A private investigator or private detective (often shortened to PI or private eye) is a person who can be hired by individuals or groups to undertake investigations.  Private investigators often work for attorneys in civil cases.  Many work for insurance companies to investigate suspicious claims.  Before the advent of no-fault divorce, many private investigators were hired to search out evidence of adultery or other illegal conduct within marriage to establish grounds for a divorce.  Despite the lack of legal necessity for such evidence in many jurisdictions, according to press reports collecting evidence of adultery or other “bad behavior” by spouses and partners is still one of the most profitable activities investigators undertake, as the stakes being fought over now are child custody, alimony, or marital property disputes. 

Most of them do not arrest criminals or put them in custody.  They are expected to keep detailed notes and to be prepared to testify in court regarding any of their observations on behalf of their clients.  Great care is required to remain within the scope of the law, otherwise the investigator may face criminal charges.  Irregular hours may also be required when performing surveillance work. 

PIs also engage in a large variety of work that is not usually associated with the industry in the mind of the public.  For example, many PIs are involved in process serving, the personal delivery of summons, subpoenas and other legal documents to parties in a legal case.  The tracing of absconding debtors can also form a large part of a PI’s work load.  Many agencies specialize in a particular field of expertise.  For example, some PI agencies deal only in tracing.  Others may specialize in technical surveillance countermeasures (TSCM), or Electronic Counter Measures (ECM), which is the locating and dealing with unwanted forms of electronic surveillance (for example, a bugged boardroom for industrial espionage purposes).  Other PIs, also known as Corporate Investigators, specialize in corporate matters, including anti-fraud work, the protection of intellectual property and trade secrets, anti-piracy, copyright infringement investigations, due diligence investigations and computer forensics work.

Feel free to visit us at http://www.police-institute.com in the interim.

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It is difficult to know exactly when the first Private Investigator appeared.  If we think of Investigators as an arm of the police, then, we have to look back at least as far as the early Egyptian and Sumerians.

It is first mentioned in the Old Testament where the Lord instructs Moses … “Send thou men that they may spy out the land of Canaan”.  The Twelve Spies were a group of Israelite chieftains, one from each of the Twelve Tribes, who were dispatched by Moses to scout out the Land of Israel for 40 days during the time the Jews were in the desert. (Numbers 13:1-16)

Spies have been around for several thousand of years, and therefore, it can be argued that they’ve been the “forerunners” of today’s Investigators.

In 1833 Eugène François Vidocq, a French soldier, criminal and privateer, founded the first known private detective agency, Le bureau des renseignments (Office of Intelligence) and, again, hired ex-cons. Official law enforcement tried many times to shut it down. In 1842 police arrested him in suspicion of unlawful imprisonment and taking money on false pretenses after he had solved an embezzling case. Vidocq later suspected that it had been a set-up. He was sentenced for five years with a 3,000-franc fine but the Court of Appeals released him. Vidocq is credited with having introduced record-keeping, criminology and ballistics to criminal investigation. He made the first plaster casts of shoe impressions. He created indelible ink and unalterable bond paper with his printing company. His form of anthropometrics is still partially used by French police. He is also credited for philanthropic pursuits – he claimed he never informed on anyone who had stolen for real need.

After Vidocq, the industry was born. Much of what private investigators in the early days were to act as the police in matters that their clients felt the police were not equipped for or willing to do. A larger role for this new private investigative industry to was to act as sudo law men, particularly when dealing with labor and employee issues. The wealthy found that the need to help control large numbers of workers who had developed new ideas as a result of the French Revolution and the freedom of men did not sit well with the wealth resource owners. Some early private investigators were nothing short of mercenaries and or professional military companies helping private entities with problems that could be solved with force or the show of force, usually in foreign countries.

In the US, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was a security guard and detective agency, established in 1850 by Allan Pinkerton. Pinkerton had become famous when he foiled a plot to assassinate then President-Elect Abraham Lincoln. Pinkerton’s agents performed services which ranged from the equivalent of both a private military contractor to that of security guards. During the height of its existence, the Pinkerton Detective Agency had more agents than the standing army of the United States of America, causing the state of Ohio to outlaw the agency, due to the possibility of its being hired out as a “private army” or militia.

During the labor unrest of the late 19th century, businessmen hired Pinkerton guards to keep strikers and suspected unionists out of their factories. The most notorious example of this was the Homestead Strike of 1892, where Pinkerton agents ended up killing several people by enforcing the strikebreaking measures of Henry Clay Frick, (acting on behalf of Andrew Carnegie, who was abroad). The agency’s logo, an eye embellished with the words “We Never Sleep” inspired the term “private eye.

Pinkerton agents were hired to track western outlaws Jesse James, the Reno brothers, and the Wild Bunch including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Unblinking eyes or not, the people in this profession have been called a lot of less complimentary things through the years so that the name “Pinkerton” seems to add inadvertently creative.

It was not until the prosperity of the 1920s that the private investigator became a person accessible to the average American. With the wealth of the 20s and the expanding of the middle class came the need for Middle America.

Since then the private detective industry has grown with the changing needs of the public. Social issues like infidelity and unionization have impacted the industry and created new types of work, as has the need for insurance and with it insurance fraud, criminal defense investigations, the invention of low cost listening devices and more.

The early Investigators were part time “keepers of the peace”, at least in the USA.  Many companies employed talented individuals to locate and bring criminals to justice.  In this cause they often took on work that could not be handled by the established police force.



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Though glamorized by television, a career as a private investigator is often a stressful, somewhat dangerous and irregular one.  Private detectives are freelance professional investigators hired by individuals to assist in legal proceedings and other private matters.  Quite often, a private investigator or private detective provides surveillance, run background checks, trace missing persons, investigative research and interviewing services to the general public, attorneys or businesses.

Bullets flying and speeding cars are typical fare for the life of the Private Investigator in a Hollywood movie.  While Hollywood movies often glamorize private detective work, most investigators work in relative obscurity. Unfortunately, many people think that this career of high adventure is the same in real life.  It’s not.

You’ve seen them on television and read about them in books. Whether it’s Sam Spade or Magnum P.I., they seem to go from adventure to adventure. They often get the girl, laugh through harrowing car chases, and seem calm when pinned down by gun fire.

I’ve got good news and bad news for you. It’s nothing like that. That’s good news if you have no desire to speed through the hilly streets of San Francisco in your minivan while villains shoot at you from the back of their speeding car.

That’s bad news if you do have the desire to speed through the hilly streets of San Francisco in your minivan while villains shoot at you from the back of their speeding car!

Remember the popular movie series about Indiana Jones? Many people clamored to get into archeology after those movies only to be sadly informed that they’ll spend more time in libraries and dusting bones with a dry paint brush than making exciting escapes with a beautiful girl on one arm and a revolver in the other.

It’s the same way with Private Investigation. While Magnum P.I. (and many other investigation stories) tops the charts on TV or in bestseller book lists, they don’t do a lot to tell you what Private Investigation is all about.

This isn’t to say that private detectives don’t face a certain amount of risk in their workday. Private investigators are not sworn law officers, so they only have the same powers of arrest as any other citizen.  Private detectives may have to interrogate hostile witnesses or ask inflammatory questions on behalf of their clients.  Getting people to admit self-incriminating behavior requires a certain combination of psychological manipulation and self-confidence, which successful private detectives often have in abundance.


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