It was a test cramming service unlike any other.
Forget the reams of study materials and the diagrams explaining the Pythagorean theorem. The American Test Center in El Monte promised a stellar score without any study whatsoever. It delivered you to your exam in a Mercedes-Benz. And, once you got there, it provided you with magical little pencils that had all the right answers.
This, according to federal prosecutors, was the service provided by George Kobayashi, an Arcadia man now under arrest in connection with the operation of a cross-country test cheating ring.
For a price ranging up to $6,000--or about 10 times the fee charged by legitimate test study services--Kobayashi ushered more than 100 students through the Graduate Record Examination and other standardized tests used for college admission, according to court documents and interviews.
Officials at the Educational Testing Service, which administers the exams, said Tuesday the alleged scam was not unprecedented. The Princeton, N.J., company has been victimized by about 40 cases involving unscrupulous test study outfits over the last two decades.
Stanford von Mayrhauser, general counsel at ETS, said his company has had trouble persuading local law enforcement officials to take action in what is often seen as a "victimless" crime.
"Historically, we've had difficulty in getting their attention," von Mayrhauser said. "There are real victims here," he said, referring to the colleges that are deceived and the students who play by the rules.
Federal authorities began investigating Kobayashi in 1995 when a confidential informant contacted the United States Postal Investigation Service.
The informant had responded to an ad for the American Test Center, which promised a "unique" five-hour crash course for a business school admission exam. By contrast, most study courses typically involve about 40 hours of classroom instruction.
After meeting with Kobayashi in a Manhattan hotel, the informant learned that the "course" wasn't really a course at all, according to a complaint filed in federal court in New York. Instead, the American Test Center flew the informant to Los Angeles, put her up in a hotel, and gave her a pencil with the answers.
The scam took advantage of what critics call a key flaw in ETS testing procedures: On a given day the test is administered, ETS gives exactly the same test, with exactly the same answers, nationwide. Kobayashi was thus able to dispatch teams of "crack" test takers to the exams in New York, who then relayed the answers to Los Angeles, where the same test would be administered three hours later, officials said.
The scheme was reminiscent of "past posting" con games decades ago, as portrayed in the movie "The Sting." Gamblers would make sure-win bets by getting the results of horse races moments before the outcomes were transmitted by racing wires.
Kobayashi's employees inscribed the exam answers onto pencils and gave the pencils to paying Southern California customers, whom Kobayashi shuttled to exam sites across the region, the complaint said.
Kobayashi's team of "experts" raced against time as the New York test ended and the L.A. exam neared, the complaint said. They allegedly used cellular phones to contact Kobayashi's Los Angeles employees, who were driving students to the test sites. The employees, in turn, called out the answers as the paying customers scrambled to finish writing them on their pencils.
Federal officials would not comment on precisely how the answers were encoded on the pencils. But sources familiar with the tests said it wouldn't be too difficult.
There are typically about 150 questions on a standardized academic test, the source said, divided in six or seven sections. There also happen to be six flat sides on a typical pencil.
"There are ways you can create patterns on the pencil in order to represent responses," the source said. "We anticipate it would be easy to do. Remember, students take more than one pencil in [to the exam]. The pencil could just lie right in front of them."
Kobayashi, 45, was being held without bail in federal custody in Los Angeles until a hearing on Thursday at which the U.S. attorney's office will request his transfer to New York, officials said.
Bob Ramsey, a Los Angeles lawyer representing Kobayashi, declined to comment.
Federal officials declined to comment on whether additional charges will be filed against others involved in the alleged cheating ring.
Industry observers said the Educational Testing Service has done little to combat what they say is a recurring problem.
"It's very upsetting because it's so easy to fix," said Seppy Basili, an official with Kaplan Educational Centers, one of the nation's largest test study service.