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What Is a Private Investigator?

A private investigator or private detective is a professional individual who can be hired to investigate the activities or behaviours of any person, group or entity. Private investigators regularly work for lawyers in civil cases, and the most skilled private investigators work with defence attorneys in criminal defence cases. Many work for insurance companies to investigate suspicious claims and potential fraud.

Before no-fault divorce was legalised, many private investigators were hired to provide proof of infidelities within marriage to establish grounds for divorce. Even today, private investigators are regularly called upon to provide evidence regarding disputes about infidelity, child custody, alimony, or divorce disputes.

A prospective business investor can protect themselves from fraud by using private investigation services to uncover red flags or bad history related to a potential investment venture. This is called investigative due diligence and is increasingly highly sought.

Private investigators come from diverse backgrounds, but many are ex-police officers, former law enforcement agents, ex-spies, ex-military, and former bodyguards and security guards. While this is no guarantee of their professionalism or expertise, it is important to make sure your private investigator has a strong industry background.

Though some jurisdictions do not require licensing for private investigators, it is best to choose private detectives who are licensed by the state they operate within.

Private investigators typically do not have police powers, which means they have the same powers of citizen’s arrest and detainment as all other citizens; they are also bound by the same firearm laws as regular people. Private detectives keep detailed reports of their activities and are prepared to testify in court on behalf of their clients.

Private investigators undertake many actions that people might not associate with the idea of a PI. For example, private investigators may deliver summons and subpoenas in legal cases, or they may track fleeing debtors.

Different agencies might have specialisations, such as tracing, surveillance, or electronic security. One branch is called electronic counter measures, which is the process of discovering unwanted surveillance (such as bugs placed in private offices). Others specialise in corporate investigation, focusing on discovering fraud, protecting intellectual property, investigating copyright infringements, and undertaking computer security and forensics work.


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