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What Private Detectives and Investigators Do

Private detectives and investigators find facts and analyze information about legal, financial, and personal matters. They offer many services, including verifying people's backgrounds, tracing missing persons, investigating computer crimes, and protecting celebrities.


Private detectives and investigators typically do the following:

Private detectives and investigators typically work for individuals, attorneys, and businesses. Some have their own investigative agency.

Private detectives and investigators offer many services, based on clients' needs. They may perform pre-employment background checks or look into a charge that someone has been stealing money from a company. They might be hired to prove or disprove infidelity in a divorce case.

Private detectives and investigators use a variety of tools when researching the facts in a case. Much of their work is done with a computer, which allows them to quickly get information, such as records of a person’s prior arrests, telephone numbers, social networking-site details, and emails.

They make phone calls to verify facts, such as a person's income and place of employment. They also interview people when conducting a background investigation.

Investigators may go undercover, pretending to be someone else to go unnoticed, to get information, or to observe a suspect.

Detectives also conduct surveillance when investigating a case. They may watch a site, such as the person's home or office, often from an inconspicuous location or a vehicle. Using photographic and video cameras, binoculars, and global positioning systems (GPS), detectives gather information on persons of interest. Surveillance can be time consuming.

Detectives and investigators must be mindful of the law when conducting investigations. They must have a good understanding of federal, state, and local laws, such as privacy laws, and other legal issues affecting their work.

However, as the legality of certain methods may be unclear, investigators and detectives must make use good judgment when deciding how to pursue a case. They must collect evidence properly, so that it can be used legally in court. 

The following are examples of types of private detectives and investigators:

Computer forensic investigators specialize in recovering, analyzing, and presenting data from computers for use in investigations or as evidence. They may be able to recover deleted emails and documents.   

Legal investigators help prepare criminal defenses, verify facts in civil law suits, locate witnesses, and serve legal documents. They often work for lawyers and law firms.

Corporate investigators conduct internal and external investigations for corporations. Internally, they may investigate drug use in the workplace or ensure that expense accounts are not abused. Externally, they may try to thwart criminal schemes, such as fraudulent billing by a supplier.

Financial investigators may be hired to develop confidential financial profiles of individuals and companies that are prospective parties to large financial transactions. These investigators often are certified public accountants (CPAs), who work closely with investment bankers and other accountants. For more information, see the profile on accountants and auditors. Investigators also might search for assets to recover damages awarded by a court in fraud and theft cases.

Store detectives, also known as loss prevention agents, catch people who try to steal merchandise or destroy store property. 

Hotel detectives protect guests from theft of their belongings and preserve order in hotel restaurants and bars. They also may keep undesirable individuals, such as known thieves, off the premises.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition