A months-long joint investigation between NBC Bay Area and NBC News found thousands of foreign students may have used false employment records at more than a dozen potential shell companies to illegally stay in the country after attending American universities.
Many of those students may have used the companies as steppingstones to land jobs at major U.S. firms, according to government officials and an analysis of student LinkedIn profiles.
Foreign students studying in the U.S. can work in the country for up to three years using the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, an extension of the F-1 student visa program. OPT is designed to give those students additional hands-on work experience in a field related to their area of study.
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Among the top 25 OPT employers are industry leading firms such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple, according to records from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). But scattered among those corporate powerhouses are a handful of companies with unclear business dealings and virtually no online footprints.
NBC’s efforts to contact officers at 14 suspicious companies were met with a series of dead-end business addresses and disconnected phone numbers. Emails, phone calls, and social media messages went unanswered by all but two companies. In those two instances, an officer reached by phone verified their identity but declined to discuss their company.
Those 14 companies employed more than 5,500 foreign students through the OPT program in 2017, according to ICE records.
Although NBC’s investigation found evidence of possible abuse, those cases represent a small fraction -- less than 3 percent -- of the more than 200,000 students that participated in OPT in 2017.
But employment data for those suspicious companies may soon change. The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), which oversees the F-1 visa program on behalf of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, recently updated how it generates data for international students. SEVP provided NBC Bay Area with the updated numbers for three of those companies.
Tellon Trading employed 877 OPT participants in 2017 and 647 in 2018, according to SEVP data. Previous counts from SEVP were considerably higher, showing Tellon employed 1,637 foreign students through the OPT program in 2017.
CloudParticle Employed 316 OPT participants in 2017, according to the revised figures provided by SEVP. The previous count listed 335 OPT participants employed by the company in 2017.
Mountain View-based Findream employed 500 OPT participants in 2017 and 312 in 2018. The previous count listed 732 OPT participants in 2017.
Indicted Companies and an Accused Foreign Agent
In April, NBC Bay Area was first to report the arrest of Findream’s CEO, Chinese national Weiyun “Kelly” Huang.
An indictment filed in federal court detailed how Huang allegedly used two sham companies, Findream and Sinocontech, to provide fake employment documents for more than 2,500 students with F-1 visas. Huang is accused of netting more than $2 million from students paying for falsified employment records.
"In exchange for a fee, Huang and the companies provided written proof of employment to their customers, knowing that the companies did not actually employ them, the charges allege," ICE officials said in a July press release.
According to government officials, most of the OPT participants were employed by Findream for a very short period of time. They say it's likely the students used OPT employment at Findream to buy time while they looked for an OPT job at a legitimate U.S. company. Without OPT employment, F-1 visa holders must return to their home countries within 60 days of completing their studies.
One of the students was Ji Chaoqun, who’s facing federal criminal charges for providing information to Chinese intelligence officers about naturalized U.S. citizens from China and Taiwan who worked in the science, technology and defense industries. The indictment against Ji also details how the accused foreign agent attempted to join the U.S. military to gain access to sensitive information for the People’s Republic of China.
Both Ji and Huang have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them. Their respective attorneys did not return multiple phone calls from NBC Bay Area.
Search for Possible Shell Companies
Following the indictments against Findream and Sinocontech, NBC Bay Area analyzed OPT employment data, corporate filings, and a host of online records and found red flags with 12 additional companies, including some of the country’s top OPT employers.
Red flags varied by company, but each shared a common set of traits: Unreachable corporate officers, an OPT workforce comprised of 99% Chinese nationals and corporate headquarters based at either single-family homes, luxury residential high-rises or shared workspaces.
In the weeks following Huang’s arrest, NBC Bay Area documented a flurry of activity among multiple suspicious companies employing foreign students through the OPT program.
Two companies filed paperwork to formally dissolve. CG Max Design, with headquarters based out of a New York residential high-rise, took down its website and dissolved its company on June 12.
