They faked disabilities. They photoshopped faces onto different students' bodies. They paid millions in bribes, feds say — all part of a scam to ensure kids from rich American families got into the nation’s most selective colleges.
And they got caught. On Tuesday, federal authorities unveiled the results of a sting that could take down TV celebrities and college coaches.
The scam required dozens of bribes of test administrators and relied on colleges’ different standards for student-athletes. William Rick Singer, the person at the center of the scam, described it more succinctly: “What we do is help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school.”
Start the day smarter: Get USA TODAY's Daily Briefing in your inbox
Here’s how they did it, according to hundreds of pages of court documents detailing the allegations — the anatomy of a scam:
Bribe college exam administrators
The Edge College and Career Network would help set up bribes of administrators of exams like the SAT or ACT, federal prosecutors allege. In some cases, someone else took the test for the student. In other cases, the students were given answers during the test. Their test might also be revised after the fact.
This, the feds say, is how "Desperate Housewives" actress Felicity Huffman used Singer's company: She paid a testing official to help her daughter on her SAT test or change her test answers.
One lie leads to another
To get to this point often required more deception. These tests generally take place in large group sessions, though students with disabilities are allowed extra time. They also can take the test alone. That meant parents would have to lie about their children's having a learning disability.
The students also had to take tests at sites where the network had control. Parents were told to “fabricate a reason — such as a bar mitzvah or a wedding,” that would explain why they needed to take the test elsewhere.
In one instance, a parent sent the network a handwriting sample from her child so staffers could better replicate the physical style of writing. The sample read, in jagged letters: “To whom it may concern, this provides an example of my current writing style. Thank you for your attention.”
Were the students in on it?
Apparently no. Many had no idea their parents were paying to illicitly alter their tests. One key witness, thought to be Singer, said: "They’re all kids that wouldn’t have perform[ed] as well and then they did really well. ... It was so funny ‘cause the kids will call and say, 'Maybe I should do that again. I did pretty well and if I took it again, I’ll do even better.' "
Claim to be an athlete
Universities and colleges who compete in sports nationally have special slots designated for student-athletes. Typically, the academic requirements for such slots are less stringent than they would be for a traditional student. The key witness described this process as entering through a “side-door.”
Where did the money go?
Parents often would donate to a charity set up by Singer: the Key World Foundation. That charity would then donate to coaches or to university programs chosen by coaches.
The bribe in hand, the coach would then say the student was an athlete, regardless of her or his physical prowess.
Funneling the bribes through a charity also allowed parents to take tax deductions.
This is the method the feds say Lori Loughlin, who played Aunt Becky on "Full House," used to get her two daughters admitted to the University of Southern California. Loughlin and her husband paid USC officials to admit the daughters as crew recruits, even though they did not row competitively, court documents say.
But wouldn’t people know the students weren’t athletes?
A cooperating witness told prosecutors they would simply fake athletic credentials.
In some cases, they would stage photos of the students involved in the sport. In others, they would simply photoshop faces of the students onto the bodies of actual athletes engaged in real sports. In one instance, the student was said to have played for a team out of China.
Sometimes, the false sports credentials attracted attention later. A college adviser asked one such student about being in track. He wasn’t on the team, but unbeknownst to him, his parents had arranged for him to be accepted to the college as such.
The student told the advisor he wasn’t an athlete, but the exchange was still enough to worry the parent.
“So does that just follow him around? On all of his records?” she asked.
The key witness, apparently Singer, said he didn’t know, but that it didn’t matter.
I know a guy who got my kid into college...
So how did parents sign up for the scam? Often Singer’s customers would refer others.
How much did they pay?
Clients of the network would pay between $15,000 and $75,000 per test. In one case, the family of one student paid $1.6 million for admission to Yale University. Tuition at the university along with fees, room and board runs $72,100 annually. In fall 2017, the Ivy League university, considered to be one of the most prestigious in the country, admitted just 7 percent of those who applied.
Is this everyone involved?
No. Prosecutors said at a press conference more people might be involved with the scam than just those initially charged. And one of the cooperating witnesses said he or she had worked the athletic scam with roughly 800 families.
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fake disabilities, photoshopped faces: How feds say celebrities, coaches and scammers got kids into elite colleges