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Private investigators search for information about legal, personal and financial matters. They investigate individuals, businesses, incidents, accidents and crimes, including cybercrime. The life of a private investigator (PI) looks exciting in television and movies. Find out what it really takes to become a PI in real life. Licensing requirements vary somewhat from state to state.
Private investigators offer a variety of services, including the following:
- Interview witnesses
- Serve subpoenas
- Inspect, photograph or film people, places or things
- Investigate insurance fraud, particularly for workers’ compensation claims and life and health insurance programs
- Verify the activities of people in the divorce process, particularly as they may affect alimony and custody determinations
- Confirm the malicious intents of a stalker to increase credibility of stalking claims
- Investigate employee theft and drug abuse at work
- Engage in investigations relative to protecting the trade secrets, patents, copyrights and financial stability of a company or prospective business partner
Most private investigators (PIs) will tell you that the work is not nearly as glamorous as people think. Investigators do work on interesting and high-profile cases, but for the most part, there is considerable drudgery inherent in the job. Thomas G. Martin, a California-based PI who’s spent nearly 50 years on the job, tells prospective PIs that they’ll spend hours doing research on the computer, conducting interviews and performing surveillance.
Law Enforcement vs. Private Investigation
On screen and in novels, the portrayal of private investigators (PIs) can lead you to believe that real-life PIs can do everything police officers can do without the restrictions. In fact, because PIs are not cops, they are subject to different rules and regulations. Here’s a list of things a private investigator cannot do:
- Wiretap a phone without consent: Wiretapping without consent from either party is illegal in all 50 states. In 12 states, including Illinois, both parties must provide consent. In the other 38 states, consent is only needed from one party. A PI who violates a state’s consent law can be arrested.
- Record a private conversation: As with wiretapping, a PI must obtain consent from at least one party to legally record a private conversation. If the conversation takes place in a public space and is loud enough to be overheard or recorded, then it’s permissible to do so.
- Trespass on private property: Anyone, including PIs and members of law enforcement, must have an owner’s permission before entering private property. Law enforcement officials need to have a warrant. An individual cannot hire a PI to break into someone’s home, auto or place of business to gather evidence. It’s also illegal for a PI to open and read someone’s mail.
- Gather private information: Although it’s the business of PIs to gather information, they must do so through legal channels. They cannot hack into government, hospital or bank servers to gain information. PIs can inquire whether someone has a criminal record but cannot access such a record. They cannot legally access phone records, credit card records or court documents.
- Make arrests: In most states, a private investigator can make a citizen’s arrest if witnessing a federal crime. PIs who uncover crime as a result of an investigation can alert both clients and police, but they cannot make an arrest by themselves. There are a few exceptions, depending on the specifics of the case, as well as on state and local laws.
Most states have licensing requirements for private investigators (PIs), including Illinois. To be eligible for licensure, you need a minimum of a high school diploma. College coursework, an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree can enhance professional practice and employment opportunities. Recommended courses of study include law enforcement, criminal justice, police science and psychology.
Success as a private investigator usually requires certain personality traits and soft skills, in addition to what is instructed in training programs. It takes more than hunches and gut instinct to conduct investigations. The following is a list of attributes and abilities that private investigators should possess:
- Analytical and problem-solving skills
- Determination and perseverance
- Empathy and compassion
- Honesty and dependability
- Outstanding interpersonal skills
Illinois Private Detective Act
The activities of a private detective in Illinois are governed by 225 ILCS 447, also known as the Private Detective, Private Alarm, Private Security, Fingerprint Vendor, and Locksmith Act of 2004. The Act governs licensing, business practice, disciplinary and administrative provisions for the professions named in the Act.
Illinois Private Investigator Badge
In Illinois, PI licensure is granted by exam. To be eligible to take the exam, you must have either the required level of experience or a combination of education and experience.
By experience: You must submit proof that you have worked full-time for three of the past five years as a private detective or as a full-time investigator with a federal, state, local or city department of law enforcement. Full-time experience with the state attorney’s or public defender’s office is also acceptable, as is service with the military police. If you claim military service, you must provide a copy of form DD 214. A DD 214 is the Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty, which is issued by the Department of Defense.
It’s almost impossible to get hired for a trainee or internship position even if you’re willing to work for free. You need documented experience as outlined here. Despite the demand for investigative services, competition for jobs and clients is strong.
By education and experience: You can substitute education for some of the required years of experience. An associate’s degree in criminal justice, law enforcement or a related field is the equivalent to one year of experience. A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, law enforcement or related field can be substituted for two years of experience in the qualifying process.
