21 May How Do I Become a Private Investigator
So you want to be a private investigator?
I get on average two or three calls a week from people interested in becoming a private investigator.
When I get these calls, I have mixed feelings.
I certainly don’t want to discourage someone who has done a little homework about the profession and genuinely feels they might have the capabilities of becoming a good private investigator. When I get a call from someone like this, I’m quite happy to chat to them about investigation work and give them some insights.
On the other hand, I also wonder whether the caller has just watched a Magnum PI re-run on TV or read a spy thriller. Then, on impulse they decide to call a PI to find out more because it all looks and sounds really exciting. Usually, for this type of caller, it’s turns out to be just a waste of my time.
The excitement factor
Is PI work exciting? My usual answer is, no.
There can be occasions when you will get a rush of adrenaline, such as when conducting a surveillance assignment, or get a great deal of satisfaction in finally being able to uncover some critical evidence in a very complex matter, but generally investigation work is tedious and boring.
Surely following someone around on surveillance isn’t boring? Okay, following someone around isn’t boring, in fact, it can be quite exciting. But, surveillance work is not all about the surveillance subject being active.
Surveillance work is generally 90% inactivity and 10% activity. So, for every ten hours of surveillance, you will spend 9 hours doing nothing but watching and waiting for some sort of activity.
Are you really ready for that kind of boredom?
Only one person in 10 will make it past the first 12 months as a surveillance investigator
Based on 25 years experience, I’ve found that, of ten people who have gone to the trouble and expense of taking a course on surveillance, only one person will still be working as a surveillance investigator after 12 months. So to become a private investigator successfully you’ll need to be good!
Why is that? For one thing, surveillance work can be extremely demanding physically. For example, spending 10 hours in a car in one spot in the middle of summer isn’t the average person’s idea of fun.
Then there is a very large skill-set that needs to be learned and perfected. Despite only one in ten people actually staying in this industry, there seems to be no shortage of people who still want to become surveillance investigators and the competition is usually fierce.
Most surveillance investigators work on a sub-contract basis, which usually means the better you are, the more work you will get and the more money you earn.
The skills required to become a good surveillance investigator
Your driving skills need to be top notch. This doesn’t just mean being prepared to drive fast, far from it. You need to be able to “read” the traffic around you and the surveillance subject, ideally place at least one vehicle between you and the subject whenever possible, yet still be able to stay with the subject if he decides to go through a yellow traffic light and the driver between you and the subject wants to stop.
There is a real art in being able to follow someone undetected, particularly over long distances. Training and practice will go a long way to getting there, but I believe there is also some innate skill involved and some people just never acquire that skill. Losing a surveillance subject will cost you money and work. Lose then too often and you will need to look for another line of work.
Being able to take good, clear and steady video that targets the subject matter appropriately is another critical skill. Again, it can be learned but the really good investigators I’ve seen seem to have a knack for getting good video.
Video isn’t just taken from behind tinted windows whilst sitting in a car. If your surveillance subject is out and about say, attending a shopping centre, you also need to be able to take good covert video and remain totally undetected.
You will be rated on the amount of video you are able to take.
PC and writing skills
Every investigator I know hates paperwork. But, it is an essential part of this profession.
If you don’t know how to use MS Word and Excel, you will need to learn first. Being able to receive instructions and send your reports via email is also essential.
If you can’t string a grammatically correct sentence together (with correct spelling), you will also need to learn this skill or you’ll never become a private investigator. Many investigation agencies include the surveillance operative’s field notes with their covering reports when they report to their client.
You will be judged on the quality of your surveillance notes.
Droughts and floods
Working as a sub-contractor usually means there will be times when you just can’t handle all the work you are offered. There will also be times when you simply aren’t getting all the work you would like. This does tend to be a cyclic industry and you will need to be able to cope with that, both emotionally and financially.
The more available you make yourself, the more work you will get. This means sometime starting very early and finishing very late. Being prepared to work nights, weekends and public holidays is essential.
Your domestic life will definitely suffer.
Operating a business
As a sub-contractor, you will also need to learn how to run a small business. This means making sure all your licensing and insurance cover is up to date, you are fully tax compliant, have an ABN (registering the GST is up to you) and have at least some basic bookkeeping skills – unless you want to pay a professional to do that for you.
Background and training
A lot of private investigators come from a police background, but this is by no means a requirement. Yes, it is an advantage to some degree, but a lot of the methods and practices used by police will need to be re-learned to accommodate a commercial environment. Government services are run very differently to private enterprise.
A lot of investigation work is done on behalf of the legal profession and the insurance industry, so a background in law or insurance would also be an advantage. But, again, it isn’t a requirement. Some of the best surveillance investigators I know don’t have a police, legal or insurance background.
Undertaking an approved training course is now a prerequisite to becoming licensed as a private investigator in Australia. However, whilst many training organisation do a fair job of teaching skills associated with doing certain tasks within this industry, they usually don’t teach the skills associated with being successful in this industry.
There is a vast array of information you will need to learn to be successful in this profession and it is the sum of this information that will define your level of professionalism. No training organisation will teach you this. You must learn it through experience, experimentation and self-study.
Specialising in one field
Whilst surveillance work is usually part and parcel of most investigation agency workloads, there are numerous other areas of specialisation an investigator might branch out into.
Insurance related work can encompass a myriad of different areas and specialties. Some investigators specialise exclusively on conducting only accident investigations. This might involve attending the location of an accident (usually well after it has happened) taking photographs, measurements (and later preparing a scale plan of the area), as well as interviewing witnesses, taking formal statements, obtaining relevant documentation and preparing a final report.
Other investigators take on a more general role as a “Factual Investigator”. This might mean they don’t limit themselves to just one type of insurance matter, but take on a number of different types of claim types, such as liability claims, workplace accident investigations, general insurance claims (burglaries, stolen motor vehicles, etc.) or income protection claims. Then there are fire claims, marine accidents, product liabilities matters… the list goes on and on.
Good analytical, interviewing and report writing skills are all critical. This is definitely an area of work where a legal or police background will be of great assistance.
Factual investigators might also take on criminal defence work – again a legal or police background is almost essential.
Starting your own agency
My advice is, if you don’t already have a minimum of three years of investigation experience in at least one particular field, do not put yourself out there and market that service/s to the public. Personally, I believe this should be a legislated requirement. But, in Queensland at least, it isn’t. IN NSW it is to some extent.
Starting your own private investigation agency sounds great doesn’t it? Do a few courses, get licensed, set up a web site, get some business cards printed and go make some money. Great in theory, but I have a huge problem with inexperienced people doing that. You are not only doing yourself a huge personal disservice, but you are also inflicting your inexperience onto the general public. It certainly won’t enhance the public’s perception of this industry.
Unless you’ve worked very closely with an experienced agency owner during those initial three years (and also learned all you can about the various facets of running an agency), you will definitely flounder. You might not fail in the long run, but you will hit a lot of hurdles. I did, but things were a lot different 25 years ago. It’s even harder these days.
At the very least, you will need a mentor prepared to be on call and provide advice on an as needed basis.
Being a good investigator doesn’t mean you can run a successful investigation agency. Running a successful business requires a completely different skill-set. Do you still think you can become a private investigator?