How to Become a Private Investigator Without a 4-year Degree
From Sherlock Holmes to Easy Rawlins to Veronica Mars, popular culture has had a fun time depicting private investigators. Danger! Mystery! Glamor! And while stories about fictional private investigators aren’t necessarily accurate, it’s still an interesting and exciting field.
You might want to become a private investigator if you are naturally curious, level headed, and detail oriented. This is a field that pays well and doesn’t require a four-year college degree. There is some variation among the states about requirements for private investigators. An interest in criminal justice helps but isn’t necessary.
Become a Private Investigator as a Second Career
Being a private investigator could be an excellent second career, especially for people who have worked in criminal justice, the military, cyber-security, or have been a law enforcement officer.
This is a career area that is growing. It is expected to grow by 13% through 2030, which is faster than many other fields. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts there will be 3,500 jobs available each year. Good news for a job that averages more than $53,000 a year.
It might also be worthwhile to find out what it takes to become a private investigator as a full or part-time career after retirement. You will find out below how some private investigation jobs can be flexible. Some specialties in private investigation require extensive knowledge of certain fields. For example, a healthcare/insurance fraud investigator needs to know their way around medical terms, software and best practices.
States will generally accept a mixture of education, experience and internship experience toward required hours for a license. For example, California considers time spent working as a military police officer or a sworn law enforcement officer to count toward the hours, equal to interning with a licensed private investigator.
Read on to find out how to become a private investigator.
What Characteristics Does a Private Investigator Need?
Private detectives rarely creep around old buildings with magnifying glasses like Nancy Drew. Instead they spend a lot of time researching and following up on details. Private investigators have to be pretty friendly, and comfortable talking to a variety of people.
It’s important to be detail oriented, since a small discrepancy could be the thing that breaks open a case. On the flip side, a mistake in your data collection could torpedo a case.
Other qualities that are important for private investigators to have are persistence and tenacity, for following up on reluctant interviewees; quick thinking and ingenuity, so you can react to unexpected events or results; and professionalism and integrity, so the information you gather can be used in court.
If you think you have these qualities, then you should definitely research how to become a private investigator.
What Does a Private Investigator Do?
Private investigation employment breaks down into a few basic categories. They might work for lawyers or for businesses and large corporations. Governments also use investigators in child protection services, tax fraud, and more, but those wouldn’t be considered private investigators. A licensed private investigative agency is used by individuals, lawyers, and businesses.
Law firms hire private investigators to discover whether people are cheating in some fashion. It could be on a spouse or involving health insurance, workman’s compensation, non-compete agreements, and more. Lawyers also use private investigators to find people perhaps in connection with a will, and they are also used to uncover assets.
Corporations may have internal detectives to find fraud, both internal and external, within the company. Or they might have private investigators on retainer. These detectives would look to see if there is embezzlement within the organization, intellectual property or copyright infringement, and other protective reasons.
Businesses and corporations also use private investigators to research potential partners or acquisitions to ensure they are getting accurate and complete information. Having a strong corporate compliance background can help corporate private investigators.
Businesses might also use private investigators with cyber-security backgrounds when there has been a data or information hack, or there are online threats against the business.
Individuals also hire private investigators to get information. They might be worried about a straying spouse or a missing child. They may be concerned about certain activities, but don’t want to go to a law enforcement agency.
Insurance companies will hire private investigators to look into claims. Those investigators might look at a claimant’s social media; observe their activities; use public records to see if they have previously filed similar claims; and photograph or record a claimant in public. Private investigators of all types talk to the target’s friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers.
What Are the Different Types of Private Investigators?
While many private investigators are general practitioners, meaning they are competent in all of the facets of investigative services, people can also specialize in types of investigations. They develop sources and a broad understanding of the tools that are available for their private investigation field.
When you are thinking about how to become a private investigator, do a self assessment about your skills (or skills you want to develop). Some of the specialty areas might be perfect for you. Corporations often have internal investigating departments. These departments may hire private investigators to fill special needs.
Some private investigator agencies specialize in certain fields, or need specialists like those listed below.
List of Private Investigator Specialties
These are the main types of private investigator jobs. A license is required to do them. Private investigators, like all other licensed jobs, have to take continuing education courses throughout their careers to retain their license.
- Background investigator
- Corporate investigator
- Cybercrime investigator
- Desktop investigator
- Healthcare/ medical fraud investigator
- Internal/external fraud analysis investigator
- Skip tracer
- Surveillance investigator
Background Investigator/Background Data Analyst
This investigator/analyst does background checks on potential employees. They follow up on submitted information. For high level jobs, they may conduct interviews. This requires good organizational and writing skills.
This person would carry out due diligence investigation on investors; brand reputation investigation, and other investigations into assessing information to identify potential issues. Good for someone with corporate leadership background.
A cybercrime investigator works to recover data on computers if hacked, destroyed, or damaged. Plus, they test/investigate cybersecurity breaches, conduct other digital investigations, and write the investigation reports. They may be called to testify, for example, in a child pornography case about recovering and reconstructing evidence.
This is a form of investigation that would suit someone with considerable computer research skills involving databases, social media, and other sources. May do phone inquiries. Usually the first step in an investigation.
