T­hanks to books, movies and TV shows, many people have a clear mental image of the stereotypical private investigator. He works from a dimly-lit, cluttered, sometimes smoky office in a less-than-affluent part of town. There, he greets a series of walk-in clients — often women — who have been wronged in one way or another.

Usually, his job is either to find proof of wrongdoing or to make the situation right again. To do this, he gets useful information from witnesses and bystanders, sometimes with the help of false pretenses and fake identification. He tails witnesses, takes pictures, searches buildings and keeps an eye out for clues that others may have overlooked. Occasionally, his curiosity gets him into trouble, and he barely escapes being caught somewhere he isn’t supposed to be. But eventually, he returns to his distressed client, letting her know that he’s solved the case.


Conducting Investigations

In many detective movies, the typical client is a damsel in distress.
In many detective movies, the typical client is a damsel in distress.

The stereotypical private investigator comes from books, TV and movies — so does the stereotypical client. In the world of fictional investigators, clients often turn to investigators for help because the information they seek doesn’t fall within police jurisdiction. They may also be afraid or unable to ask the police for help. In some portrayals, clients have already tried to work with law-enforcement agencies but aren’t happy with the result. Often, fictional clients are looking for:



  • Lost or stolen property
  • Proof that a spouse or partner is unfaithful
  • Proof that a friend or business associate is dishonest
  • Missing friends or relatives
  • The perpetrator in an unsolved crime

Although real clients aren’t the archetypal damsels in distress that appear in fiction, the types of cases that surface most often in movies and books are also common in real life. A real investigator’s caseload often includes background investigations, surveillance and skip traces, or searches for missing people. Investigators may also serve legal documents, notifying people of their involvement in legal proceedings. In the United States, this is part of the due process guaranteed in the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.


Training and Licensing

Many people who decide to become private investigators already have experience in a related field. They may have served in a branch of the military or worked as police officers. Others have experience in crime-scene investigation or surveillance. While this experience can be helpful, it doesn’t entirely replace education and training.

In most cases, a person learns to be a private investigator through apprenticeship with an experienced investigator or formal instruction. Either on the job or in a classroom, the future investigator learns about:


Private Investigation and the Law

Reading books and watching movies about private investigators naturally requires some suspension of disbelief. After all, many fictional detectives are impossibly heroic or improbably cool. But fictional investigators aren’t just too smart, too good-looking, too lucky or too witty to be true. Much of the time, they make decisions that would land a real investigator in jail and out of a job.

When a TV private eye dons a cap with a cable company’s logo, picks up a clipboard, and pretends to have questions about when a neighbor will be home, he’s using a ruse to get information. This technique has become known as pretexting, and while it isn’t always illegal, critics argue that it is often unethical. Others contend that the ends can justify the means — if using a disguise and fake identification leads to an arrest, then the ruse is worth the risk.