The term private investigator brings to mind images of excitement, danger and intrigue. You might think it only applies to people luckier than you. However, if it’s a career you’re interested in, it’s not unattainable and you'll probably have ample work. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the private investigation industry will increase by 22 percent between 2008 and 2018.
Sign up for a training program, unless you already have applicable experience. Some private investigators have served their municipalities as police officers. If you don’t have experience in a related field, enroll at your community college or local university to round off your education in your new desired field. With a few more credits, you might earn an associate’s or bachelor's degree in criminal science. Several national training programs are available on the Internet as well.
Determine the licensing requirements in your state and apply for one. Depending on where you live, these might be stringent or non-existent. Alabama, Wyoming, Alaska, South Dakota, Colorado, Mississippi and Idaho do not require licenses for private investigators, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Other states require an extensive investigative background and taking a written exam. In states that require licensing, you can’t qualify if you have a criminal record.
Gain experience and add to your credentials. Send your resume out to investigative firms to learn the ropes and inside tricks of your new trade. After you’ve worked for a firm for a while, use the experience toward certification by a reputable organization, such as ASIS International. ASIS requires five years’ experience and passing an exam.
Choose a specialty. Although you can earn a living taking jobs at random and across the board, you might develop an enviable reputation by focusing in on one area of expertise and achieving notable success at it. Some investigators specialize in financial matters, computer and internet issues, matrimonial cases or criminal defense work. Your chosen area might require a few more courses and additional specialized training.
Take care of business details. After you have your experience, your credentials, and know what kind of work you want to do, it's time to establish your practice. Decide how much you’re going to charge your clients. Start with a reasonable hourly rate for yourself, then incorporate your expenses, such as office overhead, even if you’re going to maintain an office out of your home. If you’re working for yourself, you must also include self-employment taxes and consider health insurance coverage, especially in a field where bodily harm might become an issue. If the hourly rate you come up with is much higher than your competitors, you might have to scale back or have a good explanation for why you're worth more.
Advertise your services. One of the best ways to do this is to advertise on the internet. Set up a web page for your business. If you’ve chosen a specialty and want to work in matrimonial or criminal law, have business cards made and drop them off at attorney’s offices in person. Follow up with a second visit. Be persistent. Take out space in your local phone directory or magazines whose readership might include people who need investigative services.
Hang up your shingle and welcome your first client. As business grows, you can hire additional investigators who want to learn the ropes, just as you once did.
If you’re planning on carrying a firearm, most states have additional and much more strict requirements for this. It involves licensing over and above your investigator’s license. Call your legislature to find out the rules in your state.
2016 Salary Information for Private Detectives and Investigators
Private detectives and investigators earned a median annual salary of $48,190 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, private detectives and investigators earned a 25th percentile salary of $35,710, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $66,300, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 41,400 people were employed in the U.S. as private detectives and investigators.
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