Becoming a Federal Background Investigator

Actively Retired? Wanna Be? Click here to read the article.

The information in this article is general in presentation, as some federal agencies may have other, agency specific, requirements for background investigators.

Federally Credentialed Background Investigators conduct detailed, highly structured background investigations on:

  1. Individuals applying for federal employment.
  2. Individuals who require a security clearance.
  3. Individuals who possess a security clearance but require a re-investigation at intervals of either 5 or 10 years depending on the clearance level.

There are 4 types of Background Investigators:

  1. Government employed investigators.
  2. Contract Investigators (CIs) directly contracted with a federal agency.
  3. Contract Investigators sub-contracted with a primary contract company which is directly contracted with an agency.
  4. Employee Investigators (EIs), employed by a contract company which is directly contracted with an agency.

This article will focus on numbers 2, 3 & 4 as the requirements for each position are similar.

The Contract Investigator

The basic requirements to become a CI are:

  1. 3 - 5 years federal, military or law enforcement investigation
  2. Hold or be eligible to obtain a security clearance at the level required by the agency.

The Employee Investigator

  1. 3 - 5 years federal, military or law enforcement investigation experience OR a four year college degree, plus company provided, certified, background investigations training.
  2. Hold or be eligible to obtain a security clearance at the level required by the agency.

Some agencies may have additional requirements, but generally the basic requirements are held by all agencies.

How do I obtain a security clearance?

You cannot simply apply for a clearance and have the government do your background investigation. You must first be accepted by an agency as a candidate to conduct background investigations (This applies to direct, sub-contract and employee investigators.).

Once this acceptance occurs, you will be requested to complete a security clearance questionnaire. This may take the form of a paper document known as the SF-86 or a computer format document known as an EPSQ (Electronic Personnel Security Questionnaire) or, more recently an internet based document known as an E-Qip. All versions require the same information.

We recommend that a person obtain a copy of the SF-86 (It can be downloaded from the OPM website on the internet) and file it out. If you are later required to complete one of the electronic versions you have all the information in front of you, on the SF-86.

The process of becoming a CI or EI is a long process when the individual does not already posses a current security clearance. An extensive background investigation must be conducted. This background investigation may take anywhere from 6 weeks to a year, depending on the agency conducting it, and factors related to the person's background over the past 10 years. Have you moved frequently? Have you lived in multiple cities or states? Have you had any debt problems? The list can become fairly long on any given case.

If you were born, raised and continue to live in the same house, your education was obtained within a few blocks, you work next door to your residence and all of your friends live on the same street, you probably have a good chance at obtaining a clearance rather quickly.

Tools of the Trade

Generally you will need a computer with internet connectivity (DSL or Cable is best). In addition you will need a working knowledge of, word processing software and the skills to search the internet. You absolutely need a reliable, fuel efficient vehicle, a telephone and a fax machine. You will be required to have a document shredder. It is highly recommended that you have two telephone lines into your work place.

A cellular telephone has become a "must have" to operate efficiently and it is also not a bad idea to have a separate Pager.

You will need detailed map books covering your area (Approximately 75 miles around your place of business). A GPS, mapping device has proved to be worth the expense as it significantly increases your efficiency.

GPS systems range in price from $ 150.00 to $ 700.00.

Let us not forget the basic investigator tools............ Pen and a note book and a good file cabinet.

How will I be compensated?

Generally, you are paid by the hour from the time you depart your home or business location until you return (Provided all of your time in between is spent conducting investigations). You will be paid a mileage rate, normally based on the mileage rate set by the Federal Government around the first of every year. You will also be paid for your time spent writing your reports.

Hourly rates range from $28 - $48 an hour.

Some agencies and contract companies pay on a "Point System" or provide a specific "Budget" for each case assigned. The individual must look at these situations and determine for themselves if a "Point System" or "Budgeted Case System" is feasible for their particular geographic location. In some areas of the country these systems can be very lucrative. In others, the investigator may lose money on some cases and make money on others.

Your expenses, such as parking, fees for records, commercial transportation will be paid. Long distance telephone calls are also a reimbursable expense as are business related cell phone calls.

The cost of pens, paper, notebooks, printer ink, equipment etc. is not reimbursable. They are "overhead" expenses associated with operating "your business". These expenses are, however, often tax deductible (Contact a good accountant for advise).

It is critical that a CI have a solid understanding that he or she is operating a business. You are NOT an employee and you DO NOT have many of the rights and privileges associated with employment.

A CI should always consider decisions based on a Business Concept and not with the mind set of an employee.

How much will my income be?

Darn good question. I'm glad you ask.

There are a number of variables that affect your income potential. The biggest variable is your geographic location. If you live in or near Washington, DC, with all the government and military agencies around, your income level can be dramatic. If you live in Jackson Hole, WY, with few, if any nearby agencies, you probably don't want to depend on BI work as your primary income.

The second variable is the size of the agency for which you are conducting BI's. The larger the agency, the more likely they will have a larger volume of cases to be worked in various parts of the United States.

Your "business response" to this, must be, to obtain multiple contracts, with multiple agencies to insure, as much as possible, an even cash flow throughout the year.

The CI in Washington, DC, might want to get onboard with a minimum of two contracts while the CI in Jackson Hole, WY, would most likely want to obtain 4 - 5 contracts.

There are some other considerations. First, plan your annual budget around a 48 week year rather then a 52 week year. Government holidays and other artificial "down time" can equal 2 - 3 weeks a year. You may also want a week's vacation.

Understand the Federal Government's Fiscal Budget Year. It ends on September 31st and the New Year begins on October 1st. However, the Congress rarely passes the new Federal Budget on time and thus agencies are forced to cut back expenses as they approach the end of the FY and continue to hold the expenses down into the new FY. Case assignments generally begin to slow down in early September and this slow period may continue through December. This situation is related to (1) The time it takes Congress to finally approve a new budget and (2) The 3 major holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New years that occur in November and December.

Planning for these slow periods is essential. Even in high case volume areas, like Washington, DC, having multiple contracts enables a CI to keep cases coming in.

If you are able to maintain a steady volume of cases, that provide you with 40 billable hours a week, at $30 per hour, considering a 48 week year (2000 hrs), your income could reasonably be $60,000 a year. If you worked more then 40 hours a week, you could make even more. Keep in mind, some of your time is working from home, prepping cases, making telephone contacts and typing reports. This is all time you are paid for. A 10 or 12 hour day isn't all that bad.

What is the "Down Side?"

If you are the type of person who enjoys and needs the camaraderie of the office environment or regular discussions with fellow investigators about your investigative work, BI work is NOT for you.

One, you are not permitted to discuss your case work. Even with other cleared investigators, unless they are working the same case and have a need to know what you know.

Second you work by yourself, out of your home or your office. Your only personal contacts during the investigation process are with the individuals you interview or obtain information from. It is a solitary profession.

If you are not competent with a computer and/or do not understand how to use the internet for research, your efficiency will be poor compared to others in the field. You will find that you must work hours that you can't bill for, simply because you are not efficient.

You must be a self starter and self disciplined to get up everyday and accomplish a full days worth of work, WITHOUT being told to do so by a supervisor. If you can't do this, you will find that you are not making the income you expect or need.