Life as a Private Investigator: An Interview with a Real-Life 'Private Eye'

MILLERGROUP's Michael Miller Shares Advice for Aspiring Private Eyes

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The field of private investigations (private 'eye' or P.I. for short) has long held our fascination. Through radio shows, mystery and thriller novels, film and television, we've been intrigued and attracted by the exploits of the likes of Thomas Magnum, Sam Spade and, of course, Sherlock Holmes.

It's only natural, then, that people who may be inclined toward jobs in criminal justice and criminology would be interested in pursuing a career as a real-life private eye. Fortunately for them, the U.S. government's Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the field of private investigations is expected to grow by 21% by the year 2020, a faster-than-average growth rate when compared to other careers.

The Unique Job of a Private Investigator

Real life P. I. Michael Miller has found tremendous success building his own private investigations firm, called MILLERGROUP Intelligence. His firm specializes in risk assessment, background investigations, security, and due diligence investigations. 

Much of MILLERGROUP's most recent success, however, has come from the growing world of reality television, and Mr. Miller spends a lot of his time lately conducting background investigations and risk assessment of potential reality show contestants.

Miller has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from California State University, Sacramento, as well as the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Academy. He has owned his own firm since 1995 and has worked in the criminal justice industry for more than 20 years, as a reserve deputy and a fraud investigator for the City of New York. He was more than happy to talk about his career and share some of his advice and experience with me:

Interview With a Real Private Investigator

The Balance: With 20 years of experience in private investigations, you have quite an extensive background and résumé. But what was it that got you interested in criminal justice and criminology to begin with?

Michael Miller: I was probably eight or nine years old, watching PI shows like Mannix on television, and pretty much knew then I had found my calling. As the years passed, more and more PI television shows like Magnum PI, Barnaby Jones, Remington Steele, and Moonlighting, as well as police shows such as Baretta, Starsky & Hutch, Adam-12, Dragnet, Kojak, Columbo, and McCloud continued to peak my interest, I knew I had to end up in this intriguing and exciting field. I just didn’t know I’d make it a reality someday.  

TB: How, if at all, do you feel your degree in criminal justice has helped you in your career? Did it prepare you for the jobs you've held since?

MM: I wanted to go to college, mainly to have a college degree. I knew that wherever I ended up, it would help me get there. Although my grade point average wasn’t as important to me as just graduating, I ended up doing better than I expected simply because I was so enthralled by my field of study (criminal justice). Many of my professors had law enforcement backgrounds (from police to FBI), making for some great stories to keep me awake in class. My Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice certainly helped secure my future in the investigative field. Out of college, before the internet was invented, I didn’t have a clue how to become a private investigator. I took a job with the City of New York as a Welfare Fraud Investigator.

Early Career as a PI

TB: You spent some time working as a fraud investigator for the City of New York. What made you decide to try your hand at private investigations?

MM: ...working for a big bureaucracy, it’s often frowned upon if you work too hard, otherwise known as rocking the boat. Just do the minimum required until you retire, then get your pension. That wasn’t for me. I was young, motivated and eager to solve cases. My wings weren’t going to be tapered, and as a private investigator, the sky was to become my limit. Success was entirely up to me; no longer based on annual evaluations by a supervisor. At the end of my first year, I met a private investigator who was involved in one of my cases. Arthur Schultheiss, a wonderful man to whom I will be forever grateful, offered me a job as a surveillance investigator, which included a brand new company car (a nondescript charcoal gray Chevy sedan), a company credit card and business cards. I had found heaven. At 24, I was well on my way to my dream job. At 27, I became a licensed PI in California. Most PIs were retired law enforcement folks and much older than I was. My age and lack of experience actually gave me an edge. To bigger firms, such as the celebrity clientele threat assessment and risk management firm where I worked into my early thirties, I was “moldable.” In 1995, at 32 years old, I opened my own firm. I have never regretted that decision. Perhaps there are more exciting careers like being a professional athlete or a movie star, but being a spy is my paradise. Mentors such as Arthur Schultheiss, and later, Gavin de Becker, became my key to a Hollywood ending.    

TB: Has your experience in the police academy and as a reserve officer helped you as a private investigator?

MM: Yes. The police academy is all about teamwork, integrity, honor, and discipline. It’s an eye-opening, confidence-building experience this former recruit will never forget. Grueling at times, yet worth every “sir yes sir” moment. The academy has certainly helped in my investigative career, everything from managing security agents on the red carpet at Golden Globe Award shows, to tailing and arresting a hit and run suspect, to intercepting a celebrity stalker arriving at LAX. The police academy instilled in me the faith and conviction to get the job done.

Private vs. Public Law Enforcement

TB: How does working as a private investigator differ from working as an investigator with a government law enforcement agency? What are some interesting things about working as a private investigator?

MM: As a private investigator, the potential is unlimited. We don’t have the same restrictions and constraints placed on government employees. We make our own hours and to an extent, architect of our own fate. In the private sector, we obviously don’t have the same job security and benefits/perks, but I’ve always preferred the freedom and ability to write my own ending. With risk comes the potential for great reward.

