Basic Investigative Techniques

Investigations come in many forms and styles. The type we commonly think of involves a slick private detective performing stakeouts to close in on a suspect. But this vast field of work also captures other specialties, from fraud auditing to security policing. And despite their differences, investigators typically follow similar, basic investigative techniques to do their jobs, whether it's confirming a spouse's infidelity or locating suspected corporate fraud.

Gathering Facts and Data

The start of any good investigation involves understanding what information you need to solve your case. This involves not only asking the right questions but also knowing where to find the answers. Effective backgrounding efforts often involve public-record searches and reviews. With the digitization of public data, this type of information has become more accessible than ever. Publicly available records can unearth a treasure trove of information including bankruptcies, foreclosures, divorces and past criminal and civil troubles, among other things.

Part of the fact-gathering process could also involve interviewing those in-the-know. This may include confidential sources, informants and whistleblowers. Knowing who to speak with and what to ask could be the key to getting the information you need.

Performing Surveillance Work

This is the aspect of PI work that we usually see on TV. Using electronic and physical surveillance can help you to understand what is truly happening in a case. The idea is to locate people by monitoring the places they frequent, to locate stolen or hidden property, to obtain evidence for use in court or to prevent the commission of a crime. Surveillance is a labor-intensive technique, since you're trying to keep a constant eye on a person.

While surveillance can be an effective investigative method, it does come with risks and caveats. Trespassing onto private property is generally illegal. This is why most PIs usually conduct this type of work from public property, most notably from a vehicle parked on a public street. The act of phone tapping an unknowing third party is also often illegal.

Locating the Target for Surveillance

Before a PI can even begin surveillance, she needs to understand some basic locator techniques. How can you watch someone if you don't know where they live? Locator investigation requires an investigator to find and analyze background information about a person as well as his associates, such as family, friends and work colleagues. These individuals could hold invaluable information about the person you're searching for. The investigator generally will use the internet and public database sources in an attempt to uncover location information. He cannot generally access bank records or tax records without lawful authority.

Obtaining Proper Education and Training

Effective investigators aren't created overnight; becoming a private investigator isn't as easy as renting an office and advertising your services. Before setting up shop, you'll likely need proper licensing and training. Many investigators come from a legal or law enforcement background, where they've already learned key investigative techniques and how they're best deployed. Others will likely pick up all or most of their knowledge through courses requested by the state for licensing reasons.

Most states regulate this industry. California, for instance, requires private investigators to pass an exam covering a host of topics. These include "laws and regulations, terminology, civil and criminal liability, evidence handling, undercover investigations and surveillance." Before practicing as an investigator, it's best to check the rules and regulations in the state in which you're planning to work, as well as the types of education and experience necessary to be hired as a private investigator in your area.


  • The purpose of investigation is to observe persons and uncover facts that may be important to a legal case. To do this, an investigator will use research, location and surveillance techniques.

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