FBI: Study abroad students at risk of spy recruitment
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FBI: Study abroad students at risk of spy recruitment

FBI: Study abroad students at risk of spy recruitment

The FBI is back at it again: warning US students hoping to study abroad that they could be prime prey for foreign intelligence agents who might try to turn them into spies.

This week, as most college students come back from spring break, the Cleveland FBI office got serious about the threat of espionage. FBI officials in Cleveland have warned local students considering studying abroad of the danger that they could be approached by a foreign national or someone representing a foreign government and targeted for espionage.

“You might not have information that you think is valuable to someone but they may see you as a valuable person, someone that they can control, someone that they can get into a business or they can get in to the government to get them some information,” said Cleveland FBI agent Vicki Anderson. 

This is not the first time the FBI has set its sight on the dangers of study abroad. In April 2014, the agency issued a stern warning to students across the US that were hoping to study abroad, cautioning them that foreign intelligence officers were known to target young, naïve people from the US to convince them to engage in espionage activities.

Study abroad “experiences provide students with tremendous cultural opportunities and can equip them with specialized language, technical, and leadership skills that make them very marketable to U.S. private industry and government employers,” the FBI wrote in its official statement on the subject.

However, it continued, “this same marketability makes these students tempting and vulnerable targets for recruitment by foreign intelligence officers whose long-term goal is to gain access to sensitive or classified U.S. information.”

The FBI cited the case of Glenn Shriver, a college student who moved back to China, where he studied abroad, after graduation in 2004. He hoped to work on his language skills and find a job – but, after responding to a classified ad, made contact with people who offered him money to apply for US government jobs, particularly in the State Department and the CIA. Shriver received $70,000 for his unsuccessful applications before he was caught and arrested by the FBI in 2010.

Later in court, Shriver admitted that the goal was for him to obtain a government job that would give him access to classified information, which he could then pass along to his contacts, who worked for the Chinese government. He eventually pled guilty and was sentenced to four years in prison.

The FBI also made a 28-minute film about Shriver’s situation, titled “Game of Pawns,” intended to inform other students about what happened to Shriver and help them ensure such a thing never happens to them.

In addition, it offered hints about how foreign intelligence officers might go about making contact with students, who may often be seen as easy targets due to their age. Officers “develop initial relationships with students under seemingly innocuous pretexts such as job or internship opportunities, paid paper-writing engagements, language exchanges, and cultural immersion programs,” according to the FBI’s statement.

As relationships are developed, the undercover officers – who have likely not identified their real job – might ask students to perform a task or provide information in exchange for some kind of monetary or other compensation, and the demands “grow over time,” potentially ending with requests that, upon graduation, the student apply for US government jobs, especially those related to national security.

However, everything isn’t doom and gloom in the study abroad-spying world. The agency also offered tips for students on how to avoid falling victim to these espionage schemes. Suggestions include minimizing the amount of personal information disclosed, as well as people with unclear political affiliations or potential ties to criminal activity (this is generally a wise rule for all study abroad students to follow).

It also warned students to “be skeptical of ‘money-for-nothing’ offers and other opportunities that seem too good to be true, and be cautious of being offered free favors, especially those involving government processes such as obtaining visas, residence permits, and work papers.”

As if the preparation for study abroad weren’t enough of a task in itself, now it seems that students must remain vigilant, lest they unwittingly become a foreign spy.

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