Healthcare/Medical Fraud Investigator
Very much a detail oriented field, this private investigator audits medical coding to ensure accuracy and detect fraud within healthcare providers. A type of insurance fraud investigation.
Internal/External Fraud Analysis Investigator
Internal fraud investigators usually work for a company or organization. External fraud investigators are brought in, either by an outside party or the organization. These investigators may be looking at any facet for fraud.
Skip tracers look for people who have skipped town, or disappeared without a trace. People might be ducking debt, avoiding court, or family matters. Some skip tracers / private investigators may find people remotely or have to travel.
These private investigators fit the classic television trope of the private detective sitting in a car with a video camera. They find, follow, record and report the actions of the surveillance target.
How to Get Started as a Private Investigator
Some states may require an associate or bachelor’s degree to get private investigator licenses, but most don’t. A high school diploma or GED is almost always required. Alabama doesn’t require any schooling, but it is helpful to take criminal justice courses for the state exam.
You usually have to be a citizen or legal resident and be at least 21 years old. Often you can get your private investigator intern license earlier. For example, in Florida, the required age to get an investigator intern license is 18.
States generally require 40 hours of professional training before someone can apply for a private investigator license for an internship. This can be through traditional colleges and universities, or through private investigator academies. Some states allow substituting completed academic hours for professional training
Once you qualify as a private investigator intern, you will work for a licensed private investigative agency. States may require up to two years of interning with an agency before you can take a licensing exam. Once you pass your exam, it is likely that you won’t have any problem getting employment.
Some states require that you post a surety bond. That means you have guaranteed a certain amount of money to be paid out if you mishandle a case or incident.
It is more difficult to qualify if you have been convicted of a felony, or misdemeanors of moral turpitude. One possibility is getting a criminal record expunged, so you can legally say you don’t have convictions.
Here is how to become a private investigator.
- Licensing / Fingerprinting / Background check
- Weapon licensing
- Professional development
Many colleges and universities offer programs which meet the requirements to get a private investigator intern license. There are online academies in Georgia.
A growing field of investigation is cybersecurity. There are an increasing number of hacks of business and government data. Various programs offer certification in cybersecurity, often costing around $1,000. The average salary though in this field is higher, at just under $80,000.
It is important to make sure that whatever school you use for professional training is certified by your state. These courses sound like something out of a action movie: Improvised Explosive Device Training, Surveillance Basics; Bomb Threat Analysis. Many states also require ethics courses. Most courses cost between $99-129 to qualify. The cost varies state to state. A pre-licensing online course in Georgia costs $375
When researching how to become a private investigator, it might surprise you to read about internships. Colleges and universities can teach you the necessary background knowledge for being a private investigator. Interning teaches you how to do the job.
Almost every state requires private investigator interns licenses. For example, to qualify for the private investigators’ intern licenses in Florida, you have to have at least 40 hours of certified education in criminal justice, law enforcement, civil and criminal liability, and related areas.
Arizona doesn’t call it an internship, but rather requires a Private Investigator Employee Registration Certificate for an apprenticeship with a licensed agency.
Not every state has a private investigator intern license. For example, New York does not have one, and you have to be 25 years old to become a private investigator.
It is important to reiterate that if you have law enforcement experience, that may count as your internship. This site is a good resource to read the requirements of becoming a private detective in every state.
Licensure & Legal Requirements
Forty-five states require a license to be a private investigator. It is vital that before you become a private investigator you research your state. Five states (Alaska, Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Wyoming) don’t have statewide licenses, but there are some local requirements. Alaska and South Dakota require a general business license ($50 in Alaska, $150 in South Dakota).
There is variety between the states (and Washington, D.C.) in the requirements to get and stay licensed. Generally between 3,000-6,000 hours of private investigation work has to be logged, or between two and three years of interning. Previous law enforcement personnel or military police can use some of their experience to count. Getting an associate or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice (or similar) also counts.
When you are ready to take your state’s licensing exam, you submit to a variety of processes. You will get fingerprinted (usually costing around $60), background check or FBI classification check ($25), affidavit of good moral character, application fees ($33-$165), and the cost of the exam ($100-$175), plus other common paperwork. States often require confirmation of employment from a private investigation agency. About half of the states require a $5,000-$10,000 surety bond.
While private investigators don’t have to carry weapons, many do. There are a variety of situations you might find yourself in, and some of them could be dangerous. Some private investigators who used to work in law enforcement might already have concealed weapons or other firearm permits.
Weapons permits and licenses also vary by state. Being a private investigator may be beneficial in some states when applying for a concealed weapon license. Most states require additional coursework and bonds for private investigators who carry weapons.
Maintaining your license is essential in working as a private detective. License renewal is an average of two years in the United States, and generally costs around $200. You will be expected to take continuing education courses. States like North Carolina, Texas, and Oregon require ethics courses as part of continuing education.
Becoming a private investigator is a fantastic option for the person who likes variety in a job and doesn’t mind not knowing the outcome of each case. Private investigators get paid well without having to spend years in college.
It is a quickly growing field, and if you want to focus on one of the specialty areas, you can make good money and have job security in a fascinating field. It is an especially good second or post retirement career.
The Penny Hoarder contributor JoEllen Schilke writes on lifestyle and culture topics. She is the former owner of a coffee shop in St.Petersburg, Florida, and has hosted an arts show on WMNF community radio for nearly 30 years.