Pass masters

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 May, 2009, 12:00am

In the corner of a coffee shop in Shenzhen, a mousy-looking English-language graduate leans across the table and speaks in a hushed voice as she explains how she supplements her income as a sales executive by helping wealthy students buy their way into overseas universities.

'It's very easy and very safe,' she tells our undercover Chinese reporter. 'A lot of the friends I graduated with do it all the time and none of them ever get caught. The identity cards we use are so good no one can tell them from the real thing.'

Glancing both ways, she leans forward and lowers her voice. 'I'll take the English exam for you for 2,000 yuan [HK$2,275] plus expenses. The grade will be good enough to get you into a university in Britain. I've done it three times already and I've got the right grade every time.'

Smartly dressed and unassuming looking, 27-year-old Chen Xiao seems an unlikely fraudster. But this middle-class professional is part of a network of white-collar mainland impostors whose activities undermine western universities' admission systems for overseas students.

Stand-in candidates, known as 'shooters', claim to be able to exploit loopholes in a globally respected examination system to help students with weak English skills get the qualification they need, along with a home-country degree, to secure university places.

Armed with counterfeit ID cards and sheer brass neck, they pass themselves off as their paying customers to sit the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) examination - a one-day English test taken by thousands of students across the mainland every month and usually a prerequisite to getting immigration clearance and taking up a university place in Britain, Australia or the United States.

Testimony suggests IELTS exams are being infiltrated by shooters on a nationwide scale, potentially earning places in overseas universities at the expense of properly qualified students. IELTS administrators acknowledge the problem and say new technology to beat the cheats is being considered.

Two underground syndicates boast of having hundreds of shooters across the mainland ready to sit IELTS exams for prices ranging from 4,000 yuan, for the 6.5-out-of-10 score necessary to qualify linguistically for many standard overseas degree courses. The price rises to 8,000 yuan and more for scores of 7.5 and above - results that are good enough to qualify for more demanding degree courses, such as law and medicine.

Freelance shooters - many of them low-paid, middle-class graduates of English - tout for business on Putonghua-language websites and chat rooms, offering to sit exams at cut-price rates.

Each year, about 100,000 students take the IELTS exam - jointly run by the British Council and the University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations board along with an Australian examination body - in 37 test centres across the mainland. Described as a 'secure, valid and reliable indicator of true- to-life ability to communicate in English for education, immigration and professional accreditation', an IELTS certificate combined with a local university degree is a passport to study overseas.

With 1 million examinees globally a year, it has become the world standard in English-language testing - and a lucrative system for the academic bodies that charge fees of about 1,200 yuan for each candidate who takes the two-part written and oral exam in the mainland.

Their scam is possible, say the shooters, because although candidates must send passport-sized photos in with their applications, security checks at exam centres concentrate mainly on identity cards - which can be expertly counterfeited on the mainland - allowing a ringer who looks similar to a real candidate to slip past.

'I've got one shooter who has sat the IELTS test about 50 times over the past two years,' says a retired academic running a Shanghai-based operation that openly advertises for shooters to take exams in centres from Beijing to Guangzhou. 'He makes a very good living and just moves from one centre to another. There are so many centres that he doesn't have to risk turning up at the same centre twice - and even if someone recognises him, there are plenty of people who have to re-sit the exam to get a pass.

'It is big business and you can do very well out of it. At busy times like September, I reckon that out of a room of 30 candidates taking the written part of the test, four or five of them will be shooters.

'There's a lot of demand out there so there's plenty of work. There are a lot of wealthy families in China now and going to a British university carries a lot of prestige, but without an IELTS certificate with a score of at least 6.5 they can't get a place, no matter how rich they are.

'Even so, we've had to cut our prices because there are so many agencies and so many freelance shooters on the market now. Graduates of English with office jobs are finding they can make more money in a couple of hours as a shooter than in a fortnight at work.'

The syndicate boss says that to infiltrate centres where security is tight, he uses a database to track down shooters who are '60 per cent similar' in appearance to clients. Photomerging software is then used to submit application photos that resemble both shooter and customer.

'The checks are only rigorous in places like Shanghai and Beijing these days and photomerging is the best option,' he says. 'Elsewhere, you can send in someone who looks roughly similar. Inspectors will usually only check candidates' names against identity cards.'

Mr Ma, the manager of another syndicate, in Hubei province, says many customers use a shooter for the written exam and take the oral exam in person. Facilitating the ruse is the habit the examiners have of using different personnel for each of the two parts of the exam to reduce the risk of bribery, he says.

'Anyone who is going to use the IELTS certificate to get into an overseas university has to speak good enough English to get through the course in any case. It's their written English that is weak and it takes a fairly strong candidate to get a score of 6.5,' Ma says.

