Become a Private Investigator? Sure, why not.

I never thought I’d become a private investigator, but I am. I am. Do I regret it? No. If anything, I wish that I could have found this path a lot earlier on. This is for anyone that might want to become a private investigator. For many in the industry, the choice to become a private investigator was (or is) the natural, perhaps inevitable, next phase in their career after having served in the police, military or intelligence services. For some, the drive to become a private investigator is something that was formed growing up – probably influenced to some degree by television series like Magnum PI and Remington Steele which portrayed a much romanticized version of what life could be like for a private detective. For those (like myself) who had no prior experience or training in the field of investigations, and no early childhood ambitions of becoming a policeman, soldier, or secret agent, the journey to becoming a private investigator began later in life, and wasn’t something that was necessarily planned.

private detective badge

Before I became a private investigator

In my case, having attending a technical High School where subjects like History and Geography were replaced by Motor Mechanics and Technical Drawing, I had decided to study electronic engineering. My folks were pleased. After graduating I was conscripted to the Army and served in the Signals Corp where I gained valuable practical experience in my chosen field and things seemed to be going according to plan. At the end of my army service I set out to beat a path to my career end goal, but instead it beat me. I battled to find a permanent job – and not for lack of trying – if I wasn’t overqualified then I didn’t have the requisite experience for that specific job. After months of job-hunting an opportunity finally arose that paved the way for me to find my true calling and to become a private investigator.

I landed a job working for a security company that installed alarm systems and although the work was quite laborious, it was easy. There also seemed to be an endless supply of customers, and it paid pretty well. My boss seemed to take a shining to me and before long I was promoted. The company branched out into CCTV installations in the late 80s and by early 90s it was the only work we did. I had installed hundreds of cameras and in some of the most bizarre locations, including a crematorium and a brothel. After a decade with the company they suddenly shut shop and I was out of a job. It wasn’t long before I started doing installations again, but this time I would be working for myself, and i’d focus exclusively on covert video surveillance as an investigative aid, deterrent and security measure for companies. I began rubbing shoulders with established private investigators and investigative consultants and I quickly realized a few things: one, that they earned considerably more money than I did while apparently doing very little in the way of hard labour. Two, that the work I observed the investigators doing was nothing exceptional – certainly nothing that seemed to require any specialized knowledge or training. Three, did I mention the money? I put my feelers out and started to look into the possibility of doing the work of an investigator.

Actually becoming a private investigator

I couldn’t find any accredited courses in the field of private investigations, and in South Africa, there didn’t seem to be any recognition of the profession. No one could tell me how I was supposed to become a private investigator. I called all the detective agencies in the yellow pages and nobody was interested in hiring me. I even offered to work for nothing for a trial period, but there were no takers. To say that I wasn’t discouraged would be lie, but I never gave up the effort completely. The fact is that I now had a beautiful wife and a child on the way and competition in the covert surveillance field was becoming fierce. I needed a more stable income and preferably a larger one. I though to heck with it, I was going to open up my own detective agency, and so Stirling Investigations was born. Since the Internet was only an infant, and Google wasn’t yet a company, I was forced to learn things the old fashioned way – by trial and error – and the learning curve was steep and long.

I discovered that what I had observed of private investigators over the years had not been the complete picture. Things were not as cushy as they were made out to be. Getting work in the first place was incredibly difficult as a newcomer. I was working up to 18 hours a day, sometimes 7 days a week, and although I was making money, it wasn’t anything as close to what I had been expecting. It would be a while before I could afford to pay someone to help with the workload, so I did the next best thing and roped my wife into the business. That turned out to be the best decision i’d made up to that point. With my better half taking care of the administrative and logistical functions, I was freed up to focus on the operational side of things, and business began to boom. That was almost 20 years ago, and things are still going well for my family and I, and although Stirling Investigations was bought out by Intertel in 2001 and no longer trades as Stirling Investigations, we still have the same core team and are still in the business.

Routes to becoming a Private Investigator

For youngsters (high school, college, university students) that want to become a private investigator, there are now a number of ways to go about it that didn’t exist back in the day. The first and most obvious difference between now and back when I was a youngster is that there is now no shortage of courses that cover every conceivable aspect of the investigation industry, and with the Internet being what it is today, one can learn the theory of investigations and related subjects at little or no cost.

