When he was in high school in China, Siyuan Zhao wanted what hundreds of thousands of his peers strive for every year: the prestige that comes with a degree from a university in the United States.
And for Zhao, success seemed all but assured. He had good grades and was admitted to a one-year precollege program at Northeastern University, beginning his quest to study there full-time, according to his attorney.
Zhao was accepted, and four years later, his attorney says he is just a few classes shy of graduation. But all that success was thrust into peril this week when federal prosecutors charged him with paying someone to take an English proficiency exam he submitted to Northeastern four years ago as part of his application.
Zhao is one of 15 Chinese nationals charged in a federal indictment that describes an international, but relatively simple, scheme that involved students allegedly obtaining fake passports in China and sending them to conspirators in Pennsylvania who took standardized tests for them.
The 23-year-old student, hands and feet shackled, stood in a federal courtroom in Boston on Friday, hearing the charges.
In court, Zhao’s court-appointed attorney, Stellio Sinnis, described Zhao as a good student who does not pose a risk of flight.
“He’s a very young, very frightened young man,” Sinnis told US Magistrate Donald L. Cabell.
As part of the scheme, the conspirators in the United States would receive the passports containing the personal information of the Chinese students, and then an impostor’s photo would be pasted in, prosecutors said.
Some students allegedly paid impostors to take the SAT and GRE, paying as much as $6,000 per test. Zhao allegedly paid someone to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language. Zhao and the other students submitted those scores to US colleges, authorities said.
An indictment charging Zhao and the 14 others, unsealed Thursday in US District Court in Western Pennsylvania, includes 35 counts in total. Zhao faces four charges — one count each of making and using a false passport, conspiracy, wire fraud, and mail fraud.
Each count of wire fraud, mail fraud, and conspiracy could bring Zhao 20 years in prison, a fine of $250,000, or both. The conspiracy charge could result in five years in prison, a fine of $250,000, or both, according to the US attorney’s office in Pennsylvania.
Zhao is the only one of the 15 defendants who was arrested in Massachusetts, and he was taken into custody Thursday at his home in Revere, attorneys said.
The federal magistrate ordered Zhao to wear a GPS monitor and remain under house arrest, and set a $25,000 bond until his next court date, which has not been set but will be in Pennsylvania.
Two of Zhao’s college friends attended the court hearing Friday but declined to comment.
During the hearing, federal prosecutor Amanda Strachan questioned federal Homeland Security agent Robert Fisher, who participated in Zhao’s arrest.
Fisher said Zhao appears to possess ample financial resources, including a bank account that once received a $50,000 deposit. He also owns, or has owned, three luxury vehicles, including a Land Rover and two Mercedes-Benzes, during his time in the United States, Fisher said.
The alleged cheating scheme took place at testing sites in Western Pennsylvania between 2011 and 2015, the indictment says, but students sent the scores to schools across the country.
Another student, Biyuan Li, is alleged to have wired $5,990 in 2014 from a Massachusetts Bank of America account to an alleged coconspirator in China. None of the other defendants is believed to be from Massachusetts.
Northeastern defended its admissions process Friday and declined to comment on Zhao. The school receives about 50,000 applications each year and reviews them for veracity. The school learned of the federal investigation in August and was instructed to take no action, school spokeswoman Renata Nyul said in a statement.
“The university will refer [Zhao] to our office of student conduct for further action. We are prohibited by federal law from commenting further on disciplinary matters regarding specific students,” she said.
The companies that administers the entrance exams, the Educational Testing Service and the College Board, cooperated with the investigation, prosecutors said.
College Board vice president Stacy Caldwell said in a statement Friday that the organization attempts to identify and stop illegal activity that undermines the integrity of the tests.
The indictment comes as the number of Chinese students admitted to colleges in the United States hits all-time highs. There are five times as many Chinese students on US campuses today as in 2000, according to data from the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit that aims to boost higher education globally.
As the number of Chinese students applying to US universities grows, schools have become more vigilant about verifying pieces of applications found in the past to be fraudulent, said Anna Katten, associate director of school operations for the Burlington-based Ivy International Group, which helps students from abroad who are entering US high schools.
Many of those students hope to continue on to college in the United States.