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Cheating ring to get foreign students US visas ends in 5 arrests, Calif. prosecutors say

Southern California prosecutors said five were arrested in a TOEFL test cheating scheme in which people sat for English proficiency exams for Chinese nationals using fake passports to help them get student visas.
Southern California prosecutors said five were arrested in a TOEFL test cheating scheme in which people sat for English proficiency exams for Chinese nationals using fake passports to help them get student visas. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Actresses and CEOs aren’t the only accused cheaters in trouble with federal investigators.

Authorities arrested five people in an alleged English language proficiency test cheating ring on Monday, after a federal grand jury indicted them and one other man on 26 counts last week — including charges of aggravated identity theft, conspiring to use fake passports and using fake passports, the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California said in a news release.

The cheaters forged Chinese passports to impersonate 19 foreign students and sit for the TOEFL exam in their stead, federal prosecutors said. That exam, which stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language, is required for many seeking student visas to study in the United States, according to the indictment.

The charges come the same day that federal prosecutors in Massachusetts announced dozens of arrests in a bigger, multimillion-dollar college-related cheating and bribery scheme. That investigation led to the arrests of actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman and accused scam ringleader William Singer, McClatchy reported.

The ringleader of the TOEFL scheme was Liu Cai, a 23-year-old from Woodland Hills, California, who is living in the United States on a student visa himself, according to prosecutors. Cai is accused of sitting for at least five TOEFL tests.

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Prosecutors said Cai signed up for — and paid for — the tests on behalf of 14 Chinese people from 2015 to 2016. Cai then used Venmo and PayPal to send others in the cheating ring about $400 for each test they took impersonating someone else.

Quang Cao, a 24-year-old San Francisco resident, is accused of taking at least four of the exams, and was arrested Monday in Stockton, California, prosecutors said. Elric Zhang, a Los Angeles 24-year-old, took at least five tests, while Mohan Zhang, a Cerritos 24-year-old, and Samantha Wang, a Corona 24-year-old, each took at least two of the tests, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said the four arrested in Southern California would be arraigned Monday in downtown Los Angeles, while Cao is set to appear in court in the Eastern District of California.

The one remaining accused cheater — Tuan Tran, 33, who took at least one test with fake documents — now lives in Taiwan, according to prosecutors.

Members of the cheating ring are accused of impersonating Chinese nationals at test centers across Southern California, including in Los Angeles, El Monte, Brea, Glendale and Thousand Oaks.

Many schools in the United States authorized to enroll foreign students require students who aren’t native English speakers to take TOEFL as a way to prove their proficiency, the indictment said. On exam day, test takers are required to show proctors a government-issued ID.

The group that administers the test, the Educational Testing Service, cooperated with investigators, prosecutors said.

A conviction on the conspiracy charge alone “carries a statutory maximum penalty of five years in federal prison,” according to prosecutors.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service are investigating.

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