If what prosecutors claim is true, Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin could have Razzy worthy roles starring next to Marlon Brown in a remake of 1989’s “How I Got into College.” The alleged easy way out amateurs who, with others, collectively paid millions of dollars to “assist” their genetic lottery winners’ successful college admission into such universities as USC, Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Wake Forrest, Ramsey (well, not really), and others, relied on the good old power of the almighty dollar to perpetrate the nationwide college entrance scheme. In lieu of cheating the old-fashioned way, “Operation Varsity Blues,” the relatively unoriginal but cutely named federal bribery and cheating investigation, resulted in dozens of arrests involving paid off Division 1 coaches, photoshopped pictures of high schoolers playing sports when they were likely absorbed in selfie inspired “insta” posts, and some old school cheating on SATs and ACTs. A heck of a scheme if you don’t get caught, this entire criminal enterprise had nothing on the one-man professional test-taking operation and self-proclaimed “GMAT Hero” along with his larger band of [admission slot] thieves. Responsible for taking in excess of 500 GMAT, GRE and TOEFL exams (go ahead, Google “Lu Xu” and “GMAT”), his proficiency and skill was unparalleled even among his test-taking cohorts. Sorta’ a lesser known of the Uncanny Xmen of the college admissions underground.
What started off as a boring day as a second-year prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and ended more than a couple years later with then District Attorney Robert Morgenthau sending me to testify in federal court for the defense – yes – the defense, the nearly yearlong fraudulent college admission investigation involved “flipping” and developing a confidential informant, aka, “CI,” finding two Mandarin speaking undercovers with the NYPD and Postal Inspection Service respectively, a midnight ride to Pittsburgh where we met with their PD’s warrant squad and at least one canine companion before “hitting” a location, and overlapping with the FBI and US Attorney’s Office out of two separate districts (that was a mouthful and possible run-on). Before the cases came to an end – wires transcribed from Mandarin to English, catching a professional-test taker in the midst of an exam, drafting and executing approximately a dozen search warrants, identifying hundreds if not north of a thousand scamming students and test-takers, and arresting or indicting about two dozen people – colleges and universities from NYU, Stern Business School, Columbia, Columbia Business School, Michigan, Tulane, McGill, USC, Georgetown and dozens more unwittingly admitted or received applications from Xu’s and other fraudsters’ “students.”
A fairly simple scheme, after the NYPD arrested an unknown test-taker for entering his/her former employer’s office and charged him/her with Burglary in an completely unrelated case, the proprietor advised me in passing that there were passport style photos of Asian men and women on the defendant’s computer along with what appeared to be a template for something called the TOEFL, later identified as the Test of English as a Foreign Language. A little bored of narcotics and violent crime and trying to find something to run with as a very junior felony prosecutor, upon completing my due diligence and, admittedly, doing so a little rogue, I “flipped” and wired up the defendant who ultimately became a CI. Out of law school less than two years, my former Chief gave me a pass to forge ahead in a manner unheard of in today’s environment. Before I knew it I was on to something of real significance (or at least better than “buy and busts”).
After months of assembling the proverbial puzzle, our investigation revealed that professional test-takers were paid anywhere from roughly $2,000 to north of $30,000 to sit for GRE, GMAT, and TOEFL exams for students hailing from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Depending on the service, customers, aka, prospective students, paid for the test-taker to use a fake PRC passport containing their personal information but the image of others. Those with more money purchased fraudulent diplomas from foreign universities, fake recommendation letters, even bogus financial documents and Con Edison bills to present an entire package to the schools of their choice.
Although prolific in their scam, the organization was both tightly monitored and flawed at the same time. Only servicing clients speaking Mandarin, our attempt to introduce a Cantonese undercover was swiftly rejected. In fact, we learned that a Russian and Korean enterprise existed as well but lacked the time, resources and undercover or informant to break the respective groups. Even with additional targets bubbling to the service, we continued our pursuit of the “men on the passports” as well as the “bosses” and the artist who meticulously crafted the passports and other materials. Ultimately, the test-takers and their partners could remain in the shadows for only so long. Their downfall was a marriage between our diligence and their laziness.
Upon learning of the forwarding address used by many of the exam takers and credit card used to register for the TOEFL, GRE, GMAT, etc., I subpoenaed Educational Testing Service, ETS, to provide us with every test or forwarding address using the particular credit card and every test and credit card used in a particular forwarding address. In no time, the information mushroomed to hundreds, if not beyond one thousand students across the United States and in China either enrolled in or who applied to some of the most highly regarded educational institutions. So skilled were the test-takers, that one advised one of our undercovers that he needed a particular grade to get into NYU Stern but a score too high would be inconsistent with the claimed GPA. After agreeing to a score on the GMAT, the test-taker nailed it.
After the year long investigation wound down and we executed our take-down, the NYPD, with assistance from the Postal Inspection Service, grabbed a bunch of “bodies.” In fact, prior to taking the main defendants into custody, I secured an indictment containing numerous crimes even charging the test-takers with “consensual” Identity Theft of the students. After some back and forth, the test-takers and their bosses pleaded and were sentenced to anywhere between 1.5 to 4.5 years in prison up to 2 1/3 to 7 years incarceration before the Feds finished their piggybacking and took custody of the defendants.
Its worth noting that the colleges were complicit, to a certain extent, in this scheme. As matter of course, a co-conspirator would alter the unofficial results by replacing the fraudulent test-taker’s picture with that of the student applying to the school. At no point did any of the colleges or universities take a moment to compare the submitted unofficial result with the formal GRE, GMAT or TOEFL. Moreover, these colleges and universities never even compared the student ID with picture on the result form. Certainly, Dean’s List material these faculty and staff members were not…
Before the literal and proverbial door closed on one test-taker, however, he and I had many a sit down where he explained how he took so many tests, how he excelled, and the lack of security that made the crime so easy to perpetrate (“Americans are so stupid,” he liked to tell me). Unfortunately, I learned something else. One test-taker was studying to sit for the LSAT and shared some of his thoughts with me about five or six years too late. Maybe I could have gone to Harvard after all.
All jokes aside, and to his credit, Xu is now a GRE and GMAT tutor. American fortitude and entrepreneurship at its greatest.
Saland Law PC is a New York criminal defense firm founded by two former Manhattan prosecutors.