The United States has indicted 15 people from China with fraud and conspiracy over a four-year scam to fake entry tests into American universities in what campaigners warn is a wider problem.
Attorney David Hickton for the western district of Pennsylvania unsealed the 35-count indictment against the suspects, of whom seven men and five women aged 19 to 26 were identified on Thursday.
Ten of the suspects are resident in the United States in Boston, Pittsburgh, California, Wisconsin, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Massachusetts. So far only one, in Massachusetts, has been arrested.
Arrest summons have been issued for the other nine and the other two are in China, Hickton said.
The indictment lifts the lid on an elaborate cheating scam that saw prospective students pay others up to $6,000 to take a test on their behalf using a fake passport mailed from China.
Contact was made over the Internet via messaging services, photographs solicited for fake passports, which were made in China and delivered by mail or DHL courier to the test takers in the US.
The defendants -- who include test sitters and beneficiaries -- were indicted by a grand jury in the city of Pittsburgh with alleged conspiracy, counterfeiting foreign passports, mail and wire fraud.
The United States has some of the most prestigious universities in the world, to which entry is highly prized and in part determined by success on a series of standardized tests.
US prosecutors refused to identify which colleges were involved, saying that the institutions were classified as victims.
Prosecutors allege that the scam took place from 2011 to 2015, and that the investigation is ongoing.
"My suspicion is there is more to it," Hickton told AFP. "I suspect this is not confined to China. We are aware of a case done years ago with Saudi nationals," he added.
Fraud carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and/or a fine of $250,000; counterfeiting a foreign passport carries a maximum penalty of 10 years and/or a fine of $250,000; and conspiracy is punishable by five years in prison and/or a fine of $250,000.
- 'Tip of the iceberg' -
One expert voiced fears that there were more students -- foreign and domestic -- who may be cheating their way into college.
"All we have seen is the tip of the iceberg," said Robert Schaeffer, public education director at Fair Test, a national center for fair and open testing based in Boston.
He told AFP there had been "many reports" of cheating on the SAT test in Asia, particularly in China, Hong Kong and Korea.
"The pressure, particularly in Asia, to get high scores so that you can be admitted to a US university apparently is so great that some students and their families resort to cheating," he said.
China sends the most number of foreign students to the United States, with 274,439 in 2013-14, or 31 percent of the total international enrollment, according to the Institute of International Education.
India came next with 11.6 percent, followed by South Korea with 7.7 percent.
Prosecutors said the defendants had not only sought fraudulent admission to higher education but circumvented visa requirements.
"These students were not only cheating their way into the university, they were also cheating their way through our nation's immigration system," said Homeland Security Investigations special agent John Kelleghan.
But cheating has also been a problem at home.
In Great Neck, Long Island, the upper class community that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel "The Great Gatsby" more than a dozen teens were arrested in 2011 in connection with cheating.
Five students were charged with taking university-entry tests on behalf of others and 15 were accused of paying them $500 to $3,600 to do so, The New York Times reported.
Schaeffer said the College Board and Educational Testing Service has "major global test security problems" and that re-using the same exam in different time zones was a particular issue.
"A test security system that worked reasonably well in the 20th century... falls short in an era of micro-cameras, instant messages, dark websites and other high technology tools that allow for the very rapid copying and transmission of information," he said.