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Thanks to books, movies and TVshows, many people have a clear mental image of the stereotypical private investigator. He works from a dimly-lit, cluttered, sometimes smoky office in a less-than-affluent part of town. There, he greets a series of walk-in clients — often women — who have been wronged in one way or another.

Usually, his job is either to find proof of wrongdoing or to make the situation right again. To do this, he gets useful information from witnesses and bystanders, sometimes with the help of false pretenses and fake identification. He tails witnesses, takes pictures, searches buildings and keeps an eye out for clues that others may have overlooked. Occasionally, his curiosity gets him into trouble, and he barely escapes being caught somewhere he isn’t supposed to be. But eventually, he returns to his distressed client, letting her know that he’s solved the case.

Lots of fictional detectives have contributed to this image, including Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe and multiple film noir heroes from the 1940s and 50s. Today’s pop-culture investigators, like Adrian Monk and Veronica Mars, are often a little quirkier than their older counterparts. They don’t necessarily wear fedoras, work in questionable neighborhoods or even call themselves private investigators. However, they still appear as heroes who have a knack for digging up the right information at the right time.

But just how much of the P.I. lore is really true? How many of the events depicted in fiction are really possible — or legal? In this article, we’ll explore what it takes to become a private investigator and exactly what the job involves.

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