CloudParticle, based at a home just blocks away from Findream’s Mountain View headquarters, dissolved six days after federal law enforcement officials arrested Huang. The company's CEO, Jianfeng Yang, is currently employed as a Google engineer. His home on a quiet Mountain View street is listed as CloudParticle's business address, and the company has no apparent website or phone number. Yang declined to discuss the company when NBC Bay Area reached him by phone and again when NBC Bay Area found him in person outside of a Google office.
New York-based companies XCG Design and Arecy also took down multiple websites following the Findream bust.
Other top OPT employers continued to hire students even after their companies dissolved, according to ICE records and employee LinkedIn pages.
Tellon Trading dissolved as a company in 2016, but the Georgia-based company continued to employ hundreds of OPT participants in 2017 and 2018.
Like Tellon Trading, New York’s Masswell Development Group dissolved in 2016, but an analysis of LinkedIn profiles found foreign students claimed to begin working at the company as late as March 2019.
Months before Masswell dissolved, the company’s owner Jason Li was indicted by federal prosecutors in New Jersey in connection to a student visa fraud sting.
NBC Bay Area’s investigation also found red flags with six other companies that hired employees through the OPT program, including Abroad Intellect Capital, Acuty, Dealfar, Smoothies Technology and New Beast.
But there are signs other suspicious companies could be operating under the radar. NBC Bay Area focused its investigation on the country’s top OPT employers, but an analysis of more than a million student records from the Student and Exchange Visitor Program found many employers use the program on a much smaller scale.
It’s unlikely Ohio-based Prior Media -- with just a handful of OPT employees -- would have surfaced in NBC’s analysis without a tip from a source, who questioned the legitimacy of the company. Prior Media lists a shared work space as an address, but an employee who answered the phone at the coworking space said Prior Media only receives mail there. NBC Bay Area reached out to the company for comment, but never heard back.
Enforcement of the Program
“Any time you have people in the United States that are doing something other than what they’ve told us they’re doing, there’s always a risk,” SEVP Director Rachel Canty said. “But that is why we look at the companies very carefully. That’s why we do data analytics and that’s why we do investigations.”
Canty declined to discuss the Findream case or the suspicious companies identified by NBC Bay Area’s investigation, saying she couldn’t comment on ongoing investigations. But she said there’s always enforcement activity occurring behind the scenes.
SEVP has administrative compliance powers and can take enforcement actions that stop short of criminal investigations, such as withdrawing a school’s certification to accept international students if it's not complying with regulations. For cases that may warrant criminal probes, SEVP partners with Homeland Security Investigations or other law enforcement agencies.
“We have a multi-pronged approach to enforcement,” Canty said. “We do data analytics, we have technology, we have a lot of vetting tools. So there’s a lot of things we do behind the scenes to try to identify those entities that may require investigations.”
Historically, most enforcement of the F-1 visa program has been focused on schools. But ICE officials said they’ve recently begun conducting work site visits for certain OPT employers to ensure they’re providing legitimate work-based learning centered around students’ area of study.
Regulations adopted in 2016 granted ICE the authority to perform work site visits for companies hiring foreign students through the STEM OPT program, which allows F-1 visa holders studying science, technology, engineering, or math to work in the U.S. for three years in a field related to their studies. But those powers don’t extend to the standard OPT program, which allows just one year of employment for F-1 students.
Canty declined to state whether officials conducted site visits at the 14 suspicious OPT employers identified by NBC Bay Area, but ICE data shows all but one of those companies hired at least a portion of their F-1 workforce through the STEM OPT program, making them eligible for ICE inspections.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia), the ranking member on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said he’s concerned by the findings of NBC Bay Area’s investigation and called the threat of Chinese espionage in the U.S. an “extraordinarily serious problem.”
“If true, this is clearly a problem area,” Warner said
Warner said he’s currently working on bipartisan anti-money laundering legislation that would require companies to disclose their true owners and increase information-sharing between law enforcement, banks, and the Treasury Department.
“Many of these shell companies -- we don’t have any ability to pierce that veil,” Warner said. “We need that information. Not just in terms of the F-1 visa program, but candidly -- against potential terrorist financing, crime, other national security threats, as well.”