My Interesting Job: Private Investigator

When it comes to fascinating jobs, being a private investigator is high on the list. But how big is the industry and what does it really involve on a day-to-day basis? Here, Karen Anderson, a senior case manager at Insight Investigations, explains what being a private investigator really entails…
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After changing careers in my early 30s, I turned my attention to investigation work. Thinking about what it was I really wanted to do, it came down to a choice between a forensic pathologist or a private investigator – but I had a feeling I’d do well with investigation work. The only way for me to break into this very tight-knit network was surveillance training. I enrolled on a surveillance course and went off to learn the basics. I was the only woman on the course and attendees were either already in the industry or former members of the military or police, so it was very daunting at first. However, by the end of the course I had enough confidence to apply to some well-respected firms.

Insight Investigations was one of the larger agencies I approached. After my interview, I was awarded a trial, and the rest as they say is history. Nearly 20 years later, I now hold a senior case worker investigating role with the firm. I’ve worked on all sorts of cases over the years. Even so, there are always new situations and case types which land on my desk every day – every client is so different. My in-field surveillance work has taken me on missions ranging from catching perpetrators ‘in the act’ of stealing from metal fabrication plants, to covertly watching suspected drug dens on instruction from city councils.

It was never a job I envisaged for myself when I was younger. Initially, once I’d finished education, I fell into a very normal job in sales where I remained for several years. It was only a change in circumstances that gave me the opportunity to rethink where I wanted my career to go and then take the chance to make it happen.

Some of the hardest cases are those which aim to catch spouses having a suspected affair. Those cases are always incredibly hard, and while I pride myself in being a thorough investigator, I’m an empathetic human being, too. It’s important to remember we’re real people with real feelings and emotions – even in the most distressing situations. It’s not all about the field work though, I also specialise in tracing and research work that can take me looking for birth parents or estranged relatives, debt-related matters and background checks. Safe to say, no two days are the same.

Successful results are often built on good rapport and a bond of trust, so only one investigator tends to engage with each client at a time.

We often find people prefer email correspondence at first. There’s usually a period when they’re tentatively considering instructing us. I try to make them feel as comfortable as possible, potentially building up to speaking on the phone, but I fully understand how daunting it must be instructing an investigator for the first time. Once all my emails are under control first thing in the morning, I’ll download the logs and imagery that have come in from surveillance agents and arrange for them to be professionally prepared by our administrative support team, ready to send to clients.

A daily priority is overseeing the operation of live surveillance conducted in the field and updating clients on various developments throughout the day… and night. Most days I complete a few trace enquiries – one might be looking for an estranged relative, another locating a tenant who absconded from their home while still owing rent arrears, or finding a person who is critical to our enquiries for a much larger ongoing investigation.

We offer free telephone consultations throughout the day, so we need to be mentally prepared for anything and anyone. Clients can be in a stressed and anxious state by the time they phone us and you never know what you’re going to hear, or how you might need to support different private or commercial situations. It’s also possible you could be asked to go out and undertake a surveillance task at short notice – or one which specifically requires a female agent. I might also need to collect and then serve court-related documents – we call this ‘process serving’ in the industry. 

The majority of day-to-day tasks are done as an individual. Conversations with clients are of a very personal nature. Successful results are often built on good rapport and a bond of trust, so only one investigator tends to engage with each client at a time. Some surveillances involve multiple agents but at least half of them only require a single agent – it can entail hours sitting in a car or a town centre alone, watching and waiting. Process serving is usually done alone, too. The research work undertaken in a trace enquiry, or a background enquiry, is again often done alone, with back-up from in-house resources if necessary. There’s no need to maintain a silence with colleagues – sometimes it can be quite helpful to bounce ideas off them or ask their advice.

This job can be dangerous but good training, practices and instincts tend to keep us safe. That really is where experience, confidence and quick thinking is integral to success.

Crucial skills for a good investigator include compassion, empathy and being a good listener. You have to understand the client’s situation and their exact needs. Being a discerning observer of human behaviour will help you pre-empt what a surveillance subject may be about to do before they do it, or anticipate what their next move might be. It’s also useful to have strong intuition, a fair and open mind, good attention to detail, and analytical thinking skills. Sometimes, clients get completely overwhelmed by their situation and the discoveries we make, so occasionally it’ll be your job to remind them of their objectives and take back some feeling of control. Many surveillances involve hours and hours cooped up alone in a small space with not much happening – so patience is another asset.

This job can be dangerous but good training, practices and instincts tend to keep us safe. That really is where experience, confidence and quick thinking is integral to success. There are occasions where a situation may be dangerous, so working in a team, with back-up on hand, is essential. 

If clients leave us with a better understanding, then I’ve done my job. I often work with clients during very vulnerable times in their lives – sometimes when they don’t see a way forward or how to move on. No one case has ever been more significant than the other because delivering on the brief is what counts. If clients go away with some part of their life making more sense than it did the week or month before, and that they haven’t felt alone during the transition, then there’s a real sense of achievement.

Even the very best investigators get caught sometimes. It’s happened to me twice and both times were during surveillances that ended up in extremely rural locations with virtually no other cars on the road – long before the days of electronic trackers and with not enough budget for more than one agent. Fortunately, there was no confrontation – just an understanding that they knew and I knew they knew…

Clients are sometimes surprised to be put through to a female voice at the end of the phone. Offering them the choice between male and female investigators is common sense, though, and as soon as a client realises I have the right experience, there’s usually no further thought given to it. Female clients often like to talk to another woman and male clients, particularly those with relationship investigations, often welcome the perspective of a female investigator. There seem to be a lot more females in the industry now compared to when I started, and while it remains predominantly a male industry, the majority of male colleagues I’ve ever worked with have never exhibited any issues working alongside women. I’ve learnt that snubs or condescending treatment have zero direct effect on my ability to succeed. 

It’s quite a hard industry to get into – whether you are a male or a female. These jobs are not advertised regularly, so if you have a skill like surveillance – either from a police or military background –it’s worth approaching a larger agency to get a foot in the door. I was single when I started in this industry, so working long or unsociable hours a long way from home was never an issue in those early years. Now, I do significantly less surveillance and far more case management together with research investigations, so I can manage my personal life around this. 

For anyone interested in getting into the field, go out and get some life experience first. Mix with people from all walks of life in order to absorb human behaviour and listen, listen, listen. Get your heart broken so you can empathise with how a client feels when they think their relationship is over. Learn from the scrapes you get into, so you can think on your feet and have the confidence to remove yourself from tricky situations without leaving any trace behind. People don’t have to be academics to make good investigators. Common sense, intuition and an ability to learn from those more experienced than you are much more important.

Visit Investigate.uk for more information.

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