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Private Investigator Curriculum Details

Build your career path with a strong foundation on key concepts in private investigation with our in depth syllabus. The course outline covers topics including fingerprinting, handwriting analysis, undercover investigations, executive protection, and more. Your curriculum includes access to an optional professional mentorship through ION Incorporate as well as discounts for the Personal Defense Network premium online how-to videos.

Program Goal and Outcomes

Program Goal

To prepare students to gain entry-level employment in an investigative agency as a private investigator.

Upon completion of the program, students will be able to...
  • Recognize the career opportunities that exist for private investigators, including how to become a licensed investigator and set up, manage, and market a private investigation business
  • Explain different types of laws and the steps of the legal system, including Constitutional amendments, U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and court-related issues for private investigators
  • Describe the elements of effective communication and its role in private investigation practice, including various methods of reporting investigative findings to clients
  • Recognize available information sources, including using the computer, and explain how to access various records and information sources that can assist in an investigation
  • Identify various methods and sources used to locate people and conduct various types of background investigations for clients
  • Explain how observations, descriptions, and surveillance are used in investigations, and develop a systematic method for applying concepts that make an investigation successful
  • Name equipment used by private investigators, including operational, surveillance, evidence collection, and safety equipment
  • Recognize the proper methods for obtaining, recording, preserving, and analyzing evidence; explain the role of expert witnesses
  • List the steps taken to conduct an undercover investigation, and describe techniques used in undercover work
  • Explain methods of competitive intelligence collection and corporate espionage, and describe counterintelligence measures
  • Describe the relationship between homeland security and the private investigator
  • Identify procedures and techniques of conducting interviews and interrogations, including legal considerations, fingerprinting, document examination, and polygraph testing
  • Recognize the development of firearms, and describe safety practices and legal issues concerning firearms
  • Recognize the skills and techniques necessary to providing protection services, such as executive and bodyguard protection
  • Describe how retail security can help businesses curb various types of theft and fraud

Succeed by learning how to use your Penn Foster program.


  • Understand how to use your Student Portal.
  • Access the Penn Foster Community and use it to find answers.
  • Connect with Penn Foster on various social media sites.
This lesson will introduce you to the many exciting opportunities that exist in a career as a private investigator. The more experience you gain and the more contacts you develop, the more your income will increase.


  • Collect and use information as an investigator.
  • Describe the basic tools needed to perform private investigations.
  • Understand the difference between the real world of private investigations and the fictional version described by writers and moviemakers.
  • Become familiar with the related fields you might need to call on as an investigator.
  • Identify the personal characteristics important to your success as a private investigator.

A career in private investigation should be firmly grounded in an understanding of a few basic legal principles. This lesson will introduce you to the basics of the legal system.

You’ll be introduced to several Supreme Court cases and certain Constitutional amendments. Some of the legal principles discussed in this lesson will help you understand what your clients need. Others deal with what conduct is proper, and what you can and can’t legally do as a private investigator.


  • Be familiar with famous decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court involving law enforcement and private investigations.
  • Understand the differences between civil law, equity, and criminal law.
  • Describe the basic steps of the legal system for dealing with civil and criminal matters.
  • Understand how the laws regulating arrests apply to both public law enforcement and private security.
  • Identify how the amendments to the U.S. Constitution affect your work as a private investigator.
Communication skills are very important in private investigation practice.


  • Improve your listening and communication skills.
  • Identify forms of verbal and nonverbal communication.
  • Describe the role of communication skills in gathering information for your investigations.
  • Practice communication techniques used in routine contacts with clients, witnesses, and others involved in the investigative process.
Private investigators must work within a business structure. Every case has to be set up, records must be kept, and fees must be charged and collected.


  • Record and file reports, photos, videotapes, and audiotapes.
  • Outline an investigation.
  • Identify potential clients and market your services.
  • Set up administrative procedures and case files.
  • Create appropriate forms.
  • Control billing.

This lesson explains some of the many sources of information available to you as a private investigator. You’ll learn how to access various records and information sources, how to use a database, and the role of the Internet in private investigations.


  • Use the Internet in private investigation.
  • Differentiate between public and private records.
  • Understand restrictions on obtaining credit reports.
  • Use databases to develop investigative information.
  • Use public libraries as investigative resources.
  • Use field investigation relating to research activities.
  • Work with people to obtain needed information.
This lesson introduces you to basic computer equipment. After you learn the essential equipment, you’ll learn some of the basic computer security measures for using databases and computer forensics.


  • Understand basic personal computer technology.
  • Identify the different types of personal computer systems.
  • Discuss the importance of personal computer security issues.
  • Use online computer databases and the Internet.
  • Explain computer forensics.
  • Understand the importance of computer safety.
The private investigation report is the product your client purchases. Your report must reflect a professionally conducted investigation or your client might not provide repeat business or recommend you.


