Federal authorities in California arrested five defendants Tuesday morning linked to a scheme that helped Chinese nationals obtain student visas by hiring individuals who used fake Chinese passports to take an English proficiency test for the foreign students.
The arrests were made pursuant to a 26-count indictment returned on Friday by a federal grand jury. The indictment charges the defendants with conspiring to use false passports, using false passports, and aggravated identity theft as part of the scheme to impersonate Chinese nationals who were required to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) to obtain a student visa.
This case is being investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s Fraud Detection National Security Section. The Educational Testing Service, which administers the TOEFL exam, has provided assistance during the investigation.
“On top of allowing students to cheat their way into our top universities, schemes such as this exploit our nation’s legal immigration system and threaten our national security,” said Joseph Macias, Special Agent in Charge for HSI Los Angeles. “As this case shows, we will move aggressively to identify and prosecute those who engage in fraud and corrupt the immigration process for profit.”
The five defendants were taken into custody this morning without incident. They are:
- Liu Cai, 23, of Woodland Hills, who allegedly facilitated the scheme, took at least five TOEFL exams himself and is residing in the United States on a student visa;
- Quang Cao, 24, of San Francisco, who allegedly took at least four TOEFL exams with false identification, and who was arrested today in Stockton, California;
- Elric Zhang, 24, of Los Angeles, who allegedly took at least five TOEFL exams as part of the scheme;
- Mohan Zhang, 24, of Cerritos, who allegedly took at least two TOEFL exams under the names of foreign nationals; and
- Samantha Wang, 24, of Corona, who allegedly took at least two TOEFL exams.
The four Southern California defendants are expected to be arraigned on the indictment this afternoon in U.S. District Court in downtown Los Angeles. Cao is expected to make an initial appearance this afternoon in the Eastern District of California.
The sixth defendant in the case – Tuan Tran, 33, who allegedly took at least one TOEFL exam with a false identification document – is believed to be currently residing in Taiwan.
The United States requires foreign citizens who wish to enter the United States on a temporary basis to study at a college or university to first obtain an F-1 student visa. To obtain a student visa, foreign citizens must first apply to study at a school that has been authorized by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) to enroll foreign students. In the United States, many SEVP-certified schools require foreign citizens whose first language is not English to certify proficiency in English by achieving a particular score on the TOEFL.
When the foreign national goes to a TOEFL testing location, the test taker must present an original, non-expired, government-issued identification document recognized by their home country. According to the indictment, all six defendants used counterfeit People’s Republic of China passports to impersonate 19 different Chinese nationals at various TOEFL testing locations in and around Los Angeles.
The indictment further alleges that Cai paid for and registered 14 Chinese nationals for TOEFL exams over a one-year period in 2015 and 2016. Following the tests, Cai allegedly paid three co-defendants approximately $400 per test from his PayPal and Venmo accounts.
The conspiracy count in the indictment carries a statutory maximum penalty of five years in federal prison. The charge of using a false passport carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. Aggravated identity theft carries a mandatory consecutive two-year sentence.