Private Investigator

The Job and What's Involved

Private investigators work for clients who need to find out information about people or businesses for all sorts of personal, business or legal reasons. Clients include:

- Individuals
- Insurance companies
- UK and international businesses
- Governments in this country and overseas
- Solicitors' offices
- Banks
- Local councils

The work might involve:

  • Investigating on behalf of someone who suspects their husband or wife of having an affair.
  • Tracing a missing person, an adopted person or parents of children given up for adoption.
  • Conducting credit checks and serving legal documents (process serving).
  • Investigating computer crime.
  • Investigating businesses suspected of selling counterfeit goods.
  • Running background checks on potential employees or business associates for commercial companies.
  • Checking the credentials and records of a company that the client is considering buying.
  • Investigating employees suspected of fraud or dishonesty, such as claiming time off work for non-existent injuries or illnesses.
  • Checking out the facts of road accidents or suspected fraudulent claims for insurance companies.
  • Carrying out neighbourhood surveillance and assessment for house purchasers.
  • Monitoring internet chat room conversations for parents worried about their children making inappropriate friendships online.
  • Debt recovery.
  • Removing bugging devices.

Private investigators do a great deal of research and planning. Much of their work is computer-based, searching databases. They visit people's homes and offices to interview witnesses and suspects, and take statements. The work may involve covert surveillance or setting a 'honey trap' in which the investigator or their assistant propositions the suspected person in order to find out their response. Some specialise in a particular area, such as child custody cases.

They may have to use photographic, audio or video equipment, to support their investigations and record evidence. Investigators often need to attend court to present their findings. Some private investigators work alone; others work as part of a group of investigators.

Private investigators rarely work regular hours and may spend time away from home, travelling around the country or even overseas. This might involve working evenings, nights and weekends.

They usually work from an office, but some work from home. They can be outside in all weathers, perhaps standing in one place, sitting in a car late at night watching someone's house, or following someone for hours at a time. A driving licence is usually necessary.

Private investigators' salaries may start on around £15,000 a year. Clients may pay expenses, such as hotel or restaurant bills. Private investigators who work for companies or agencies may get a vehicle allowance.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

It is estimated that there are around 10,000 private investigators in the UK. Private investigators can work for one of the increasing number of investigation agencies in this country and overseas, either as an employee or on a sub-contract basis. These agencies offer a range of services to private and commercial clients and it is possible to specialise in certain areas, such as computer crime. They also work on contract for large organisations, such as finance houses and insurance companies. Opportunities to buy into private investigation franchises are available.

Job vacancies may be found in Jobcentres, trade publications such as Professional Security Magazine, Jane's Police Review and Security Management Today, on investigation companies' websites and via specialist investigation recruitment agencies. The Association of British Investigators and the Institute of Professional Investigators hold details of UK and overseas investigation agencies on their websites, who may have openings.

Some investigators run their own businesses.

Education and Training

Private investigators do not need any academic qualifications. However, many are drawn from the military, police and intelligence services and other investigative occupations, such as customs work or journalism. Without this kind of specialist background, someone who wishes to work in this field usually needs some relevant experience in the security industry (for instance, as a store detective or security officer), before applying.

Some roles need specialist experience and qualifications. For example, someone investigating computer crime usually needs a qualification and background in computing, and many fraud investigators need accounting skills.

The Security Industry Authority (SIA) is due to bring in licensing for private investigators. Applicants will need to pass an identity and Criminal Records Bureau check and prove they have the relevant competencies to carry out the role.

It may be useful for new entrants to the industry to gain relevant qualifications. Qualifications include:

  • NVQ Level 3 in Intelligence Analysis.
  • Institute of Professional Investigators' City & Guilds qualification in Security (Investigation) via distance learning through Caltrop College.
  • Institute of Professional Investigators' two-day Foundation course for new investigators, which is also available by distance learning.
  • The Academy of Professional Investigation's distance learning course in private investigation.
  • Association of British Investigators' range of classroom-based and distance learning courses for investigators of all levels.
  • Degrees and postgraduate qualifications in subjects such as forensic and investigative studies, and criminal investigation.

Private training can be expensive so it's best to make sure the course is at an appropriate level and is accepted by the SIA.

It is possible, but difficult, to be taken on by an investigations company in a junior role, and to train on the job.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Reputable companies make sure their investigators are trained and up to date in areas such as:

  • The law and legal system.
  • Equipment.
    Investigative methods.
  • Legislation, for instance health and safety, data protection, human rights and confidentiality of information.

Membership of an organisation such as the Association of British Investigators or the Institute of Professional Investigators enables investigators to keep up to date with legislation and industry practices, and may enhance job prospects.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A private investigator should be able to:

  • Work methodically and thoroughly research all the facts.
  • Plan an investigation and adapt to changing circumstances.
  • Listen and communicate effectively.
  • Analyse and evaluate evidence.
  • Keep accurate records and case notes.
  • Write clear and concise reports and statements.
  • Assess risk and maintain their health and safety and that of others.
  • Keep up to date with all relevant legislation, and work within the law.
  • Be patient, persistent, observant and curious.
  • Remain discreet at all times.
  • Handle physically and mentally demanding situations.
  • Deal with aggressive or upset individuals when necessary.
  • Have the stamina to stay alert for long periods.
  • Operate a range of technological equipment, including computers.
  • Work well alone and within teams of other investigators.
  • Work well with figures.

Your Long Term Prospects

Larger agencies may offer promotion to team leader, manager or senior investigator posts.

Many private investigators become self-employed. There may be opportunities to work abroad.

Get Further Information

The Association of British Investigators,
27 Old Gloucester Street, London WC1N 3XX
Tel: 0871 474 0006

Institute of Professional Investigators,
Bank House, 81 St Judes Road,
Englefield Green, Egham TW20 0DF
Tel: 0870 330 8622

Security Industry Authority (SIA),
PO Box 74957, London E14 1UG
Tel: 0844 892 1025

Skills for Security, Anbrian House (First Floor),
1 The Tything, Worcester WR1 1HD
Tel: 01905 744000

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