But complex investigations like long-term surveillance, heir searches or extensive pre-trial preparation can span weeks or months depending on the circumstances.
Thorough documentation of surveillance, interviews, research, records and other evidence is crucial through written logs, photography, videos, notes, recorded calls and detailed final reports.
Scams include exaggerated credentials, requiring large retainers before working and stringing along clients with unnecessary surveillance to inflate fees.
While television exaggerates risks, PIs do face hazards like hostile subjects and hazardous locations. Precautions are taken but injuries sometimes occur.
Smaller PIs may work independently while larger agencies have teams covering more ground. But even at agencies, the investigative legwork is usually done solo.
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