NEW YORK - A “secretive” Pakistani software company is making millions of dollars a year selling fake academic degrees , certificates and diplomas around the world, according to a lengthy report published in a leading American newspaper Monday. Citing former insiders, company records and an analysis of its websites, The New York Times said Axact, the Karachi-based company, has sold engineering degrees to advertising agency men and medical degrees to hospital workers. “This is probably the largest operation we’ve ever seen,” a retired FBI agent and author of a book on diploma mills, was quoted as saying in the dispatch written by correspondent Declan Walsh. “It’s a breathtaking scam.”
The firm offers online degrees in dozens of disciplines and shows endorsements, video testimonials and authentication certificates bearing the signature of John Kerry. The company allegedly impersonates American government officials who “wheedle or bully” customers into buying State Department authentication certificates signed by Kerry.
“Yet on closer examination, this picture shimmers like a mirage. The news reports are fabricated. The professors are paid actors. The university campuses exist only as stock photos on computer servers. The degrees have no true accreditation,” The NYT report added. “In fact, very little in this virtual academic realm, appearing to span at least 370 websites, is real except for the tens of millions of dollars in estimated revenue it gleans each year from thousands of people,” it said.
The said Axact’s main business has been to “sell fake academic degrees and turn it into an Internet-era scheme at a global scale”. However, it said, Axact’s role as the owner of this fake education empire remains obscured by proxy Internet services, combative legal tactics and a chronic lack of regulation in Pakistan.
“Axact makes tens of millions of dollars annually by offering diplomas and degrees online through hundreds of fictitious schools,” The New York Times added. “Fake accreditation bodies and testimonials lend the schools an air of credibility. But when customers call, they are talking to Axact sales clerks in Karachi.” The newspaper said Axact employs over 2,000 people and calls itself Pakistan’s largest software exporter, with Silicon Valley-style employee perks like a swimming pool and yacht.
While Axact does sell some software applications, the paper said, its main business has been to take the centuries-old scam of selling fake academic degrees and turn it into an Internet-era scheme at a global scale.
As interest in online education is booming, it said the company is aggressively positioning its school and portal websites to appear prominently in online searches, luring in potential international customers.
At Axact’s headquarters, former employees were cited as saying that telephone sale agents work in shifts round the clock. Sometimes they cater to customers who clearly understand that they are buying a shady instant degree for money.
But often the agents manipulate those seeking a real education, pushing them to enroll for coursework that never materialises or assuring them that their life experiences are enough to earn them a diploma.
Revenues, estimated by former employees and fraud experts at several million dollars per month, are cycled through a network of offshore companies, the Times said. The allegations against Axact have surfaced at a time when company is in final phase of rolling out BOL, a TV channel that company has been setting up for over two years now.
In response to Axact’s response to repeated requests for interviews over the past week, The New York Times said the company issued a blanket denial, accusing a Times reporter of “coming to our client with half-cooked stories and conspiracy theories.”
In an interview in November 2013 about Pakistan’s media sector, Axact’s founder and chief executive, Shoaib Ahmed Shaikh, described Axact as an “IT and IT network services company” that serves small and medium-sized businesses. “On a daily basis we make thousands of projects. There’s a long client list,” he said.
In October, the Times said Yasir Jamshaid, a quality control official who left Axact in October, moved to the United Arab Emirates, taking with him internal records of 22 individual customer payments totaling over $600,000, the report said.
Jamshaid has since contacted most of those customers, offering to use his knowledge of Axact’s internal protocols to obtain refunds. Several spurned his approach, the paper said, seeing it as a fresh effort to defraud them.
“The heart of Axact’s business, however, is the sales team — young and well-educated Pakistanis, fluent in English or Arabic, who work the phones with customers who have been drawn in by the websites,” the Times said. They offer everything from high school diplomas for about $350 to doctoral degrees for $4,000 and above.
“It’s a very sales-oriented business,” said an unnamed former employee who, like several others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared legal action by Axact.