Undercover investigation: 'Stranger danger' applies to college kids, too
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Last year, 72 young adults aged 18 to 25 were reported abducted by strangers. Surprisingly, it's teenagers, not little kids, who are abducted most often by strangers. And some of those teens are in college.
In fact, victim rights advocate John Walsh, creator and host of "America's Most Wanted," says that college kids are easy targets. "I think every college kid thinks they're bulletproof and immortal," he said.
To see if that's really true, TODAY set up an experiment at Hofstra University outside of New York City, with NBC national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen posing as a reality show casting director with a van and a home video camera to film auditions — an easy ploy for a predator, according to experts consulted by NBC News. His pitch: "Hi, we're casting a reality show about college students. Are you interested?"
Rossen invited students to get into the van "to fill out paperwork," but several were wary enough to refuse. "I'm not getting in a car, dude," a freshman named Anthony said.
Ky, another student, also refused the invitation. "I don't feel comfortable getting in a car," she said. "My mother taught me well."
But Nicole, also a student, entered the van without apparent hesitation.
Still playing the part of a casting director, Rossen asked her: "So why would you want to be on a reality show?"
"I think it's really cool," Nicole said. "I see stars like Kim Kardashian and people like that just kind of have fun."
Nicole filled out a form supplied by NBC News, handing over all her personal information: name, address and phone number. She even complied when Rossen asked: "By the way, can I just grab your phone real quick?" — an action that, with a real predator, would have left her trapped with no way to call for help.
"Now he can rape you, beat you, kill you, drop your body off, do whatever he wants," John Walsh commented. "You're on his turf. You're in his lair."
After revealing his true identity to Nicole, Rossen pointed out: "I was able to get you into that van. You didn't ask for my ID."
"I know," Nicole acknowledged.
"You even handed your cellphone over to me, no questions asked," Rossen said.
"I know, crazy," Nicole said.
A male student, Nate, also got in the van and forked over his phone — all for the chance to be famous. And Michelle and Ashley, two roommates, didn't even flinch as they walked back to the van with Rossen. They even joked about being kidnapped.
"If you don't drive off, I'll be very upset," Michelle kidded.
"I would cut you if you drove off, no offense," Ashley said. But they got in the van anyway, one even supplying her Social Security number.
"You got sophisticated young people to do everything we tell 'em not to do," Walsh commented.
Of the eight students Rossen asked to get inside his van, half did so, learning a valuable lesson. "I would rather learn the hard way through this, than the hard way through — the real hard way," Nate said.
"This'll teach me a lot about, like, security and being more aware," Nicole said.
This is such a concern that many colleges require safety training. But experts say that's not enough: Parents need to talk to their kids about "stranger danger" not only when they're 5 years old or 7 years old, but also at 13, 16 and 20.
"Trust your gut," Walsh advised. "If it doesn't seem right, don't do it."
TODAY shredded all the information supplied by students for this report.