Private investigators are criminal justice professionals who conduct research into people, documents, and crimes. As indicated in the figures above, which were derived from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of these professionals is expected to increase in coming years. Private investigators often work for corporations or attorneys; however, many go into business for themselves and work privately. Regardless of their employers, private investigators are responsible for the legal collection of information. They use what they find to help run background checks, find missing people, locate stolen goods, or create evidence against criminals. Four specific duties for jobs in private investigation include:
- Setting up and utilizing surveillance equipment to keep track of people in a stealthy manner.
- Conducting research into people's backgrounds, including employment history, income, and place of residence.
- Investigating different crimes, including but not limited to: cybercrime, insurance fraud, and identity theft.
- Writing reports, taking pictures, and gathering documents that can be used as evidence against criminals.
The most important responsibility for private investigator careers is adhering to the law. Knowledge of local, state, and national laws is necessary, as breaking the law can lead to consequences like fines and jail time. In addition, information that has been collected illegally will not hold up in court and therefore would be rendered useless.
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Becoming a Private Investigator
Typically, a potential private investigator can find a job without a degree, although most employers and clients will expect the candidate to have completed at least some college. At a minimum, private investigators must have a high school diploma or equivalent. In lieu of a degree, some experience with problem-solving and communication in a professional area could help a candidate find employment. For inexperienced new hires, some employers may administer on-the-job training.
Although degrees are not required, they can be instrumental in helping a potential private investigator stand out among a pool of applicants. Earning an associate or bachelor's degree in a criminal justice field will prove that the applicant has knowledge of the law and experience with criminal cases, background checks, and evidence collection. The best criminal justice programs will also teach future private investigators how to use different surveillance and computer equipment. Common classes for prospective private investigators include the following:
- Criminal Law
- Written Communication
- Undercover Investigations
- Case Management
Whether or not a candidate chooses to earn a private investigator degree, he or she will need to become licensed before being permitted to practice. Licensing requirements vary by state. Generally, however, private investigators must become fingerprinted and entered into the state system, which ensures that they will be on file in the event that they commit crimes. Additionally, private investigators must have clean criminal records and must be a citizen of the United States.
After those requirements are met, students may be asked to fill out an application for licensure. Some state licenses require proof of professional work within an investigative field, while others may require a degree in criminal justice. Some may also request professional reference letters. To learn more about the requirements for earning a private investigator license, visit your state's official website.