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How Does A REAL Private Investigator Conduct an Investigation?

In the fictional world of television or novels, clients (usually beautiful blondes) seek out a private investigator (trench coat and fedora included) to help them find something that doesn’t fall within the bounds of the police’s jurisdiction. They may have already tried working with the police or may be afraid of them, so they turn to private investigators because of the specialized skills they have.

In reality, your client may not be a beautiful blonde and you may have hung up your fedora a long time ago, but the reasons that clients hire investigators is about the same in fiction as it is in fact. Although operating on the periphery of law enforcement, an investigator is not in the business of enforcing laws. It is a subtle difference, but a critical one that you should understand.


An investigator may be working on missing people searches, background investigations, skip traces and surveillance. They may also serve legal documents like summons and subpoenas. Depending on the expertise and skill set of the investigator their duties can cover a lot of different subjects or be focused on one. All investigators do one thing in common: every private investigator’s job is to collect and organize facts.

Although it would make a lousy TV show, most investigators plan their activities to gather the most information in the best way. Then they analyze the data collected and present it to the client. This is pretty dull stuff. Here are the steps the investigator will take to determine what he needs to do for your case.

  • First, he will discuss the case with you to decide whether or not he can legally and ethically solve your problem.
  • Next, he will plan out how he is going to gather the information your case needs and budget the job appropriately.
  • Once you both agree on the budget, he will conduct the investigation. He will gather evidence to present to you, and if he is good, he should keep in mind that the evidence should be gathered so that it can be presented in court if and when necessary. There are lots of rules about how this evidence can be collected and preserved. Get this wrong, and it is thrown out of court.
  • Once he gathers all the information, he must analyze the results to see if he has what is needed. In law enforcement, we called this the elements of proof. Elements of proof are those things you need to prove a crime in a court of law.
  • Once his analysis is done, he will present his findings to you.

There are multiple ways that a PI can gather information during your case with surveillance of the target being the one generally associated with private investigators. During surveillance the investigator follows the target and documents where he goes, what he does and who he meets. This can be a long and tedious process that requires the investigator to go many hours without a break. You probably never considered this, but if I am on a stakeout I cannot leave because I might miss the target, so how do I go to the bathroom. Well, we won’t discuss that. I will just leave you with that thought.

Interviews are also another good source of information. As we are not cops, people are under no legal obligation to speak with a PI. The way we get around this is to use a ruse or build rapport with the target to get them to open up and talk about the subject. Public record searches are also used by private investigators to gather information.

Once the information has been gathered, the PI analyzes the results and creates a report that he presents to you either confirming your suspicions or ruling the subject out as a viable lead or perpetrator.

Obviously, this is a simplified version of an intricate process, but I wanted to give you the major points of what a private investigator does in case you need to hire one, or you are thinking of becoming one based on something you saw on TV or read in a book. Reality is nothing like the fiction you see. As I said, PIs are not law enforcement agents, but they have a similar skill set that they use in a completely different way. Although not as glamorous as Hollywood makes them out to be, a private investigator is a necessary and committed professional who can be very good at his job and can be invaluable to you.

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7 thoughts on “How Does A REAL Private Investigator Conduct an Investigation?”

  1. Pretty much sums up what we do. I, myself prefer to use a GPS tracker on all my jobs. You need ever advantage you can get working by yourself. Also, I noticed the a smart phone can be your best weapon.

  2. Well done. Rather white bready, but well done. But, what would I know, having been a PI for the past 54 years? You’ve hit “the tip of the iceberg”. There is much more to it and it takes a very particular skill set and adaptability. In short, there are many people who hunt, but, there are very few real hunters – of animals or men!

  3. Wouldn’t want a tough job like that…like u said working on the periphery of law enforcement….your not one of them….cops I really don’t trust em….so really your in no man’s land…..all by yourself…..its a tough really tough job is imagine….good luck if your in that field….i admire the risk and hard work they do………Mark Wasek

  4. Very accurate article. The work is nothing like the T.V. shows. A very competitive field.
    I have been a private investigator for years and still don’t make the money I should.