My Interesting Job: Private Investigator

My Interesting Job: Private Investigator

The field of private investigation holds much fascination. Ali Harris, 51, didn’t start training to become a private investigator until her late 40s, but it has been the best decision she’s made. Here, she talks us through what it’s like to become a PI and how she balances the craziness and monotony that come with the territory.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I didn’t know what I wanted to be. My first job was as a nanny and I didn’t really enjoy that. Then I worked with adults with learning disabilities, before I moved on to care for elderly people with dementia. But when my beloved dad died, I just couldn’t work with older people anymore. I had to step back, so that’s when I decided to train to become a private investigator. 

What lead you to private investigation in particular?
I’ve always been interested in psychology and crime. But it was harder than I thought to get into – you need to know quite a lot in order to qualify.

Did you have to go to university to become a PI? 
I went to the Open University and started off studying psychology. After that I got diplomas in forensic science and profiling, intermediate criminology and two separate ones in private investigation.

How long did your courses take to complete?
About a year and a half. I did them while I was working, which wasn’t actually too hard to do, although it was a bit of a culture shock going into studying again.

And besides the official qualifications, what are the personal skills you need to be a PI?
You definitely need to be a patient person. In a way, I think my age does help: by the time you get to my age you’ve seen lots of different aspects of life, so you tend not to judge. I’m also very empathetic, which I think I picked up working with older people. You have to have a good sense of intuition to take jobs that are safe and not going to potentially harm someone. 

What do you think is the most common misconception about your job?
That it’s going to be like a TV show. I don’t run after people! Plus, when you see private investigators on the television, they’ve always got a person in the police they can turn to for help, to get the details. That doesn’t happen. You have to find every bit of detail yourself. You can’t just ring someone up and say, “Could you look into this for me?” That just doesn’t happen. You have to do it all yourself and it can be quite boring. People also think that it’s only going to be about marital affairs. In fact, I also cover missing people. I actually found a missing author once. 

How do you start looking for someone like that?
Facebook. It always starts on Facebook, especially if you’ve got quite a few names, because you can dig things out and see if they have any friends in common, so initially I’ll work through them. Then obviously I have a few more tried and trusted methods, but Facebook first, especially if they’re of a certain age. 

Do you work with the criminal courts too?
I’ve done process serving, which is serving legal papers for divorce. In one case where the solicitor had been trying to find the guy for about six months to serve him these papers, I was able to find him within a week and serve him. Everyone leaves a footprint – a lot of people don’t realise that. 

What kind of people do you usually end up investigating?
These days, it’s people that owe money. I don’t collect the debt – you have to be registered for that and, to be honest, I wouldn’t want to approach someone to get something off them. But I can find their details and their addresses for people to then take it further. I have also had a few marital investigations and missing people.

You started this job later in life. At what point did you feel you’d found your calling?
Probably about six months into it. The first couple of cases are really scary. You think, “Oh my god, I’ve got all this responsibility,” but when you stick with it, it all starts to come to you quite naturally. Six months in was when I thought, “That’s it, I’ve found it.” 

What’s your favourite part of the job?
Helping those people that don’t have a voice, and those who feel quite helpless, to get the results they need to move forward with their lives. 

And the most challenging?
Chasing people for money. I actually don’t give people the complete list of what I’ve found until my bill is settled. I wouldn’t be a very good private investigator, chasing people for money for a living, if people owe me money!

So when you’re looking for people that owe money, are you working with a debt collector?
No. Someone will come to me if they’ve rented a house out and someone’s done a runner, for example, and my job would be to find out where that person is. 

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned on the job?
How devious people can be. I once worked for a woman whose husband had a successful company that she knew nothing about. Just through chance, I found this company that he had started. She had no idea it even existed. 

Has your job made you view people differently?
Trust-wise, yes. People often aren’t who you think they are. It’s certainly made me a bit more suspicious.

Have you ever made a mistake that you’ve learnt from?
Sometimes when you first start investigating, you’ll go back over a case and find something you’ve missed. This has taught me to be more thorough the first time to avoid going around in circles.

What motivates you?
That the job is so different every day. No day is the same. I don’t meet clients that often – I’ve only met two face-to-face, and the others are over email or on the phone. Sometimes it’s people from America or Spain looking for people here in the UK.

What’s a day like for you?
It’s probably quite boring really because a lot of it is going online to do research. I’ve done surveillance, which can be really dull because you’re by yourself, but you daren’t take a book or a magazine because you don’t want to miss who it is you’re trying to find! I might do that for a couple of hours, but I’m mainly online. 

Do you do normal hours?
I have 24-hour availability written on my website. Obviously I do sleep, but I always try and get back to people within 24 hours. I wouldn’t not call anyone back, even if I couldn’t help them. I would still call to let them know and try to help find them someone who might be more suitable. 

How long does it take to crack a case?
I don’t tend to give clients a time frame because I don’t know how long it’s going to take myself. I’ll charge them for four hours initially, then I’ll give them the option to carry on or not. I don’t want to land people with a big bill. It’s not beneficial to them or me, so I keep them informed every step of the way.

So it can take a long time?
Yes, particularly with surveillance. One client wanted to know if her husband was cheating. She wanted me to go and investigate really early in the morning, so I drove past the house. It was in a very rural setting, where it would have been odd for one person to keep driving past again and again. But I could see this ‘other woman’ in the window. I couldn’t wait anymore, so I went to the door with a dog lead and my phone, and told the woman I’d lost my dog. While we were talking, my phone was taking pictures of her. It was purely to cut my waiting time down. Always have a dog lead – you can get out of any situation with a dog lead!

How do you switch off?
I watch crime on TV! 

And finally, if you had one piece of advice for women who wanted to follow in your footsteps, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid. Just go for it – you’ve got nothing to lose.

To find out more about Ali, visit 

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