Some college students studying abroad become accidental spies

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — American college students are being used as spies against the United States. Although that may sound like the plot to a Hollywood movie, but the FBI says it’s very real, and it could unknowingly happen to others.

Statistics show there are more than 280,000 American students who study abroad every year.

FBI Special Agent Philip Celestini says that’s essentially more than a quarter million opportunities for foreign intelligence services to target those students, which already happened in China.

“We want to raise our awareness of our young people who are going abroad, and it’s not just in China,” Celestini said. “It’s in many countries in our world. Our young people go over their not even thinking they are a target for foreign intelligence services, but in fact they make themselves one.”

As a part of a national initiative, Celestini has visited area colleagues to show a video to educate students.

“The approach won’t come as someone with foreign intelligence service, it will come as someone offering a hand of friendship or offering some sort of help with that student’s problem,” Celestini said.

Some schools, like Samford, already inform students about these kinds of dangers.

“You want students to be aware of what’s going on. You want them to be aware of the dangers,” said Dr. Angela Ferguson, Samford’s Director of International Education.

Celestini agrees, and he says this isn’t a reason to be fearful of studying abroad. Rather, it’s important for students to be armed with the knowledge before traveling overseas.

“We want them to be able to protect themselves and realize that when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, particularly if you’re overseas,” Celestini said. “If students find themselves in need of money, the foreign intelligence agencies will recognize that and potentially target them.

The FBI offers tips when studying abroad.

Act smart. Be safe. Do not make yourself an obvious and easy target. Be careful of what you post on social media. Be aware of your surroundings and new acquaintances. Avoid actions that are illegal or improper. Do not gossip about character flaws or financial problems, and if you do find yourself in one of these situations, reach out immediately to the nearest embassy or consulate.

Copyright 2014 WIAT-TV CBS42

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