WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Fifteen Chinese nationals have been charged with developing a fraud scheme in which they paid impostors to take entrance exams, including the SAT, and gained acceptance to elite American colleges and universities, the U.S. Department of Justice said on Thursday.
Conspirators were paid up to $600 each time they used counterfeit Chinese passports to trick test administrators into thinking they were the person who would benefit from the test score, a federal grand jury charged.
Between 2011 and 2015, mainly in western Pennsylvania, the defendants paid impostors to take the SAT - previously known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test - the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), under false names, according to the Justice Department statement.
Both the test takers and the people they claimed to be are being charged.
U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania David Hickton said the beneficiaries secured admission to undergraduate and graduate schools that are "among our finest educational institutions."
Hickton declined to name the specific schools, but said that they are located all over the United States. The students also cheated student visa requirements by using counterfeit Chinese passports, he said.
The defendants are men and women between the ages of 19 and 26 currently living in several cities where universities are located, including Blacksburg, Virginia, home of Virginia Tech and Boston, Massachusetts, home to dozens of colleges and several elite schools.
"These students were not only cheating their way into the university, they were also cheating their way through our nation's immigration system," said John Kelleghan, Special Agent in Charge for Homeland Security Investigations of Philadelphia.
If convicted, the defendants face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, a fine of $250,000 or both for each count of wire and mail fraud. Conspiracy charges carry an additional five-year maximum sentence.
Reporting by Julia Edwards; editing by Doina Chiacu and G Crosse