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What Can a Private Investigator do Legally? – 2024 Guide

Nowadays, most people are misinformed about what private investigators can do. We are all exposed to movies and crime TV series where the PIs are portrayed as mysterious individuals who save the days by solving most complex cases. However, this cannot be further from the truth.

In reality, private investigators are not allowed to do most of the stuff we see on TV, and this is going to be the main topic of our article. Nowadays, more and more people opt for hiring a PI, so we are going to discuss how they obtain the necessary information. If you are wondering what kind of services they offer, you can read more on

They cannot carry a police badge

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The first misconception about PIs is that they get to carry those shiny badges. This is not true simply because only police officers can legally have them. You can think of the PIs as somewhere in between a regular citizen and police officers or detectives.

Still, even though they are not allowed to have one of these, they can still carry an identification document. Clearly, this is only true for those that are licensed.

They need the authorization to enter someone’s property

This is another thing people believe the PIs are allowed to do. As you know trespassing can oftentimes be classified as breaking and entering which is a felony, and the only people that can enter someone’s property are police officers. Private investigators are not allowed to do this.

Most of the time, they require permission from the owner to get in and look for the information they need. There are some situations where they do not need it, but these often include special circumstances, and these are often very rare.

They can access public records

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Furthermore, PIs do not have the power to go over someone’s personal records such as bank statements and medical documentation. They are only allowed to obtain records that are available to all other people. Still, most of the PI agencies have contacts within different departments. This collaboration allows them to get all the information they need faster.

Another benefit of hiring a professional is that they have enough experience meaning that they know what they are looking for. Someone who has never been through this process before can find it difficult to go over everything and would probably end up losing a lot of precious time.

What about protected information?

Sometimes, in order to complete their investigation, PIs might require some protected documents such as phone or financial records. The trick is that legally, they are not allowed to access them on their own, because they could lose their licenses. When they find themselves in this type of situation, they have to have the court’s permission.

Can they spy people?

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In popular cultures, private investigators are portrayed as people who can wiretap phones, take photos of others, and follow them around. None of this is true in real life. When it comes to wiretapping phone calls, again, they need the authorization of one of the individuals. This is regulated by law in most states.

Moreover, don’t worry they cannot install secret cameras and bugs. Not only is this considered to be an invasion of someone’s privacy, but it is also highly illegal.

Also, they cannot sit in front of one’s house and take pictures through windows, and so on. Again, this is stalking. However, they are allowed to observe the client and take photos in public. This means that they could take photos of a cheating spouse on the street or in the park. Basically, anything that occurs on private property is off-limits.

When it comes to searching license plate numbers, PIs cannot do it simply because they are curious about the person who drives the car. They are only allowed to do this if they have a legal excuse for it.

Can they track someone via GPS?

The answer to this can be a bit tricky. Similarly to wiretapping phone calls, private investigators require an authorization to do this. This has to come from the owner of the vehicle. So if one is suspecting that their spouse is cheating, PIs can technically follow the vehicle if they are hired by the person who owns it.

On the other hand, if the subject of the investigation is using their own vehicle, tracking them through GPS is once again, illegal. There are no circumstances that would allow for this.

Hacking devices is another big NO

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Oftentimes, on TV we see professionals going through someone’s phone, laptop, email address, and even social media accounts. Again, this is another misconception. If a PI does this and gets caught, a person can have them arrested and sue them.

This can just go on to cause more troubles. Not only the PI can be arrested, but they can lose their license. No professional is going to risk their whole career for a single client. They can only hack the devices if they get permission from the owner, but let’s be realistic. Who is willing to allow someone to go through their private messages and photos?

They can conduct online searches

Clearly, this is something that any of us can do, so we won’t go into detail. When it comes to online search we are talking about public records that are available online. Anyone can access these, but as already discussed, the PIs won’t waste their time going to all the documents and are going to find what they are looking for without any trouble.

They can collaborate with the police

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For example, when a burglary happens, people can hire a PI to come, investigate the scene, and give their opinion on what could have happened. Due to many above mentioned restrictions, PIs cannot conduct this kind of investigation of their own, but oftentimes, they can work with the police to find the culprit. After all, all included are looking for the same thing and discussing different theories can sometimes be helpful.


All in all, these are some basic things that PIs can do while on the job. As you can see, the reality is completely different than your favorite crime TV show. Even though there are a lot of things private investigators cannot do on their own, their experience is what can help their clients in collecting all the information they require.

About Stefania Trtica