  • Decide which type of report your client needs or wants.
  • Prepare an investigation report.
  • Follow an organized format.
  • Know when to verbally advise a client.
  • Use intermediate reports and final reports appropriately.

This lesson focuses on two subjects: locating people and background investigations. Either of these specialties can give you a start in the investigation business and then continue to provide you with a lucrative, profitable business.


  • Find the information you need to conduct a background investigation.
  • Identify and access public records.
  • Perform a conviction history check.
  • Identify whom to call and what to ask for an employment verification.
  • Verify a person’s education with colleges, universities, and high schools.
  • Access motor vehicle records.
Observation and description play an important role in conducting investigations.


  • Use a systematic approach to observing persons, objects, events, and places.
  • Use a systematic approach to asking others for their observations and descriptions in interviews.
  • Explain the importance of receiving timely descriptions from witnesses.
  • Describe a vehicle properly.
  • Build rapport with a witness.
  • Observe and interpret body language.
  • Recognize clues as to whether a witness is lying or telling the truth.
In this lesson, you'll learn about the types of cases that require surveillance by private investigators. In addition, you'll learn the different types, methods, and techniques of surveillance to use.


  • Plan, prepare, and conduct a surveillance assignment.
  • Use a combination of foot and vehicular surveillance.
  • Choose appropriate clothing, vehicles, and cover story disguises for surveillance.
  • Detect and defend against counter-surveillance.
  • Explain techniques of covert photography.
  • Select appropriate observation posts, indoors and outdoors.
  • Choose and disguise surveillance vehicles.

In this lesson, you’ll learn about some of the equipment used by private investigators in their profession, including operational equipment, surveillance equipment, evidence collection equipment, and safety equipment. Some items are as simple and inexpensive as a tape measure while others are specialized, highly technical, expensive items like telephone analyzers.


  • Choose exposure settings needed to take good photographs.
  • Use a variety of specialized lenses.
  • Explain how different kinds of light will affect photographs.
  • Describe the equipment and procedure for ultraviolet fluorescent photography.
  • Discuss the pros and cons of using digital photography instead of using film.
  • Explain the light requirements for videotaping.
This lesson will introduce you to the subject of physical evidence. Information you collect as a private investigator is valuable only if it’s ultimately used as evidence or leads to the discovery of other usable evidence. The more knowledge you have about collecting and presenting evidence, the more likely you’ll succeed both in and out of court.


  • Describe evidence-gathering procedures.
  • Understand how evidence is obtained, recorded, preserved, and analyzed.
  • Discuss procedures for processing an arson crime scene.
  • Explain how obliterated serial numbers on stolen vehicles may be restored.
  • Determine what you need to do to get evidence admitted into court.
  • Use evidence to reconstruct the scene of an accident or crime.
  • Know what kinds of evidence will provide answers to questions about vehicle thefts and fraud.
In this lesson, you'll learn about your relationship as a private investigator to the court system. You'll be introduced to some of the ways a private investigator can work with the court system and how to benefit from it as a businessperson.


  • Select the appropriate procedures to use in both civil and criminal proceedings.
  • Prepare for providing testimony in a legal proceeding.
  • Present a professional image when testifying.
  • Identify important terms and definitions associated with the legal system.

This lesson introduces you to historical and modern examples of undercover investigations as well as how to conduct undercover investigations.


  • Discuss undercover assignments with clients.
  • List the steps you would take in conducting an undercover investigation.
  • Describe the personal characteristics of successful undercover investigators.
  • Understand what you must be prepared to do as an undercover investigator.
  • Discuss the techniques used in undercover work.
  • Describe the difficulties experienced by undercover investigators.
  • Identify the ethical questions and possible solutions that may face an undercover investigator.
Most corporations list intense competition and corporate espionage as critical corporate challenges. In this lesson you’ll learn that there are many ways to collect corporate data.


  • Identify and use methods to collect competitive intelligence and data.
  • List methods used to commit corporate espionage.
  • Describe counterintelligence measures.
  • Set up a counterintelligence and security program.
  • Discuss the ethical problems associated with corporate/competitive intelligence-gathering work.
This lesson describes ways that private investigators can both serve their communities and expand their businesses in the area of homeland security.


  • Understand the relationship of homeland security to private security.
  • Find sources of valuable training material.
  • Stay abreast of developments in homeland security.
  • Arrange speaking and public relations opportunities for your agency.
  • Help businesses establish Business Emergency Recovery Teams.

This lesson introduces you to procedures and techniques for conducting interviews and interrogations.


  • Consider when an interview or interrogation is appropriate.
  • Plan and conduct an interview.
  • Evaluate an interview or interrogation in terms of usable evidence.
  • Understand the legal considerations of the interrogation process.
  • Evaluate the results of an interview and an interrogation.
  • Identify behavioral characteristics in truthful, deceitful, guilty, or innocent interviewees.
The specialties of fingerprinting and handwriting analysis, although related to private investigation, aren’t actually a regular part of the business of private investigation. This lesson will help you understand that fingerprinting and document examinations aren’t ends in themselves. They’re only tools to be used by investigators in seeking the truth.


