- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2002

More than 50 foreigners studying at U.S. universities were arrested yesterday on suspicion of paying other people to take English-language proficiency tests needed to enroll in the schools and remain in the United States, federal authorities said.
Among the 56 persons arrested in 13 states and the District were seven in Northern Virginia, one of whom took the tests and six of whom had tests taken in their names, the FBI said.
"We allege they are they ones supposed to have taken the test," said Van Harp, assistant director of the FBI Washington field office, calling the six other defendants "customers."
Begad Abdel-Megeed, 21, was arrested yesterday at his Alexandria residence. Officials said he was paid by others to complete the Test of English as a Foreign Language, commonly known as the TOEFL exam.
Officials contend he and Mahmoud Firas, 36, of Riverside, Calif., who uses several aliases, are the scheme's masterminds.
All defendants face federal charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for New Jersey. The maximum penalty is five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Court appearances have been scheduled for today in the cases.
The arrests were announced by Christopher Christie, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, because a series of complaints was received by Princeton-based Educational Testing Services, a testing body used by schools across the United States.
The cases will be handled in New Jersey, where defendants will be transferred after the initial appearances in the districts of their arrests.
Arrests were made in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Washington state as well as the District and Virginia.
Authorities said a fraudulent test taker would appear at the test site with documents in the name of the student who had to pass the exam. The test taker would be photographed and ask that the test results be mailed to Mr. Firas' post office box in Moreno Valley, Calif.
Once the results arrived at the post office box, Mr. Firas or an accomplice would replace the photo with a picture of the person supposed to have taken the test.
The test results then were mailed in phony envelopes purporting to come from the Princeton-based test administrators to schools requiring the test scores, prosecutors said.
Officials said the scheme operated between 1999 and last month.
Mr. Firas and Mr. Abdel-Megeed were named in criminal complaints as the main test-takers and at least four others who were not named in court papers also took tests for other students, prosecutors said.
"We allege it was a pretty efficient scheme," Mr. Harp said, noting the investigation has been ongoing for approximately six months.
Mr. Christie said in New Jersey that the arrests were part of a strategy to arrest potential domestic terrorists before they could strike, but would not say if the case uncovered any links to terrorism.
"We are in essence in a race against people who come into this country by various means to commit crimes. It is not a good sign that one of the first acts these people did after arriving was to break the laws of the U.S.," Mr. Christie said.
Ray Nicosia, director of test security for the testing service, said the investigation began in late 2000. He said the company would review its procedures in order to make them safer.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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