Changes to the Industry Over Time

TB: How has the field of private investigations changed over your career?

MM: The INTERNET!! When I started in this business in the late 80s, the Internet didn’t exist. We used to go to courthouses to search through records, to pull files, whether on microfiche or manually toiling through old A-Z catalogs. If we had a case out of town, we’d hire investigators in those areas and have them do the same. The Internet has simplified things greatly. The downside, albeit very small, is that someone has to manually enter the information on the web, so there’s room for error. Some PIs still go to courthouses to double-check their online searches. We can access DMV, credit bureaus, county courthouses, federal courts and so much more nowadays by just entering a few keystrokes. Social Media and Google have also changed the way we conduct investigations. People make it easier for us by putting so much personal information out there, and often without any privacy restrictions. If you’re reading this, make your stuff private! Don’t let the world in; only a select few you actually know and trust. In his wise mentoring, Gavin de Becker told me, once you let the toothpaste out of the tube, it’s much harder to get it back in.

TB: Your firm handles background investigations and risk assessments for the entertainment industry, particularly for reality television shows. Do you view this as a growing trend for private investigators? How did you get into this niche?

MM: The screening of reality television applicants became a growing trend over 10 years ago. I received a call from a producer in 2000 when Big Brother was coming to the U.S., and CBS wanted them to vet the show’s participants. His call came right after a show aired around that time called Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? Thanks to mistakes made by the millionaire show, the trend really got started. They did very cursory background checks for their show, and as I recall, their “multi-millionaire” was minus the “multi, we” and he had other issues such as having had a restraining order filed against him for domestic violence. Suffice it to; say we have successfully conducted several thousand background investigations on participants of reality programs for various television networks ever since.     

TB: Why are background investigations important for entertainment companies?

MM: In additional to my previous answer, the networks want to limit their liability as much as possible. The more they know about an applicant before the show airs, the better equipped they are to handle and address anything derogatory that comes up.

TB: What do you enjoy most about your job, and why do you continue to do it?

MM: Surveillance is probably my favorite part of the job. Providing people with peace of mind is another highlight. This could come from returning stolen property or determining if a spouse is having an affair. I am also particularly fond of delegating work to my staff.

Characteristics of a Private Investigator

TB: What does it take to be successful as a private investigator?

MM: Here are some great and relevant words that come to mind, in no particular order: Patience, professionalism, fortitude, desire, perseverance, ambition, passion and motivation.

TB: How much should your average investigator expect to earn, and how much might they earn if they become reputable?

MM: This is a tricky question. Most PIs are retired law enforcement with lifetime pensions and health insurance, and many of them do this on a part-time basis. Then you have the PIs like me who have made this their careers. We don’t have pension plans or other funds coming in later, so we have to make the most of this career choice. If someone gets their PI license and just works for other PIs, they can expect to make about $35 to $45 per hour. Just like attorneys, our rates vary greatly. Some PIs bill clients $50 per hour while others bill $350 per hour. I’d rather not get too specific. However, a reputable PI can earn well over $100k per year. Much depends on the scope of their work, type of clientele, size of their staff, etc.

Final Thoughts and Advice

TB: What advice do you have for someone who is trying to decide whether or not they want to work as a private investigator, or for someone just starting out in the field?

MM: I’m pretty sure if someone is trying to decide whether or not to get into this field, they’ll have a better idea after reading all of this. With me, I knew it as a kid. Every television show I watched reinforced these feelings. I just had to figure out how to make it a reality. To start, I recommend sending letters to private investigators and express your interest. Snail-mailing a letter is preferable to an email, although an email and/or a phone call is a good way to follow-up. Do whatever it takes to get on their payroll. Only as an employee can you later get your own PI license. Requirements vary in all states. However, I believe you need 3 years experience (working for a licensed PI) in California. You can substitute law enforcement detective work for some of the required hours. A college degree, Associate or Bachelor’s, also qualifies toward your required hours. All the information is available on the Internet. There are many reputable PI firms out there. Do your homework. Check licensing bureaus, as well as Secretary of State records, both of which will often list any complaints against a company.

TB: If you have anything else you'd like to add, please feel free to share it.

MM: I love what I do, 25 years after entering this field in New York, and 21 years after getting my own PI license in California. I still like meeting people and hearing them say, “Wow, I’ve never met a private investigator before.” If you have a passion for it like I did and still do, go for it. It makes a good television show, but it makes an even better real-life career. 

Private Investigator Careers Can Let You Follow Your Passion

One of the most important things any job seeker can do is to do their homework and try to make an educated decision in finding the type of job they want based on their strengths, talents, and interests.

For MILLERGROUP's Michael Miller, he knew what he wanted to do and made it happen. There's no reason you can't do the same. Whether it's building an exciting career as a private investigator or working to become a leading forensic scientist, with dedication, hard work, and perseverance, you really can find your perfect criminology career.