He adds: 'We have other safeguards too. At the written tests, you have an examiner and two inspectors who walk between the desks. Those inspectors are usually school teachers working on their Saturdays off and they only get about 50 yuan or so for every exam. Our agency has very good relations with a lot of those inspectors. They don't enjoy their work but they need the money. If anyone gets suspicious, we find that they're happy to take 200 yuan or so to make sure everything goes smoothly.'

In 2006, a new generation of 'smart' identity cards with watermarks and an embedded security chip was introduced on the mainland. They appeared forgery-proof but within weeks of the first ones being issued, the country's notorious counterfeiters were turning out high-quality fakes, which can be made on demand for about 1,200 yuan.

'Compared to other Chinese exams, the checks at IELTS exams are pretty rigorous,' Ma says. 'Two inspectors check the candidates when they come into the centres to sit the exams but they rely too much on the identity cards.'

Some shooters do get caught, he admits. 'It's rare though,' he says. 'It's only happened a handful of times in all of the commissions that we've dealt with and we have hundreds of shooters out there.'

Ma adds: 'The security checks would be tough enough in most countries but this is China. If they really wanted to stop our shooters, they should invest some of the money they're making in finger-printing or face-recognition technology.'

Xia Jie, 29, a Guangdong office worker and freelance shooter, claims she has sat the IELTS test 15 times at various centres in the past 21/2 years. 'I do this more or less full time and I also do the TOEFL [test of English as a foreign language] that some students need to go to universities in the US,' she says.

'The security checks aren't a problem. The hard part is remembering what your name is supposed to be when they do the roll call. I have to repeat the name to myself over and over before the exam so that when they call out the name, I answer quickly and in a natural way.'

The risks for shooters appear relatively low. 'If you get caught, the worst thing that can happen is that you'll be banned,' says Ma Cong, another freelance shooter in southern China. 'The police won't get involved because the exams are a commer- cial venture.

'Getting caught out can be devastating though. There was a case last year of a graduate who sat IELTS exams as a shooter in Shenzhen again and again and was making so much money he gave up his job as a computer salesman. The problem was he turned up at the same centres too many times. They caught him and banned him and circulated his picture and details. He was so ashamed about it he committed suicide.'

While shooters might hoodwink the institutions behind the exams, their presence will come as little surprise to the many mainlanders who believe the country's wealthy routinely buy their way to academic success overseas.

When the central government recently suggested finding ways of drawing talented overseas graduates back home, internet forums were abuzz with sarcastic reaction. One participant wrote: 'What talent? They bought their qualifications; they didn't work for them.'

Presented with Post Magazine's findings, a Britain-based spokeswoman for the IELTS system acknowledges the challenge presented by shooters but declines to give figures on how many impostors have been caught.

'We have come across a number of cases where candidates in China have attempted to use impostors to take the test for them. We take this issue extremely seriously and have worked closely with security experts and immigration officials from several countries to develop and refine a rigorous system of ID verification,' she says.

Testing teams on the mainland are 'very experienced and well trained in face recognition', the spokeswoman says. The teams are equipped with mobile ID verification technology that has online access to the government's ID verification database, she adds.

More rigorous steps may be taken in future. 'We are currently reviewing the potential of the latest anti-fraud technologies, including biometrics, to combat test cheats.'

Mick Warwicker, head of press and communications at Britain's Newcastle University, which in November expelled 50 mainland students found to have bogus qualifications after staff became suspicious about their poor levels of English, says: 'We will look at [Post Magazine's investigation] with great interest in view of our current practices.

'What you have done ... will probably be a great service to universities. Hopefully they will look at this and at their own checking arrangements to plug any holes. What happened to us may have only been the tip of the iceberg.'

Rooting out the cheats has severe cost implications for universities; expelling the mainland students cost Newcastle University an estimated GBP1 million (HK$11.6 million), according to Warwicker.

'We were quite surprised our investigation didn't trigger similar things in other universities. We expected after we expelled 50 students to have lots of other universities examining their situation with Chinese students because they can't have just been targeting us,' he says. 'Ideally, the examination boards and universities should work together to produce a fool-proof system.'

BACK IN THE COFFEE shop in Shenzhen, Chen is warming to her theme as she works to close the deal she believes will earn her a fourth stint as a shooter at an IELTS exam.

'We look very similar,' she tells our undercover reporter. 'Your hair is a little longer than mine but I can easily make myself look more like you when I go for the exam. I've got an ordinary face and no one ever looks too closely at my features.'

Sipping thoughtfully on her fruit juice, she adds after a pause: 'I do still get nervous. When I'm in the exams, I never look straight into the inspectors' eyes. I just put my head down, finish the paper and leave as quickly as I can. It isn't what I'd choose to do. It's just a way to earn money.'