A Florida private investigator explains how she learned the tricks of her trade: by catching shoplifters
If you dream of becoming a private investigator but have no idea where to begin, you’re not alone. I found my way there by starting out as a “loss prevention officer”—per the trade lingo, I detected external losses (watched for shoplifters) and also uncovered internal dishonesty (caught employees stealing).
Now I’m a Florida-licensed private investigator with my own investigations agency. And my path to a PI career could work for you, too. Here’s how to get started:
First Steps: Research
First, check your state laws: Search “private investigator requirements (your state),” and find out what licensing is required where you live. (Or go here.) In the few states that don’t require PI licensing, becoming a private investigator is as easy as hanging a shingle. (Becoming a good one is another matter—we’re just talking legal hoops here.)
But other states like Florida, where I live, are very stringent in their requirements. Florida requires that, in order to become a “C licensed investigator” (as opposed to a “CC trainee”), you need at least two years of investigations experience.
I was lucky: By the time I decided to become a PI, I had four years of what Florida considers “in-house investigations” experience, which meant I could move on to the next step: licensure.
Next Steps: The Exam (and Fees)
For me, the next phase was to request the Florida 493 statutes and FACs (Florida Administrative Codes) from the state, study my behind off, and pay my non-refundable $100 in order to sit for the exam. Score less than 75 on the exam, and you have to pay the $100 again and re-take the exam.
Do not skimp on studying. Quoting the statutes and FACs by heart will do you no good. You need to understand and be able to apply the material in a working capacity as a private investigator, in every possible scenario. Not trying to scare you, because many of us are proof that the Florida exam can be passed, but it’s tricky. Be prepared.
Final (and Lifelong) Step: Learning the Trade
When I accepted the job as a loss prevention officer, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But those four years as in-house detective later proved invaluable to me in my career as a private investigator.
I worked in a large, corporate retail store with a crime level off the charts. To stay ahead of streetwise area shoplifters, I had to study their methods, which were constantly evolving.
As they say: Know your enemy.
You’d be amazed at how many websites exist to teach fellow shoplifters new tricks for “boosting” goods. I frequented these sites and learned the latest techniques, pretexts, and gadgets that shoplifters used.
That research taught me the importance of staying ahead of evolving tech tools and changing regulations in the PI industry. Never stop learning.
An Eye for Detail
As a loss prevention officer, I also learned the art of constant awareness. I had to see much more than the hands and purses of potential thieves. I had to notice everything, from what they were wearing (from shoes to cap) to identifying marks.
Remembering these details may make the difference in a capture if a shoplifter flees. A momentary glance of the perpetrator may be all you get. And when a police officer asks for a description, “I don’t really know” doesn’t cut it.
Surveillance and Pretexts
Secondly, the job taught me so much about covert surveillance. I often pretended to shop only feet away from the shoplifter. I’d hold up a shirt and examine it; then when the “shoppers” were no longer watching me, I could freely watch them … as they stuffed their purses with merchandise.
I’ve also used pretexts to get close enough to their cart to quickly scan for popped price tags. (Thinking on your feet will help you to become a wonderful private investigator.)
Court Appearances: Reports and Evidence
Being a loss prevention officer taught me another skill essential for private investigators: appearing in court. All those reports beginning with “On Thursday, January 15, 2016, I Loss Prevention Officer Loraine Hill began watching a white juvenile male, later known to me as….” prepared me to write court-ready reports that could withstand scrutiny by the defense’s attorney and possibly make or break a case.
I also learned to assemble, organize and label the evidence I’d need for court (such as video recordings, my report, detailed lists of merchandise stolen and its value, police reports, etc.) I use this skill constantly in my PI practice today.
If you need experience in your state in order to acquire your PI license, I highly recommend putting in a couple of years as “loss prevention,” (aka “asset protection” or “in-house detective”). The pay may not be great (especially for a new-hire), but it beats begging for a trainee position as a CC licensed private investigator. Trust me, those opportunities are not easy to find.
As an LP, you are building a mindset, a network, and a body of work that will serve you well in your chosen career as a licensed private investigator.
All of this experience will prepare you for your work as a private investigator. As a former LP, you’ll understand what is happening in the courtroom, you’ll know the “legalese,” and you’ll be comfortable on the stand. You’ll be adept at report writing and making your CDs to bring to court as evidence. And as a bonus, if you were like me and made tons of apprehensions, you’ll earn the respect of local police, and judges will recognize you as a prepared professional. (Make sure you always are! Just like being a private investigator, your final work product speaks for you.)
I believe that the pieces in life fall where they do for good reason, but it never hurts to nudge karma with great planning. Along the way, you may curse the pieces sometimes, because their purpose isn’t fully clear yet. But be patient: As an LP, you are building a mindset, a network, and a body of work that will serve you well in your chosen career as a licensed private investigator.
Of course, there are many ways to gain experience in investigations; this is but one. It worked for me, and I believe it will work for anyone who is looking for a foothold to begin the climb. Have fun, be safe and good luck in your endeavors!
About the Author:
Loraine Hill is a Florida licensed private investigator and President/Lead Investigator of XXI Century Investigations, Inc. (C1400364, A1500039). She holds a certificate in criminal defense investigations through CDITC as a specialty but conducts many types of investigations for attorneys, corporations and the general public. Contact her at Lmhill@tampabay.rr.com.