WOODLAND HILLS—Five California residents were arrested on Tuesday, March 12 for helping Chinese international students cheat on literary proficiency exams that are used to enter the United States to further their education. They used fake Chinese passports to take the exams in place of the Chinese students. The students hoped to be foreign exchange students at universities in the United States. 

The arrests were made pursuant to a 26-count indictment returned on March 8, 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, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement indicated on their website.

An agent for Homeland Security Investigations, Christopher Kuemmerle, told the Los Angeles Times that 40 students used schemes like this to get into top U.S. schools such as University of California-Riverside, UCLA, and University of California-Irvine.

Several individuals were charged for their role in a cheating scandal involving the TOEFL exam for foreign students.

Charges include using fake passports and impersonating others to take false exams. Four arrests were made in the Los Angeles region, and one arrest was made in the Stockton area. One more defendant is suspected to be living abroad.

Liu Cai, 23, was living in Woodland Hills on a student visa, and took at least five exams for Chinese international students. The exam is the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). The exam is necessary to obtain a student visa in North America. Cai is an alumni of UCLA.

Others who were arrested included Samantha Wang, 24, of Corona, Mohan Zhang, 24, of Cerritos, Elric Zhang, 24, of Los Angeles, and Quang Cao, 24, of San Francisco.

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.

“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.”

Approximately 19 Chinese students were impersonated at different testing locations in Los Angeles. The indictment 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.

Written by Heidi Awada and Casey Jacobs