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Don't lie to federal agents (and don't tell the truth, either)

What do you do if a federal agent knocks on your door and wants to ask you some questions about your former employer, your boss, your brother-in-law or your best friend?

It's important to handle questions from a federal agent very carefully. This is no time to panic, as that can lead to all sorts of problematic situations. Here's what you need to remember:

1. Do not lie.

Lying to a federal agent — whether the letters on their badges read FBI, DEA, ICE or anything else — is a crime in it's own right. You never want to make that kind of mistake.

Keep in mind that even a flat denial that you know anything about whatever it is they're asking could be construed as a lie. In other words, don't say, "I don't know anything." Those words could come back to haunt you later.

2. Do not tell the agents anything.

Telling the truth can also get you into trouble, especially if you've done something to assist someone else (even unwittingly) commit a federal crime. The odds are also very high that federal agents wouldn't be asking you questions if they didn't believe (or know) that you had some involvement or at least are privy to information about the alleged criminal act. You may not even realize what you've done is a crime.

3. Decline to discuss the subject.

Politely refuse to answer any questions until you've spoken with an attorney. If the agents ask why you want an attorney or try to pressure you with a subpoena, simply repeat, "I'm declining to discuss anything without the advice of my attorney." Again, it's very important that you don't make any blanket denials, including something like, "I'm not hiding anything!" That's just ammunition that could be used against you later.

There will be plenty of time to sort out whether or not you can safely tell agents everything they want to know after you've consulted with a criminal lawyer who handles federal crimes. Until then, play it safe.

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