The other differences are that the private investigation industry is now regulated and given the status of a recognized profession in many countries. This enables detective agencies to participate in skills development, learnership, mentorship and internship programs that give inexperienced newcomers the opportunity to gain the necessary experience to be employable. Back in the day, hiring someone without experience (even if unpaid) would cost the company in a number of ways and given that most detective agencies are micro to small enterprises, they were never incentivized to do so. Not anymore. There is no best way to go about it, and there’s hardly ever an easy way. But, there are nevertheless many more avenues to pursue than there used to be. One’s choice of route depends on a great many factors that are specific to each person’s situation, circumstances, capabilities, potential etc. The way I see it, these are the most obvious routes:

  1. Study > Internship > Employment > Self-Employment
  2. Internship > Employment > Self-Employment
  3. Study > Employment > Self-Employment
  4. Study > Partnership > Self-Employment
  5. Employment > Self-Employment
  6. Partnership > Self-Employment
  7. Study > Self-Employment

Although the end goal in the above routes is self-employment, it may not necessarily be your end goal. I don’t suppose it is necessary to explain what I mean by employment and self-employment, but something can be said about Study, Internship and Partnership.

Become a private investigator through study

pi certificate

As with most things nowadays we’re pretty much spoiled for choice. Studying private investigations can be done by correspondence, online or by attending a college or a training institution. One only needs to Google “private investigation course” to see just how many courses and programs are readily available. What one should always bear in mind when considering enrolling in a course is that theoretical education alone will usually not imbue you with the skills needed to apply that theoretical knowledge effectively in practice.

What this means is that regardless of your shiny new diploma or letters after your name, you may find that potential employers are still not keen to employ you in the role of an investigator since you’d probably require a great deal of on-the-job training before you could begin adding value and become a productive member of their team. You’d also be at a considerable disadvantage if your plan was to study private investigations for a few weeks or a even a few years and then open up your own detective agency because you’d be without the opportunity to learn those valuable practical lessons from experienced investigators. For this reason, i’d recommend steering clear of any correspondence or online courses that don’t offer a practical aspect, and not to endeavour to jump straight from completing a theoretical study program to opening up your own business.

Become a private investigator through internship

Essentially, the idea of an internship is that you’d offer your time and effort to a detective agency or the investigation department of a company in exchange for skills and experience that you would gain in the process. The obvious drawbacks to internships are that you’ll probably be paid peanuts during your internship (usually a minimum-wage stipend) and depending on the companies approach to interns, you may find yourself being exploited by existing employees to do all the dirty work and in such a way that does not provide you with exposure to a wide range of skills and experience. Unfortunately, in these tough economic times the competition between job hopefuls is high, and landing an internship is becoming more and more difficult as more people apply, and as such, the potential for exploitation is greater.

Intertel run a great internship program that lasts one calendar year (Jan-Dec) and gives those interns who show their mettle a real opportunity for permanent employment. In the first 6 months, interns will work in each of the four primary business areas, investigations, forensics, surveillance and intelligence, spending around 6 weeks on each, shadowing staff and being utilized in minor roles. For the remaining 6 months the intern is able to focus on his or her areas of interest or talent and gain as much practical experience in those fields as possible. Although permanent employment is not guaranteed, over half the interns from 2013 are now employed as full time or contract staff. For more information see Intertel’s Internship Program

Become a private investigator through partnership

This route is not for everyone. It suits the entrepreneurial type – the go-getter who is not afraid to jump right into the thick of things. Basically, what it entails is selling yourself (as a brand, if you like) to existing investigation companies, while at the same time, selling the services of those companies to potential customers. Your role would some something of a middleman, facilitator, affiliate or freelance consultant. As an example of what I mean: you could contact a company that offers surveillance services in the greater Cape Town area, and negotiate a commission or finders fee for any cases you refer to that company or agree on a fixed price that you could mark-up if you were to sell that service directly to the client. You would then spend your time advertising surveillance services, perhaps targeting spouses who suspect infidelity, exactly as you would need to do if you were self-employed. At first, you may find it less taxing to simply refer the client to the surveillance company because it will extricate you from the case and allow you to move onto the next without any further cost and time. You get a commission and everyone is happy.

As you progress you may prefer to sub-contract the work to the surveillance company but continue to deal directly with the client in the hope of creating a long-term relationship. You will be building valuable customer service skills while also learning a great deal about the company you’re dealing with, and what the work they do actually entails. You’ll see how surveillance reports are compiled, will better understand their business model and pricing structure, will develop relationships with key people, and could probably arrange to ride along on the occasional surveillance op. This is obviously just one of an almost unlimited ways in which partnership with existing companies could enable you to gain the skills and contacts you’d need to open your own business or to be immediately employable by an established investigation firm. If this is something you’d be keen to do then perhaps take a look at Intertel’s partnership programs for some ideas or to get involved and kick-start your career:

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