Immigration officials are trying to track down more than 200 Chinese students who got into New Zealand with fraudulent visas, warning that anyone caught in the country illegally will be booted out.
The immigration scam, run out of China, involved the use of fake qualifications and other false information.
"There is zero tolerance for people involved in fraudulent activity," said Dean Blakemore, branch manager for compliance operations at Immigration New Zealand.
"The reality is if they are here unlawfully or they don't have a current valid visa they could be deported."
A routine audit by Immigration New Zealand's Beijing branch last month uncovered 279 fraudulent visas. Of that total, 231 students are still in the country with the visas and authorities are trying to track them down.
"We have two teams operating in the Auckland area, locating students as we speak and today we've located 10 students who we're currently interviewing," Blakemore said.
Immigration Minister Kate Wilkinson is downplaying the fraud.
"We have about 25,000 applications a year from China so in the scheme of things it's pretty small," she said.
She said the investigation shows the system is working.
"It is robust and these occurrences are rare, thankfully. But having said that, we have to investigate it. We want to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Labour's export education spokesperson Raymond Huo said the case is evidence that the rules in relation to assessing qualifications and visa processes should be tightened.
"The revelation about the student visa immigration fraud is a real concern because it comes on the back of a string of serious issues plaguing our export education industry," he said.
"The credibility of the sector has nose-dived in recent years with the Asian education market using descriptions like 'ghetto education' or 'dumping ground' to describe New Zealand. This is not the kind of reputation we want."
The fraud has been traced back to two agents in Beijing and students may not know they have been a party to fraud.
"That's why we want people to come forward and tell us their story, their version of events. We'll listen to that," said Blakemore.
Those who do not co-operate could find themselves deported and subject to a five-year ban from New Zealand.
Twenty education providers - all in the Auckland area - have been identified as having enrolled people implicated in the fraud.
Anyone concerned they may be involved should contact Immigration New Zealand.
The agency says the sooner people come forward, the easier the whole process will be.