  • Discuss how fingerprints are taken.
  • Describe the techniques for developing latent prints.
  • Discuss questioned documents examination.
  • Perform the techniques required for observation, collection, and preservation of evidence involving questioned documents and handwriting analysis.
  • Collect handwriting samples.
  • Interpret the findings of a qualified handwriting expert.
  • Develop a plan when additional examples are needed for identification or elimination.
In this lesson, you’ll learn about the history and development of firearms, safe handling practices, and when, if ever, a firearm should be used. Very few investigative jobs require a firearm or weapon of any kind.


  • Identify the major types of firearms.
  • Explain how to care for and maintain a firearm so it can function properly.
  • Understand the federal laws pertaining to firearms.
  • Know how to find out about the state and local laws for the area in which you live.
  • Determine if you need any special firearm licenses.
  • Determine if and when you might need a firearm to perform your job.

The goal of this lesson is to make you aware of the skills required for executive protection and help you understand this highly specialized branch of security.


  • List the various types of people who may need executive protection.
  • Understand the differences between the solo activity of bodyguard work and executive protection, a team activity.
  • Evaluate the risk of protecting a person.
  • Gather information on previous threats to a principal.
  • Outline the various protection techniques used in public, at the home, at hotels, at airports, at rallies, and at restaurants.
  • Outline the arrangement of vehicles in a motorcade.
Retail security is one small part of the private investigation field. Most retail security, especially shoplifting prevention, is done by employees of the business needing the security. Occasionally, however, independent private investigators are hired to assist with prevention or to find the cause of known losses. Working as an in-house retail security employee for a retail chain is a good way for a person wanting to become a private investigator to gain valuable experience while getting paid.


  • Identify the different types of shoplifters.
  • Explain how a business can protect itself from shoplifting, including good housekeeping, protection systems, and security guards.
  • Describe the various ways in which vendors and delivery persons can steal from their customers and the methods for dealing with this theft.
  • Identify the ways in which employees might steal from their companies.
  • Assist companies in making risk management decisions.
  • Help a business avoid credit card fraud.
In this lesson, you’ll learn some of the important details of obtaining a job and succeeding in business.


  • Make good marketing decisions for yourself and your business.
  • Find and apply for positions as a private investigator.
  • Write a cover letter and a résumé.
  • Maintain a professional appearance and demeanor.
  • Become licensed as an investigator.
  • Use the telephone effectively for contacting potential employers.
  • Mentally prepare yourself for an employment interview.

Graduation Gift

When you graduate, you'll receive:

(Sent to you when all program requirements and financial obligations have been met.)

  • ION Inc. Mentorship
  • Work Experience Option (Not required for graduation.)

Additional Details

Licensing and/or certification requirements for jobs in this field are not the same in every state and may include educational, testing, and/or experiential requirements beyond those offered in the Penn Foster Program. Prospective students should contact the state professional licensing board or similar regulatory body in the state(s) where they plan to work to determine their requirements before enrolling in this Program. Click here for contact information for state licensing/regulatory boards and certain industry licensing information.
Please review your state board requirements that are applicable to your field of study. State boards may impose a variety of different requirements. This is particularly important for residents of Florida.
Graduates are eligible for professional mentorship through ION Incorporated, one of the world's largest private investigation referral companies, at no additional cost.
Students enrolled in the Private Investigator Career Diploma Program are eligible for discounted rates for the Personal Defense Network premium online how-to videos. This video resource site can serve as a supplement to your private investigation courses, but is not required to complete the diploma program. Learn more about this offer here.

Penn Foster Career School Accreditation & Licensing Details

Penn Foster has been accredited for over 50 years. Penn Foster Career School has been thoroughly reviewed and has earned several important accreditations, certifications, and licensing. Most importantly, Penn Foster Career School is both regionally and nationally accredited.

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Looking to connect with other Penn Foster students? Our Student Community is the perfect place for you to interact with your peers — as well as Penn Foster faculty and staff — to discuss your online learning experience, congratulate fellow students, and share your Penn Foster experience.

Sample Private Investigator Lesson

Penn Foster courses are written in a way that is easy to understand, and materials are broken down into manageable lessons. Take a look at what a Private Investigator course would look like.
Sample Private Investigator Lesson
Computer Specifications
As you know this is an online academic program. This means you will need high-speed internet access to begin your program. In addition, you will need access to a Microsoft® Windows® based computer running Windows 7® or later or an Apple® Mac® computer running OS X® or later, and an email account to participate in and complete your program.
We reserve the right to change program content and materials when it becomes necessary.
Microsoft and Windows are trademarks of Microsoft Corporation registered in the United States of America and/or other jurisdictions.
Apple, Mac, and OS X are trademarks of Apple, Inc. registered in the United States of America and/or other jurisdictions.
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