Criminal Justice Degrees Guide

The Secret World of Private Eyes

The job of the private detective has been glorified in popular culture through books, television, film and comic strips, from Sherlock Holmes to Magnum, P.I., but we all know that real life is rarely like the movies. So what is the job of a private detective really like and what do they really do?

Private detectives have a very difficult and at times dangerous job. Some of them go undercover to try to snoop out if someone is engaged in criminal activity, others conduct extensive background checks on high-profile individuals, and still others gather clues to try to find missing persons. Some are even hired to sniff out whether someone’s spouse is having an extramarital affair to prove grounds for divorce and meet conditions of a prenuptial agreement. No matter what types of cases they work, all private detectives must be excellent researchers, must possess sharp interview skills and have a strong background in criminal justice.

While many private detectives have backgrounds in law or law enforcement, most do not work for law enforcement agencies, such as police departments, sheriff’s offices or state law enforcement. Instead, they either work for private investigation firms or are self-employed, picking and choosing what cases they will take. In fact, about 21 percent of private detectives are self-employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A private detective helps people, businesses and even attorneys find and analyze information by gathering clues through research, interviews and other investigative techniques. They uncover facts about corporations, organizations and individuals by sifting through information with a fine-toothed comb. They often investigate the legitimacy of insurance claims or fraud. For instance, an insurance company may hire a private investigator to make sure someone didn’t burn down their million dollar home on purpose to collect the insurance money. They also get to the bottom of cyber harassment or fraud by recovering deleted e-mails and documents, tracing IP addresses and searching computer databases.

Some private detectives are hired to conduct physical surveillance of an individual, observing a subject from an inconspicuous location from a vehicle, for instance. Many times, this is how the detective observes and records a subject’s criminal or otherwise illicit behavior. However, they still must abide by privacy laws, and must do their job within the confines of the law.

While private detectives have difficult jobs, the good news for those looking to enter this career is that jobs are projected to be high in demand. Employment of private detectives is expected to increase by a whopping 22 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to the Bureau.

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