The job done by a private investigator (PI) has been highly romanticized. Thanks to a legacy of classic films, comic books, and novels — especially the heyday of detective comics and film noir — there is a common image of a PI. These “private eyes” are hard-boiled gumshoe detectives with as many quips as they have fedoras; they sneak around in the shadows with one hand on the .38 special resting in their trenchcoat while they follow an ominous trail of blood.
There may be some PIs who fit that bill (or at least try to fit that bill), but as with any other job, there’s a lot more going on that glamorized Hollywood movies gloss over. One thing Hollywood gets right, though, is that private investigation is a mysterious line of work. Other than the basic job description — “a non-state agent who investigates on a case-per-case basis” — there’s probably little the average person could say about what a PI does. So then: how do PIs make their living? This How Much Guide to the lives of private investigators will encompass all the basic facets of the job, including how much PIs make, what their hours are like, and how they coordinate with legal officials.
How to Pass the Test(s) and Become a PI
When people think of PIs, they think of people who dress like this:
Authors such as Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson are partially responsible for the popular cultural image of a PI.
PIs are many things, but one of them is smart: they need to be in order to ensure that they can analytically approach the cases they are given. Correspondingly, if it is commonly perceived that PIs look like characters from Dashiell Hammett novels, then it would not be in the best interest of a private investigator to dress that part. A great deal of private investigation work doesn’t involve doing field work, meaning that PIs do spend plenty of time behind a desk combing through information, which means that PIs don’t need to dress so conspicuously. Moreover, if a PI is doing field work (that is, going out and spying on people), then they should not dress in a way that people will look at them and think, “That person must be a private eye.”
The image of a PI as a figure operating outside of the law, so frequent in classic detective stories, is not reflective of how real-life PIs operate. In the United States, private investigators almost always have to get licensed to practice. PrivateInvestigatorEdu.org has compiled a document containing descriptions for what each state requires of its private detectives. Some states do not require PIs to be licensed: Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Wyoming. However, state-level policy is not totalizing: Alabama, Alaska, and Wyoming all have local municipalities that require licensing, and Colorado has a voluntary PI license. The latter of those is a voluntary feature, but it undoubtedly looks good for a PI to have “licensed” in her or his business description, as a license does instill confidence in a customer.
Requirements for licensing vary by state, and it is best to look up your own state’s requirements before fully diving into the process of becoming a PI. The barriers to entry for the profession are not always easy to vault; unless you’re in one of the seven aforementioned states that does not require a license of its PIs, you’re going to have to do some serious work before starting off your own investigatory career. Potential requirements include:
- Education: Just about every state will require PIs to have a high school diploma. Others will want a higher-level degree, particularly in criminal justice-related fields.
- Experience: Those who live by the mantra that “the best education is experience” might be in luck depending on the state they’re in. If one can prove credible experience in a field related to private investigation, s/he might be able to use that in applying for licensing. Oklahoma is a rare state that lets would-be PIs apply without any previous experience, although they must complete training approved by the Council on Law Enforcement and Education (CLEET).
- Complete a Background Check: As with just about every job these days, one needs to have a good record in order to be certified by the state to be a PI. A somewhat checkered past will not totally disqualify one from becoming a PI, though s/he will need to show that she has seriously made up for any past transgressions. Those with recent convictions will be totally blocked out from applying to be a PI.
- Examination: States will have their own PI exams, and should you pass that exam, you’re good to go. This exam covers a broad range of topics, including one’s knowledge of state criminal law. Although PIs are not officers of the law in the way that police and SWAT officers are, they must work to complement the legal system; they do not exist to work against it.
PIs: The Day-to-Day
Normally, when something has gone wrong and requires a legal remedy, the first instinct people have is to call the police — which is fair. But there are special cases where a PI is best suited to get the job done, including cases of:
- Infidelity: When one spouse cheats on another, s/he will usually do all s/he can to cover up her tracks. If a spouse has reason to believe her or his partner is cheating on her/him, s/he can call upon a private investigator to figure things out.
- New Employee/Business Partner: While conventional background checks exist for things like credit scores and criminal history, if an employer or businessperson feels that s/he needs to fully vet a candidate for a job or collaboration, it may become necessary to bring on a private investigator to ensure that a bad business decision won’t be made. In an age where corporate espionage is a concern, especially at the international level, the work of a PI could come in handy to a discerning business.
- Insurance Fraud: Many PIs mainly or entirely deal with cases of insurance fraud, which happens when a person files for compensation from their insurance company under false pretenses. PIs can investigate the facts of an insurance claim to see if that individual is actually owed any recompense. For example, if someone tries to make a high-dollar insurance claim after a motorcycle accident, a PI can figure out how much damage was actually done so that the insurance company does not pay more than is necessary.
How Much do PIs Bring In?
There’s an undeniable thrill to the thought of being a private investigator. The satisfaction that comes from cracking a case can be understood by just about anyone. But do private investigators bring home the bread?
If you find the right market and build a good reputation as a PI, you’ll bring in more than pennies for sure, but given the unique markets that exist across the 50 United States, one’s salary as a PI will depend on where s/he is.
That said, while recognizing that context is important in determining PI salary, there are some broad statistics available. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the average PI salary as $41,760 per annum. Ten percent of private investigators earn less than $23,500 per year, while 50 percent of private investigators earn salaries that range from $30,780 yo $59,060. However, those numbers could well change; InsideJobs (see previous hyperlink) predicts a 22 percent increase in PI jobs through 2018, and PrivateInvestigatorEdu.org posits a 21 percent increase through 2020. An increased saturation in the PI market could result in higher salaries as jobs become more competitive, but it could also mean that others find themselves left out of the PI market due to an overabundance of PIs.
The site PI Advice points out that for many PIs, their wages will be hourly, ranging from $15-21/hr depending on the market. This will often apply to firms that hire private investigators, who then pay them by the hour (the same way lawyers charge hourly fees). If you own your own PI firm, however, you can charge customers by hour, specific to the service. For instance, if your customer wants you to do a rudimentary background check through the internet, you could charge them $20/hr for that searching; however, you could charge them more for work-intensive tasks like surveillance. Some firms will charge as much as $90/hr for surveillance, which may include bugging a place with video cameras and audio receivers.
If you’re looking to become a private investigator, here are some basic questions you need to ask yourself:
- Am I okay with making the likely average salary of around $40k/year?
- Am I willing to go through all that my state requires to become a PI?
- Do I want to work on my own, or pair up with firms that use PIs (e.g. insurance companies, law firms)?
- Has my education and/or experience adequately prepared me for this career?
If you feel that you can satisfactorily answer all of these questions, than being a PI could be right for you. Private investigators don’t make as much per year as some other professions do, but like any job a PI comes with its own set of perks. Few things sound as cool as being a detective.