A Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) informant is someone who has significant information that is relevant to an on-going FBI investigation. Although someone can volunteer to be an informant, typically FBI informants are targeted by the FBI because of their connections to criminal activity or to a criminal organization.
What Does an FBI Informant Do?
The core function of an FBI informant is to provide information to the FBI. Depending on the needs of the FBI, informants may have to find ways to get close to targeted individuals or to become part of a criminal organization or activity, if they are not already in such a position. Once they have an established role within the criminal organization or activity, the informant's role will be to provide information to the FBI about the organization, target or activity.
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Becoming an FBI Informant by Being Approached
There are several ways to become an FBI informant. The most common way to become an FBI informant is to be approached by the FBI. If the FBI has identified you as a person who has a connection to a criminal enterprise, activity or target, the Bureau may approach you to provide it with information. If you agree to work with the FBI, you will be assigned a handler, an FBI agent who will be your point of contact throughout the investigation.
In exchange for such information, the FBI may offer several types of incentives for your cooperation. These incentives may include monetary compensation, a reduction of penalties if you are involved in criminal activity, or complete absolution for your own crimes.
Electing to be an Informant
If you are aware of criminal activity within an organization or by an individual, you may voluntarily elect to become an informant. Individuals who have relevant information can go directly to the FBI with their information. Go to the FBI website to report a tip or you can go directly to the nearest FBI office to report your information. While such tips can be provided anonymously, if you want to be an informant, you will have to provide your personal details.
Not everyone who has information will go on to become an informant. The FBI is restricted in its use of informants by guidelines set forth by the U.S. Attorney General. When presented with information, the FBI will typically evaluate both the information and the potential informant. The agency will have to evaluate any motivation, along with any risks to the potential informant or other individuals associated with the investigation.
They will have to consider the impact the informant will have on not only the investigation, but also on a potential trial. While the government can lawfully use an informant to advance an investigation, if the government is not careful, a poorly vetted informant can destroy the investigation.
Special Considerations in Being an Informant
In some instances, being an FBI informant can leave the informant exposed to harm. This is especially true where a criminal enterprise or terrorist organization is the subject of an investigation. Anyone considering becoming an FBI informant should consider the potential risk to their life and/or to the lives of close family members.
In cases where the informant is exposed to deadly retaliation, the FBI can offer various forms of protection. Witness protection is perhaps the best known form of protection. If you are placed in witness protection, you will likely get an entirely new identity and help in establishing a new life for you and your family. Another form of protection is the use of an alias in accepting compensation in exchange for providing the FBI with information.
Being an FBI informant can be a fulfilling experience. Informants play an important role in ensuring that justice is achieved. However, anyone considering becoming an FBI informant should be aware of both the risks and benefits.
Melissa McCall is an accomplished lawyer, science journalist and legal analyst. She graduated cum laude from Syracuse University in 2003 and spent two years as a Judicial Law Clerk, followed by 2 years at a general litigation firm and a brief stint as the Director of Environmental Protection for the Virgin Islands. Since leaving the US Virgin Islands, she has worked as a legal recruiter, legal writer and legal analyst.