A Woodland Hills man has pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges in connection with a scheme where Chinese nationals fraudulently obtained student visas by hiring people with fake Chinese passports to take an English proficiency test on their behalf.

Liu Cai, 24, pled guilty to two felony counts of using a false passport. United States District Judge John A. Kronstadt scheduled a Feb. 13, 2020, sentencing hearing, at which time Cai will face a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.

Cai is the lead defendant in a 26-count federal grand jury indictment returned in March, charging six 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.

According to his plea agreement, in March 2015 and October 2016, Cai knowingly and willfully used counterfeit passports of the People’s Republic of China, furnishing them to proctors of the TOEFL exam. Cai admitted that he took the TOEFL exams on behalf of two Chinese nationals who sought to enter and remain in the United States on student visas.

Cai further admitted that he belonged to a network of U.S. citizens and permanent residents that were paid to impersonate TOEFL examinees. Cai impersonated a Chinese national on at least five occasions between March 2015 and October 2016, according to his plea agreement. Because of Cai’s conduct, college applicants fraudulently entered and remained in the United States on fraudulently obtained student visas, the plea agreement states.

The United States requires foreign citizens who wish to enter the United States on a temporary basis to study at a college or university to first obtain an F-1 student visa.

To obtain a student visa, foreign citizens must first apply to study at a school that has been authorized by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) to enroll foreign students. In the United States, SEVP-certified schools require foreign citizens whose first language is not English to certify proficiency in English by achieving a particular score on the TOEFL.

When the foreign national goes to a TOEFL testing location, the test taker must present an original, non-expired, government-issued identification document recognized by their home country.

All of Cai’s co-defendants — Quang Cao, 24, of San Francisco; Elric Zhang, 25, of Los Angeles; Mohan Zhang, 24, of Cerritos; Samantha Wang, 25, of Corona, and Tuan Tran, 33, of Taiwan — have pleaded guilty to criminal charges in this case and are scheduled to be sentenced in the coming months.