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Private Investigation: A search for the truth

November 3, 2010

Over the past two weeks I’ve gotten emails from several individuals that want to learn more about private investigation:

  • “What makes a good Private Investigator?
  • “What is the job really like?
  • “How much opportunity is there in this field?

After giving it some thought, I’ve decided to see what I can provide in the way of answers.

A good private investigator is someone of an inquisitive nature, someone bound and determined to “get to the bottom of things” or to search out the truth on behalf of their clients.  It’s important that he (or she) seek unique approaches to finding solutions on behalf of their clients.  If finding answers was simple, their services wouldn’t be needed.  Additionally, one needs to keep an open mind and make strong efforts to remain unbiased in this quest for answers. 

 In terms of what the job is like, that’s awful broad in scope to answer.  There are too many variables in the equation.  An arson investigator uses a different skillset then someone focusing on divorce cases.   A lot of my assignments involve process serving, therefore I spend a lot of time tracking down people  (an area known as skip-tracing). 

Prior to opening my own firm, the company I worked for focused exclusively on insurance fraud and workman’s compensation cases.  As one of their field operatives, the vast majority of my time was spent performing surveillance on claimants.  My supervisor would dispatch me to a variety of locations to observe whether or not someone was involved in activities exceeding their supposed medical restrictions.   Some of those assignments were in populated areas, but the vast majority involved quite rural locations and unique challenges.  I learned pretty quick to develop cover stories to help me ‘blend in’ with the locals.  It’s probably a good idea to refrain from discussing them on my publicly accessible blog.

The economic downturn has really hammered smaller private investigation companies.  The pie has become much smaller, and there are more spoons looking to ‘dig in.’  One point of major personal frustration as of late has been the sheer number of ‘outlaw’ private investigators showing up lately.  Non-qualified individuals (generally unlicensed and uninsured) who just show up on the scene, decide to go into the pi business, and begin advertising.  The end result to the client is often disasterous, if opposing counsel cross-examines the investigator on the stand.  Evidence obtained by an unlicensed private investigator will generally be tossed out of court as inadmissible.

 Ironically the commonwealth of Virginia has dramatically reduced the operating budget of DCJS (the department of Criminal Justice Services, responsible for overseeing and enforcement of private investigation companies in this state) right when they are needed the most.  So, the profession is currently suffering as a whole, while a lot of  “here today, gone tomorrow”  illegally operating firms show up and for a time fly under the radar.   A number of us licensed and legitimate firms have begun seeking out and and turning in these scofflaws to DCJS. 

 In short, this is not a good time to become a PI in Virginia.  Even during better economic times it’s somewhat challenging to obtain a position once you take classes, pay related fees, and obtain your individual registration.  Right now, hiring of additional investigators has dropped to a standstill.  Licensing, insuring, and marketing your firm is a whole additional can of worms.  In most cases obtaining a firm license  requires five years of law enforcement or security related experience to even begin the process.   

I realize that company layoffs and downsizing has increased the numbers of desperate job seekers looking towards this career choice. I believe I can say with a clear conscious that in this current economic climate, those individuals are barking up the wrong tree.


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