Because of the way private investigators are portrayed in the media, there are many misconceptions about what private investigators can and cannot do. While laws and regulations vary from state to state, here are a few things that private investigators usually cannot do.

Practice without a license

Depending on what state you are in, it is illegal for private investigators to operate without a license, and some states have rather rigorous licensing laws as well. For example, California requires you to finish 6,000 hours of investigative work for a licensed investigator over three years, be fingerprinted, submit an application, and pass an examination before becoming licensed.

Impersonate a police officer

In almost all states, it is illegal for a private investigator to impersonate a police officer, such as by wearing a uniform, carrying a badge, or implying they are in law enforcement. This law is in place to ensure that a private investigator cannot mislead someone into believing they are somehow affiliated with a government agency. Some private investigators wear badges to indicate that they are licensed private investigators, and they often work with law enforcement officers.


Private investigators cannot use illegal means to enter any property. Trespassing laws are different state to state, but most prevent investigators from entering a property without consent from the owner. The only exception is in some states when private investigators act as a process server to serve legal documents; then, they may be exempt from trespassing laws.

Tamper with mail

It is a federal offense to open or destroy someone else’s mail, and private investigators are not exempt from this law.

Wiretap a phone

Private investigators cannot wiretap a phone without the consent of a minimum of one of the individuals. For most states, it only requires consent from one of the individuals, but in 12 states, both parties must agree to be monitored. Many cases require a warrant for a legal phone tap, so private investigators often must work with law enforcement to avoid breaking the law.

Film through a window into a private home

While investigators can usually film subjects in public spaces, it is illegal to film through a window into a private home.

Use a GPS tracker on a vehicle

Contrary to what you may have seen in movies, there are some states that have made it illegal for a private investigator to put a tracker on a vehicle without the owner’s consent.

Hack into emails/social media profiles

A private investigator cannot hack into an email or social media profile. While we may use software that analyzes data from a person’s social media page, we will not hack into any accounts.

Run a license plate

Private investigators cannot run license plate numbers without a legal reason.

Check credit

In order to conduct a credit check, written consent from an individual is required, and a private investigator must have a legal reason to do so as well.

Obtain protected information

Certain information cannot be obtained by a private investigator without consent or a legal reason. For example, while an investigator can identify the location of bank accounts, they cannot get more specific information about them. Additionally, phone records are protected, and cannot be obtained by a private investigator.

Make an arrest

In the United States, private investigators do not have the power to arrest someone. In some countries, special circumstances dictate that a citizen’s arrest can be made. Private investigators may require written consent in some states, while others allow citizen’s arrests only when the individual is a danger to the public or a federal crime is witnessed.

McCabe Associates would like to show you what we CAN do; we can conduct private investigations by the letter of the law. If you need a private investigator, trust us to help. Contact us today.