Personal injuries. Missing persons. Financial fraud. When questions arise in legal matters like these, investigators might be called in to make or break the case.
There are jobs for investigators at all kinds of employers, such as corporations, government agencies and law firms. But if you want to specialize — or be your own boss — then becoming a private investigator (PI) might be the right move. Despite the enduring popularity of fictional private eyes, there’s a lot you might not know about the real world of private investigation. Read on to discover 5 things you didn't know about private investigators, including the high demand for PIs.
1. Private investigators aren't lawyers, but they need to know the laws at hand.
Private investigators often work for law firms or attorneys. They might be asked to find information for criminal cases, such as fraud or theft, or for civil matters, such as vehicle accidents or divorces.
As they gather evidence and compile a case file, investigators need to know their rights and responsibilities. According to Robin Mullins, a Bellingham-based investigator and instructor for the UW Certificate in Private Investigation, that includes understanding state and federal laws, and how to navigate criminal and civil court systems.
“There are a great many ways you can end up in violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act or run up against the right to privacy,” Mullins says. “We teach students how to stay out of trouble.”
2. Private investigators do more than covert surveillance.
Private investigators track down people, valuable assets and evidence. They use tech skills and information know-how to regularly access online public records and private databases. Common jobs include pre-employment background checks, tenant screening, and skip tracing, a process to locate someone’s current whereabouts.
Investigators write reports and do bookkeeping, but it’s not all a desk job. Mullins says they need to be comfortable approaching people. Investigators might be hired to interview witnesses, take photos or video, or work as process servers to deliver summons or other legal papers.
One thing fiction gets right: Private investigators do covert surveillance. However, Mullins says, real-life stakeouts can be “exceedingly boring.”
“You’ll sit there for hours,” he says. “And when something happens, you’ve got just a few seconds to take that picture or observe that event.”
3. There’s high demand for private investigators.
From stakeouts to cybersecurity, work for trained investigators is steady. Nationwide, jobs for private detectives and investigators are projected to grow 13% through 2030, and 23% in Washington state, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and O*NET OnLine. Local governments and public agencies seek investigators who understand building codes, permits and contracts, while corporations and retailers need investigative staff to protect assets and prevent loss.
“The market is big in a lot of different areas, especially any place where it comes down to money,” Mullins says.
A big area of work for private investigators here is related to state labor and industry laws, Mullins says. Self-insured companies or attorneys sometimes hire investigators to find facts about on-the-job injuries or worker’s rights violations, or to spot people who might make fraudulent claims.
4. Many investigators need a license. But some don’t.
Some certified public accountants (CPAs) dig through data for evidence of financial fraud or embezzlement. That’s called forensic accounting, and in many states, including Washington, it’s one of the specialties that requires a private investigator’s license, Mullins says.
But not everyone who investigates for a living needs a license. For example, you might be a legal investigator at a law office, or a claims adjuster at an insurance firm. Although the work is similar to that of a PI — interviewing witnesses, reviewing records, gathering evidence — if you’re a company employee, Mullins says you probably won’t need a license.
Want to start your own private investigation agency? You’ll definitely need a license. The process can include pre-assignment training, passing a state exam or accruing work experience.
5. You might already be training for an investigative career.
In Washington state, you can be a licensed investigator as early as age 18. No matter your career stage, your unique life or work experience can help you get started in the field.
Perhaps, Mullins says, you’ve worked in phone sales, surveys or customer service. That’s good practice for eliciting information from people — and knowing that there are things you can and cannot say in conversation. Or, if you’ve worked in law enforcement, you might be able to build on your legal knowledge to work as a private agent, he says.
Even if you don’t intend to become a licensed private eye, the Certificate in Private Investigation might help you sharpen your discovery skills. For example, it’s helped novelists convincingly write about crime, and it’s helped journalists on the police beat improve their coverage of the justice system.
Mullins says a crop of veteran PI.’s are reaching retirement, but there’s still plenty of work to be done. So, he says, it’s a good time for new investigators to gain the experience they need.
“A real trick to being a good investigator is when you can take your past and apply it to this new career,” Mullins says.