What are Private Detectives?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Private detectives are freelance professional investigators hired by individuals to assist in legal proceedings and other private matters. Quite often, private detectives provide surveillance, run background checks, trace missing persons, or access records not available to the general public.

A private detective may investigate cheating spouses.
A private detective may investigate cheating spouses.

Attorneys employ private detectives to locate and interview potential witnesses, verify alibis or assist local law enforcement in criminal investigations. Many private detectives are retired civilian or military police officers with specialized training in criminal and civil investigative techniques.

Private detectives may be responsible for interrogating witnesses.
Private detectives may be responsible for interrogating witnesses.

While Hollywood movies often glamorize private detective work, most investigators work in relative obscurity. An insurance company paying out on a disability claim may seek evidence of fraud, for example. A private detective may arrange for surveillance of the beneficiary's home or workplace in order to prove or disprove the disability. A husband may suspect his spouse of infidelity, so private detectives may follow the wife's movements or use undercover techniques to elicit a confession. Most work performed by private investigators is no more glamorous or dangerous than a trip to the local Department of Motor Vehicles or tax assessor's office.

Hollywood movies often glamorize private detectives.
Hollywood movies often glamorize private detectives.

This isn't to say that private detectives don't face a certain amount of risk in their workday. Private investigators are not sworn law officers, so they only have the same powers of arrest as any other citizen. Private detectives may have to interrogate hostile witnesses or ask inflammatory questions on behalf of their clients. Getting people to admit self-incriminating behavior requires a certain combination of psychological manipulation and self-confidence, which successful private detectives often have in abundance.

Hiring a private investigator is not an inexpensive process, but it may be the best resource for those who seek more immediate answers than traditional law enforcement can provide. Private detectives usually carry much smaller caseloads, which means more time can be devoted to a specific client's needs. Experienced PIs may also have sources of information not readily available to local law enforcement. If an attorney hires a private detective, the expense may be added to the client's final bill or paid out as part of the judgment. Private detectives usually charge a standard fee per day, plus any other expenses incurred on the job, including housing, transportation, or food.

As in many other professions, the quality of service can vary from agency to agency. Some private detectives specialize in surveillance or insurance fraud, while others offer general services to fit a client's specific needs. Potential clients should ask probing questions before hiring any private investigator. What is their professional background? How many years have they been in business? What is their area of expertise? Have they handled cases similar to yours in the past? When it comes to hiring private detectives, experience and discretion are vital qualities to seek.

Private detectives may work for insurance companies to document insurance fraud or investigate whether a spouse is having an affair.
Private detectives may work for insurance companies to document insurance fraud or investigate whether a spouse is having an affair.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


@Comfyshoes - I agree but you also have to have some compassion because you often have to deliver some very bad news. It could be that the spouse is in fact cheating or that you found the whereabouts of a missing loved one.

I know it could also be rewarding when you are able to detect insurance fraud cases or find a birth parent for a client. The only thing I wonder is how safe is this profession and is there ever any retaliation for finding the information that they find.


@Mutsy -I know what you mean. I understand that the private investigator training is like two years. They do have courses in the field, but most people that work in the industry are former cops that already have a lot of the background that they teach.

I know you don’t have to have a law enforcement background because you can work in an agency and they will license you. It could be a lucrative field.

I read that some private investigators earn high six figure salaries but they do work erratic hours. I think it would be great to piece someone’s life together. It is like living a mystery novel instead of reading one. How cool is that?


@Crispety - I agree. I think that it is a wonderful service and I wonder why all states don’t have open adoption laws because this would make obtaining information on an adoption easier than having to go through the court system for help.

I saw a special on one of the talk shows that featured private detectives and investigators. The show featured a lot of stay at home moms believe it or not and they usually worked at night while their husbands watched their kids.

This one private detective agency seemed like a tight knit group. The women often acted as decoys for married men to see if they would cheat. Sometimes these women actually had to kiss the man to see if they would cheat. It was sort of scary.

I don’t think that I could do this type of work. It is not as glamorous as it sounds and the fact that these women carry guns is enough for me.

I also can see how it would appeal to an adventurous person because every day is different and you really do help people with unanswered questions that allow them to go on with their lives.


I think that it would be really fascinating to be a licensed private detective. Trying to solve mysteries for people has to be gratifying. It gives others a sense of peace.

I was watching a show the other day about a private investigator that found the birth parents of adoptees. I think that this is bittersweet because some people don’t want to be found and I wonder how hurtful it is to find that out or continue not knowing about your past.

I think that both adopted children and women that gave up their children for adoption always have this type of dilemma. Some of the birth parents feel really guilty because they weren’t there while others are annoyed because their life is disrupted.

I think that a private investigator can really help a person through these issues because they can try to prepare the person for the various possibilities and they are helping to sort out their past for them.

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