How Much Can You Make a Year Being a Private Investigator?

Private investigators must have licenses in most states.
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Private investigator is a broad term. Duties often encompass more than those of the PIs you see on TV. Beside conducting surveillance, collecting evidence and investigating crimes, they also perform background checks, verify employment and even protect the occasional celebrity. Though they need no formal education, most PIs have a college degree or work experience in a related field industry, such as finance, insurance or law enforcement. Pay varies by location and employer.


In 2012, private investigators earned an average of $50,780 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Salaries vary from this national average, of course. For example, the top 10 percent of earners made more than $79,790 a year, while the bottom 10 percent earned less than $27,670 a year.


As with any job, location affects earnings. Among all states, PIs working in the state of Washington received the highest pay, an average of $70,510 a year. Those in Texas ranked second, averaging $64,810 a year, while those in Alaska ran a close third with an average salary of $63,810 a year. The lowest wages paid were in South Dakota, where the average was just $33,720 a year.


As of 2012, investigation and security firms employed the largest percentage of PIs but offered one of the lower salaries, at an average of $46,700 a year. Management consulting services paid the highest wages, at an average of $73,860 a year. Legal firms fell somewhere in the middle, paying private investigators an average of $59,510 a year.


The BLS projects employment of private investigators will grow by 21 percent through 2020. This is slightly faster than the average growth rate for all occupations, an estimated 14 percent. As security concerns continue to grow, so does the need for professionals trained in conducting surveillance, performing background checks and investigating computer crimes. The 21-percent growth rate equates to the creation of 7,000 new PI jobs over a decade. The BLS expects competition to be strong, however, partly because many early retirees from the military and law enforcement pursue these jobs as second careers.

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