Other minimum requirements to be a private investigator in Illinois include that candidates must:
- Be at least 21 years old
- Have no felony convictions or at least 10 years since the completion of a felony sentence
- Cannot be a registered sex offender
- Must be of good moral character
- Be free of alcohol and narcotics addiction
- Be physically and psychologically fit for the duties of a private investigator
Private Investigator Training in Illinois
To be a private investigator in Illinois, you must complete 20 hours of specialized training before or within 30 days of hire. Training must cover the following:
- Illinois laws and statutes
- Arrest and control techniques
- Public relations and civil rights
- Identification of terrorists and terrorist organizations
- Use of lethal and non-lethal force
Within six months of employment, you must complete an additional eight hours of training in a relevant subject.
If you are legally allowed to carry a firearm and want to do so while on the job, you must also complete a 40-hour firearm training course. The course is divided between classroom instruction and range instruction. In the classroom, you’ll learn about law and the use of force; law, private police and law enforcement reporting; and fire prevention. On the range, you’ll receive instruction and practice in combat shooting, double-action shooting and positioning.
You can apply for a waiver in firearm training if you can submit proof of equivalent training. You must have had training by the Illinois State Police or by an Illinois law enforcement-approved instructor. If applicable, you can submit proof that you are currently employed as an Illinois law enforcement officer or retired from such a position. Out-of-state candidates must provide a comprehensive description of the program prepared by the facility where training was completed.
Submitting an Application for Licensure in Illinois
In Illinois, the private investigator’s license is issued by the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. The completed application must include the $291 application fee and proof of the following:
- Criminal background check
- $1 million liability insurance policy
- Firearm training (if you choose to carry a firearm on the job)
You’ll also need to submit fingerprints and authorization for a background check. You can get fingerprinted at a police or sheriff station or by an approved vendor. Fingerprinting in Illinois is done by LiveScan, an inkless technology that allows fingerprints to be saved and transmitted in digitized format.
Work Environment of a Private Investigator
The work environment of a private investigator (PI) varies depending upon the case an investigator is working on. Some spend much of their time in an office, using the internet to research. Others spend more of their time in the field, where they may be conducting interviews or performing surveillance. They may have to work irregular hours.
A licensed PI has the following employment options:
- Work for another PI
- Establish a business as a sole proprietor
- Go into a PI partnership
- Form a PI corporation
- Form a limited liability company (LLC)
- Work for a business that employs investigators, such as the legal or insurance industry
Finding a Job
Learn about private investigator jobs in Illinois or around the country through employment websites such as Indeed, Monster, CareerBuilder or JobHero. Use your investigative skills to research a company before applying or sharing any of your personal information. Though these websites work to screen out employment scams, it’s best to use your own research and good judgment.
Salary and Job Outlook
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tracks data and makes projections for civilian occupations. The BLS reported that the median pay for private investigators in 2018 was $50,090 a year or $24.08 per hour. Median pay means that half in the profession earned more, while half earned less.
Pay varies depending upon a number of factors, including geographic location, employment status and types of cases worked. Established private investigators can earn six figures if they’re willing to work hard and can market themselves to the right clients.
The job outlook for private detectives and investigators should stay strong. The BLS estimates job growth rate at 11 percent through 2026, a rate faster than average when compared to all other types of jobs. The demand will be due to heightened concerns about security and protecting confidential information.
The states currently employing the highest number of licensed PIs are California, Pennsylvania, Florida, New York and Texas. Although Illinois is not included in the top five, it’s among the handful of states in which average earnings are highest, typically in the range of $57,420 to $72,190 per year as of 2018. Not surprisingly, private investigators tend usually are concentrated in large metropolitan areas.
Technologically advanced private investigation firms are likely to experience the greatest growth and income potential. The increased number and sophistication of computer-related crimes will make specialists in this area in high demand. Currently, the majority of private investigators are men, meaning that there should be abundant opportunities for women who want to join the field.
- PrivateInvestigatorEdu: Become a Private Detective through Training and Certification in Illinois
- US Bureau of Labor Statistics: Private Investigators and Detectives
- Illinois General Assembly: 225 ILCS
- Hover View Investigations: Things Private Investigators Can't Do
- Law Crossing: What the Job of a Private Investigator is Really Like
- EBS Security: 10 Traits Every Private Investigator Needs
- Martin Investigative Services: Want to Be a PI? Here's the Pros and Cons of the Job
- Many candidates who fail the licensure exam on the first try go on to pass it after subsequent testing. Therefore, candidates are encouraged to retest if they don't pass the first time around.
- Candidates with physical disabilities may complete a form available at the IDPR's website that will allow for reasonable accommodations while taking the test. These accommodations include extra testing time, extra breaks and a helper to read or record the test questions and answers.
- If a private investigator's licensure exam date is missed, there are no refunds or "makeup" exams.
Denise Dayton is a a freelance writer who specializes in business, education and technology. She has written for eHow.com, Library Journal, The Searcher, Bureau of Education and Research, and corporate clients.