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The Latest F1 Visa OPT and CPT Scam

Students who hold an F1 Visa are restricted from engaging in employment in the United States except in particular circumstances such as CPT (Curricular Practical Training) and OPT (Optional Practical Training) – both of which require sponsorship by a bona fide employer. Unfortunately, some F1 visa students are gaining employment by illegitimate business entities formed for the express (and often sole) purpose of sponsoring F1 visa holders for CPT or OPT. 

OPT vs. CPT

  1. OPT is temporary employment that is directly related to an F-1 student’s major area of study. Eligible students can apply to receive up to 12 months of OPT employment authorization before completing their academic studies (pre-completion) and/or after completing their academic studies (post-completion). However, all periods of pre-completion OPT will be deducted from the available period of post-completion OPT.
  2. CPT is a program that temporarily allows international students with an F-1 visa to gain practical experience related to their major through employment. The students’ employment must not last longer than a year (12 months), or they will become ineligible for OPT. In addition, international students must finish their CPT before graduation, whereas OPT can be completed before or after graduation. Another significant difference is that CPT must be incorporated into the students’ curricula for credit. In contrast, OPT does not have to be a part of the curriculum.

Some entities that intend to engage in legitimate business activity are usually owned and operated by an F1 visa student. This presents the F1 visa holder with a dilemma for CPT and OPT approval. CPT and OPT must be sponsored by a bona fide employer. Because the F1 visa holder cannot sign their own sponsorship paperwork, only a person with business-level authority can complete the documents for OPT and CPT sponsorships. Thus, the F1 visa holder must be another person who holds an authority position in the business entity. 

Concerns exist that college and university employees may be encouraging F-1 student visa fraud. OPT permits an F1-visa holder to remain in the United States for an additional year as long as they are sponsored for employment in a position related to the student’s degree program.

F-1 student visas grant special permission for non-U.S. citizens to live in America while studying at an authorized school. Over one million international students are enrolled at American institutions, meaning F-1 visas are among the most issued visas in the United States. Students living in America under an F-1 visa are expected to cover their expenses without accepting paid employment in the U.S. However, F-1 Visa holders can obtain authorization to work on or off-campus. If international students wish to work off-campus, they must get approval through a Designated Student Officer (DSO) or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Possible types of off-campus employment include CPT and OPT. 

F-1 visa work authorization has provided excellent opportunities for international students to acquire work experience in the United States. Most students use the opportunity to advance their careers, but recent investigations and lawsuits suggest that the F-1 work authorization program is being grossly abused by thousands. In the 2019 Illinois lawsuit U.S. v. Weiyun Huang, a Chinese international Weiyun Huang was sentenced to three years in prison for conspiracy to commit visa fraud. Huang went on record to admit that she founded two companies – Findream LLC and Sinocontech LLC – to falsely employ foreign nationals in the United States. Huang advertised fraudulent visa-related employment on websites such as “www.chineselookingforjob.com.” Huang charged international students a “membership” fee in exchange for false employment offer letters, verification of employment letters, and form 1099-MISC tax forms. It is estimated that Huang profited nearly $800,000 from the two fraudulent entities and supplied false work authorization forms for over 2,700 students. Huang’s operation grew drastically since its inception in 2013, so why did it take so long for school and government officials to smell the fish?

University officials maintain that it is nearly impossible to police these types of offenses. First, the school has to ensure that all F-1 visa work authorization application documentation is correct. Schools have no way to ensure the registered entities are real, operating companies. Therefore, it becomes the government’s duty to police the companies that international students are authorized to work for. In Huang, this is precisely what happened. FBI agents discovered “www.chineselookingforjob.com” and similar websites advertising “pretend” work for international students at Findream and Sinocontech. The FBI investigated the two companies, even paying visits to their registered primary addresses. The FBI agents found that the addresses were false, meaning that Findream and Sinocontech were companies on paper only. Discoveries such as Findream and Sinocontech have increased over the past few years, suggesting those FBI agents merely scratched the surface of this issue.

NBC News has investigated a couple of potentially false entities and has found a handful of operations identical to Findream and Sinocontech. One Georgia entity, Tellon Trading, was found to have employed 877 OPT participants in 2017 and 647 in 2018. Similar to Huang’s operations, Tellon Trading’s primary office address was a ghost address. According to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), 204,633 students participated in OPT in 2017, and 200,162 did so in 2018. We already know that over 4,000 OPT authorizations were made under false entities, so officials should assume more of these operations exist.

The F-1 visa work authorization program was initially intended to provide international students with an opportunity to complete their curriculum programs and gain work experience. However, F-1 visa deception tactics used by some companies are what makes this a disheartening situation. 

Moreover, these illegal operations present a significant national security threat. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) warns that student visa programs pose potential national security risks. Other nations who engage in active foreign espionage to steal U.S. intellectual property, such as China, may be exploiting vulnerabilities in student visa programs. Senator Warner stated, “We need new tools to be able to figure out who are the individuals that control some of these phony companies, but we also need to make sure that we overall raise our game.” While it does remain to be seen if operations like Findream are widespread in the U.S., the government should proceed as if there are. 

These organizations violate 18 U.S. Code § 1546, “Fraud and misuse of visas, permits, and other documents,” and undermine the purpose of the F-1 student visa work authorization program.

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