What is a Private Detective Agency?

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  • Written By: Cassie L. Damewood
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 03 February 2020
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A private detective agency is a group of individuals who conduct investigations for a fee. The agency may be hired as a group, or individuals within the group may be hired independently. Individuals who work in this industry are often called private investigators, PIs, or private eyes.

Private detectives investigate for a diverse client base and delve into private and public records and backgrounds to gain pertinent information. Common clients include attorneys involved in civil lawsuits, insurance companies, and private citizens who seek to gain evidence for alimony, child custody, divorce, and marital property disputes. Before no-fault divorces became the norm, many private detective agency cases involved finding evidence of adultery or other questionable or illegal activities to establish a solid foundation for filing divorce papers.

Local laws govern and limit the scope of private detective agencies. Some areas require detectives to be licensed, and some jurisdictions regulate their rights to carry firearms. Private investigators must be aware of varying laws if their search for evidence takes them through different cities, states, counties, or countries. Failure to comply with applicable laws can result in fines and serious criminal charges.


Private detective agencies are often staffed by people with backgrounds that afford them the expertise to excel in investigative procedures. Former police officers, federal agents, spies, and military personnel are commonly found in the investigation sector. Retired bodyguards and security guards are also common as detective agency investigators. Regardless of their background, most private investigators have no authority to arrest suspects or take them into custody.

Investigators are regularly called upon to testify in court and provide input at deposition hearings. This requires taking detailed notes regarding physical surroundings and the behavior and activities of the people involved in each case. The professional and reliable testimony of private detective agency investigators is important to their long-term success.

In addition to the sleuthing normally associated with private detective agency activities, more mundane tasks are also involved. Many detectives act as process servers and deliver subpoenas, summons, and other binding legal documents to involved parties. They also commonly track down people with delinquent debts.

As technological advances encroach on privacy and corporate communications are targeted for eavesdropping, some private detective agencies specialize in high-tech electronic surveillance detection. These agencies sweep offices and buildings for bugging devices suspected by their clients. Other detective agencies deal exclusively with corporate investigations and concentrate on guarding against copyright infringement and piracy as well as protecting trade secrets and intellectual property. These agencies often choose to be referred to as corporate investigators to distinguish them from private detectives.



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