What Private Investigators Can & Can’t Do

Many myths are associated with private investigators. And this can be blamed on the inaccurate representations of private investigators in TV shows. We often see them breaking into houses, hacking, and performing other legally questionable methods. Therefore, when hiring private investigator, you need to know what they can and cannot do. 

Who Are Private Investigators?

Whether you are looking for information to help with a business, locate someone, or do a security audit for your company, hiring a private investigator can greatly help you. Private investigators are professionals who gather information relevant to their clients.

However, investigators are often regulated by various jurisdictions in each state. For instance, in California, investigators must undergo an intense licensing process, work under licensed investigators, take exams, and log hours. In other states, investigators must register as private citizens who can access information and investigation tools. 

What Can Private Investigators Do?

PIs can collect various records, do surveillance, and even monitor movements to get information about their particular case. Some of the information they collect about people includes their aliases, assets, current and previous addresses, social security numbers, marital status, and social media profiles. 

They can also have stakeouts or follow their characters to record or monitor their behavior and daily activities. Private investigators can also locate sensitive records available in certain databases and record holders. They can verify the accuracy of certain documents such as deeds, birth, arrest, court, bankruptcy, and mortgage records, among others.

An investigator can also go through a person’s trash to get items like receipts, letters, credit card statements, phone records, and other suspicious items. However, some legal issues surround going through garbage on private property. This, therefore, raises the question, what are the limitations of private investigators?

What Can Private Investigators Not Do?

Here is what private investigators aren’t legally allowed to do.

  1. Impersonate a Law Enforcer

Anyone who impersonates an officer of the law is committing a crime. And because of this, private investigators aren’t allowed to carry a badge or wear police uniforms in most states. However, in cases where a licensed investigator has a badge, they aren’t allowed to make the members of the public think or mistake them as law enforcers. 

  1. Obtain Protected Information Without a Legal Consent

Although private investigators can find the location of certain information, they can’t access it without the owner’s consent or a subpoena. Documents protected by this include:

  • Financial Records. Financial records such as transaction history require a court order or permission from the owner to access.
  • Bank Accounts. Investigators cannot collect information from the bank accounts. This requires legal consent or the owner’s permission. 
  • Phone Records. There are legal methods that private investigators can use to find out the carrier of a certain phone number. However, they cannot access personal phone records without a subpoena or court order.
  1. Trespass

Private investigators can access any public space just like any other person. However, without permission, they can’t trespass or gain access to buildings, storage spaces, or private property. Additionally, if granted permission to access a certain building but the owner decides otherwise, the investigator will be required to leave immediately. 

  1. Hack Social Media or Email Accounts

With most people having accounts on social media platforms, private investigators can now easily access certain information. However, there are limitations when it comes to accessing the information. Investigators aren’t allowed to hack a social media account to access privately posted information. They can only access data that has been made public or visit websites that have information about people publicly. 

  1. Record or Wiretap Conversations 

Unlike in the movies, private investigators aren’t allowed to break into someone’s home to plant bugs or wiretap phones. While in some states, they are allowed to record conversations, in most cases, consent is required. Types of consent in certain states include:

  • One-party consent. This type of consent allows one of the parties participating in an active conversation to record it without the other party’s knowledge. However, this doesn’t mean that a third party can snoop and record the conversation without the other party’s knowledge.
  • Two-party consent. This consent requires both parties involved in the conversation to consent to a recording.
  1. Arrest People 

A private investigator isn’t a police officer, so they don’t have the authority to arrest. This applies to cases they also get to witness a crime. Police officers can only use the information provided to make an arrest.


While investigators can do a lot to gain the information they are hired to find, there are things they can and cannot do. Therefore, you should hire a licensed investigator you are confident will work within the stipulated laws.

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