What is the Definition of a Private Investigator? What does a Private Investigator Do? #119

What is the definition of a private investigator and what does a private investigator do? A private investigator can mean something different to different people and we go by many names.  Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a private investigator as,” :  a person not a member of a police force who is licensed to do detective work (as investigation of suspected wrongdoing or searching for missing persons).”  The dictionary isn’t wrong but there is much more that can be said about what a private investigator is capable of.

We go by names like private investigator, private detective, private eye, sleuth, spy, investigator, etc..

Regardless of the name that someone describes or identifies with, a private investigator at the very core of what an investigator does is collects and documents information on behalf of their client and then provides that information to their client.

Private investigators are independent investigators hired to gather information for attorneys, companies, individuals and insurance companies.


What Private Investigators do for Attorneys

For an attorney a private investigator will:

  • Serve papers
  • Locate documents
  • Interview potential witnesses
  • Locate witnesses
  • Locate people
  • Conduct surveillance
  • And more…

What Private Investigators can do for Companies

For companies a private investigator will:

  • Investigate employees
  • Set up covert cameras within their business
  • Follow employees involved in time theft
  • Conduct background checks on future employees
  • Be a secret shopper
  • Work as a loss prevention employee
  • Work security
  • And more…

What Private Investigators Can do for Individuals

Private investigators can sometimes be the last hope when it comes to seeking out information.  Many people turn to private investigators when they are desperate to find a missing person.  

  • If someone died from unnatural causes a private investigator might be used to investigate how the person died or seek another reason for it outside of law enforcement’s investigation.  
  • Conduct background checks on individuals that a person is dating to see if everything they have told them is true or not.
  • Conduct surveillance in relation to custody cases.
  • Search for possible assets owned by someone.
  • Investigate the cause of death of an individual.
  • Find missing people.
  • Conduct surveillance in regards to infidelity.
  • And much more…


Insurance Companies

Private investigators can act as an extension of insurance companies to help insurance companies make decisions on claims and this comes in many forms.

Investigators can…

  • Conduct interviews with claimants and the insureds related to slip and fall accidents, vehicle accidents, house fires, car accidents and any other insurance claim you can think of.  
  • Document and take measurements of areas related to insurance claims.
  • Interview claimants applying for disability insurance payments.
  • Conduct Alive and Well Checks to check on the welfare of claimants receiving benefits.  This also ensures that the claimants are still alive and no one else is cashing checks of a claimant who may have passed away.
  • Conduct surveillance related to workers compensation and disability claims to document whether the claimant is as injured or disabled as they claim to be.
  • Conduct accident reconstruction.
  • Determine the origin and cause of fires.
  • And more….

Computer and Cell Phone Forensics

Many private investigators are now trained to locate information on computer or cell phones related to criminal and civil cases.  

This is a relatively new and important type of investigation that can uncover information that may be deleted or hidden on computers or cell phones. 

I have heard of computer forensics being conducted on company computers as well to determine what employees are doing on the computers.

Basic Requirements to Become a Private Investigator

In most cases there is a minimum requirement to be a private investigator in the United States.  There is typically a certain amount of experience or education required to become a private investigator as well.  Sometimes those requirements can be bypassed by taking a test.  Here are some of the basic requirements in most states.

  • High school diploma or GED
  • At least 18 to 21 years of age (This varies from state to state)
  • Experience or college education (you might be able to test out of this in some states)
  • Clean criminal record
  • A United States Citizen

Every state has something a little different from another state in regards to their requirements to become a private investigator.  Be sure to check your state’s requirements.

Qualities of a Good Private Investigator

I have been around enough private investigators to know what makes a private investigator successful and I only mean this in the legal sense. Below are some of the attributes of a person that makes them a successful private investigator.

  • Integrity
  • Thoughtfulness
  • Inquisitive
  • A person who keeps seeking information
  • Street smart
  • Book smart
  • Someone who is self-aware (knows their strengths weaknesses)
  • Someone who keeps learning
  • Someone who tries to improve their skills
  • Hard working

The above traits are the things I have seen in many of the most successful private investigators who are very good at what they specialize in.

How Private Investigators Are Viewed


Every person envisions something different when they hear about or meet a private investigator.  I think every investigator that has written about who we are or what we do has tried to extinguish any thought of a spy with a trench coat and magnifying glass.  It’s actually been written about and reported about too much in my opinion.  

Some people are scared of private investigators because they think we are illegally doing things to secure information.

Some people think of us as heroes because we find information that saves a company money, finds a missing person because we catch someone involved in fraud.

Some people are just scared of us because they just don’t know enough about us and what we are really about.  It’s the unknown that they fear.

Final Thoughts

At the very core, private investigators are normal people that are very good at finding and collecting information.  We don’t think we are spies or above the law.  We just want to do our jobs safely and go home each day.  We are husbands and wives.  We are fathers and mothers. We are someone’s son or daughter.

For more resources on being a private investigator check out the resources page for recommendations on private investigation books.