How to become a private investigator

By Steve Rowlands, Vilcol Director

While Vilcol is a well-trusted people and tenant tracing agency, we also provide private investigation services from a team of experienced detectives based all over the world. People are often curious about this side of our business which is unsurprising, given their only encounter with private investigations is likely to have been through a TV drama.

The reality is long days and unsociable hours, but it’s a job that has great rewards too. In light of this, we thought we’d outline a little about how to land a job as a private eye, and what sort of skills you need for a long and rewarding career in the field. 

Private investigator services

‘Two ears, one mouth – use them in that order’ 

As Vilcol’s founder and owner, I’m pretty knowledgeable about the specific characteristics and skills required for private investigation work. 

But the words of my mum say all you really need to know if you're hoping to have a career as a private investigator: ‘you’ve got two ears and one mouth. Use them in that order'.

Being a good listener is the number one attribute a private eye must have. It’s essential you try and keep your mouth shut as much as you can. 

It’s surprising the information that can be revealed when you can master this. Much of the time people don’t realise the giveaways they freely speak in conversation.

Being worldly wise is useful too but there’s no way you can teach this. You learn it as you live your life and that’s why so many private detectives are in their second career. 


Finding work as a private investigator 

In the 1980s I was a police officer but the pay wasn’t enough. One evening I was on my way home and saw a job ad. I applied and the rest is history. 

Most private detectives are former police officers or from the armed forces - the skills for success are similar: stamina, persistence and dogged determination. 

There is no formal training and no school for private investigators that you can attend. If you’re young with no life experience, just a burning desire to work as a private eye, we’d advise you follow the same path that any inexperienced person wanting to enter a difficult industry would. 

You need to contact the various agencies and start at the bottom, as a runner for example. If you’re prepared to put in the hours – and they can be fairly unsociable – you can work your way up.


Private investigator at work

What sort of personality is best for private investigation work?

There are many different personality types in the private investigation field from the geek to the extrovert.

When I was a young private investigator, I tired easily when doing observation work like sitting in a car or lying on a roof for two weeks watching people. I’m a doer not a waiter. I like things to be happening. 

I found it quite an exciting job and because I wanted to make a name for myself, I ended up in risky situations against rather unpleasant people. 

I’ve had attempts made on my life, have been stabbed and shot at twice. I’ve been photographed running down a street with man chasing me with an axe, had the nuts undone on my car’s front wheel and my phone bugged. 

These days my life is more sedentary. I leave the excitement of street investigations to others.

If you are thinking of becoming a private investigator the most important skills are to be able to think on your feet, have common sense and plenty of patience. 


The many calls for investigation services

Vilcol has expanded its remit over the years so that now we provide a number of services that require investigations of some sort, just not as frontline.

Locating missing people, carrying out probate searches, international people tracing and tenant or debtor tracing are examples of the types of projects Vilcol is asked to help with.

Most of this work is office-based and we make use of specialist software that scrapes the internet for records and finds information that’s accurate quickly and efficiently. This kind of work brings faster results which pleases our customers and is rewarding.

When we’re instructed in private investigation work, we draw from our global network of agents and specialist detectives.  

Private investigation work is an unlicensed business unless it’s in debt collection in which case, a Financial Conduct Authority licence is required which Vilcol has. 

Because private investigators are unlicensed, it’s fundamentally important that if you’re looking to hire one, that you choose carefully. 

Your best bet is to find an agency with many years’ practice and good reviews and testimonials that you can check out if you want to.