Private Detectives and Bounty Hunters: Similarities and Differences by Colleen Collins

In a recent online voting poll for the best private detective character in fiction, one of the choices was the character Stephanie Plum in author Janet Evanovich’s popular series that began with the novel One for the Money.  Actually Stephanie Plum is a bounty hunter, not a private detective, but this isn’t the first time I’ve noticed people confusing the two professions.  It’s easy to mix them up as both private investigators and bounty hunters perform a number of similar work tasks, which I’ll discuss later in this article.

But first, let’s briefly review job descriptions and titles for these two professions.

What Do Private Investigators and Bounty Hunters Do?

Private investigators accept employment from clients — such as law firms, corporations and private individuals — to obtain information on crimes or civil wrongs; locate people and property; analyze the cause of accidents, fires, or injuries to persons or to property; and locate evidence to be used before a court.

Bounty hunters work on behalf of a bail bondsman to re-arrest and put into jail the bondsman’s client who has defaulted on his/her bail contract.  Typically, the client has failed to appear in criminal court as promised, and a judge has signed a warrant for the client’s arrest.

What Are They Called?

Both occupations have a variety of titles, from the professional to the slang, with some of the latter being viewed as derogatory within that vocation.

Private Investigators

Having co-owned a private investigations agency for ten years, I know numerous private investigators across the U.S.  Some prefer the job title professional private investigator as it adds esteem to a vocation that often gets a bad rap, thanks in part to the cynical, law-breaking private eye protagonist in early noir films.

Personally, I always referred to myself as a private investigator, and sometimes a private detective (although there are some private investigators who think the word detective should be used only by those who work in law enforcement).  The abbreviation P.I., for private investigator, is also commonly used by my peers.  I’ve also had law firms call and request to retain the services of an operative, another term for P.I., a term that always struck me as a bit old-fashioned.

Slang terms that are commonly viewed within the profession as having negative connotations, but which are often found in movies and stories, include the following:

  • Gumshoe
  • Private dick
  • Shamus
  • Snoop

On the other hand, some P.I.s like to play with these terms, using them in their businesses or related projects, including the author of this article who co-wrote the book How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths.

Bounty Hunters

Some who work in this profession prefer the title fugitive recovery agent because the term bounty hunter to them conjures derogatory images of the old west dead or alive posters, which advertised rewards in exchange for the fugitive.

More professionally accepted titles for bounty hunters include:

  • Bail bond recovery agent
  • Bail agent
  • Bail enforcement agent
  • Bail officer
  • Fugitive recovery agent
  • Fugitive recovery officer

P.I.s and Bounty Hunters: What Do They Have in Common?

Private investigators and bounty hunters perform some similar tasks in their work, which is why it can be easy to confuse the two occupations.  For example, both professions perform the following:

  • Tracking people to a current residence or location (also called “skip tracing”)
  • Conducting interviews
  • Performing surveillances
  • Contacting the subject
  • After the subject is located, the P.I. or bail recovery agent might perform “legal process” (a P.I. might serve legal papers on the non-fugitive, and a bounty hunter might serve a warrant on the fugitive).

Another reason for confusion is that some professionals practice both fugitive recovery and private investigations.  For example, in the old Dog the Bounty Hunter reality TV series, Dog’s good friend Bobby Brown, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is both a private investigator and a bounty hunter.

Why Bounty Hunters are Unique Creatures in the Law

Licensed bounty hunters, or bail bond recovery agents (BBRAs), are not law enforcement officers, but they are agents of the court. When someone is released on bail, they are technically still in custody.  But if they violate the terms of the bail bond release, such as not showing up for a court date, their custody can be moved from the county jail to the BBRA.

As such, a BBRA has limited authority to enter private premises where the fugitive is located, and also has the authority to use force against the fugitive to return their charge to custody.  Interestingly, a BBRA working for a bail bondsman does not need any reason whatsoever to take a person who is on bail into custody — the BBRA simply makes the determination that the defendant is at risk to flee.

Private investigators, on the other hand, are governed by different regulations than BBRAs.

P.I.s, Bounty Hunters and Firearms

Both private investigators and bounty hunters might carry guns, although many private investigators and bounty hunters do not carry firearms.

However, only bounty hunters can make arrests.

In most states, in order to carry a gun on the job, a P.I. or bounty hunter needs to have a professional license in their field, with a rider for carrying a weapon and a CCW permit.

Training and Licensure to be a P.I. or Bounty Hunter

For both professions, there are online and on-site study programs.  Requirements for becoming a private investigator or bounty hunter vary by state. Below are resources for learning more about training and licensure requirements:



Colleen Collins is an award-winning author who’s written several dozen novels for Harlequin and Dorchester, as well as an indie-published mystery novel The Zen Man.  She has also written three nonfiction books on private investigations, the most recent being Secrets of a Real-Life Female Private Eye.

Her books have placed first in the Colorado Gold, Romancing the Rockies, and Top of the Peak contests, and placed in the finals for the Holt Medallion, Coeur de Bois Readers Choice, Award of Excellence, More than Magic, and Romance Writers of America RITA contests.  The Zen Man was a semifinalist in the Best Indie Books 2012.

She’s a member of the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), Private Eye Writers of America (PWA) and Sisters in Crime.  When not sleuthing, Colleen’s hanging with her husband (also her former P.I. partner who’s now a criminal defense attorney), two Rottweilers (named Jack Nicholson and Aretha Franklin), her three cats, and plotting or writing her next book.

Find out more information by visiting, Colleen’s writing websiteor Colleen’s P.I. blog.




Colleen’s most recent release, Secrets of a Real-Life Female Private Eye, is a nonfiction, no-holes-barred, modern-day story about life in the female PI fast lane.

Topics include a history of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and its hiring of the first U.S. female private eye, Kate Warne; advantages and dangers of being a current-day female P.I.; tools of the trade; case examples; investigative tips; links to P.I. blogs, periodicals, websites, as well as popular detective fiction sites; and excerpts from How Do Private Eyes Do That? and How to Write A Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths.

“As an experienced private detective and a skilled storyteller, Colleen Collins is the perfect person to offer a glimpse into the lives of real female P.I.s”
~ Kim Green, managing editor of Pursuit Magazine: The Magazine of Professional Investigators

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