9 investigates how economic espionage drains billions from U.S. companies

by: Blake Hanson Updated:

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - What Bill McMahon did isn't the norm. The former founder and CEO of a Charlotte energy-technology company turned in one of his own. 

"You never want to go after one of your own people," McMahon said. "He was part of the family, but when you starting seeing this kind of stuff you say, 'Well, I wonder if there is something there.'" 

In 2014, McMahon's work family suspected it had a thief. 

Xiwen Huang, a naturalized U.S. citizen, had been emailing himself confidential company documents. He created his own, separate company. He disappeared on a trip for McMahon's company and met with officials from "state-owned Chinese power companies."

McMahon said it was out of character.

"He'd go out and have drinks with us, he had people at his house, he was a brilliant guy," McMahon said. "We had no clue."

MacMahon grew suspicious and his company turned to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Special Agent Mark Aysta.

"[The company] suspected they may have had a theft or breach of their intellectual property and at that point we initiated our investigation," Aysta told Channel 9’s Blake Hanson.

The investigation led to agents raiding Huang's Ballantyne home. They took him into custody and prosecutors charged him with conspiracy to steal trade secrets.

It's a crime that's quickly becoming a growing priority for the FBI.

"We're talking about hundreds of billions of dollars a year being stolen from American businesses. In fact, this is the number two priority in the FBI, right behind counterterrorism," Aysta said.

Quantifying the problem isn't necessarily an easy thing to do. Companies can be hesitant to involve the FBI and admit they have a problem.

"It's not an easy thing to call the FBI and say, 'Please come in and look into this.' No company wants to admit that they have been compromised," McMahon said.

The FBI says it was able to quickly help McMahon's company before the damage was worse.

To ease companies' hesitations, the FBI is conducting research that it said shows stock prices are not impacted when companies come forward.

The feds also keep company names out of public records. Channel 9 agreed to not name McMahon's company, either.

The FBI has also created a short movie called "The Company Man" to raise awareness of what economic espionage looks like.

McMahon, who is no longer with the company he worked at with Huang, now speaks to other companies about the issue and the dire importance of asking the FBI for help.

"If this happens, you could shut a company down and hundreds of people lose their jobs. Hundreds of people don't have anything to put on the table for the kids," McMahon said.

Huang is currently serving time at a federal prison in Atlanta. He is scheduled to be released in 2019.