Tuesday, May 19, 2015
From Print Edition
ISLAMABAD: The entire Pakistani nation faced great shame and embarrassment when the New York Times presented on Monday strong evidence that a Karachi-based company, Axact, was selling fake online degrees, verifying and authenticating them under a fake mechanism and impersonating the US State Department and even US Secretary of State John Kerry.
There is no need to work hard or study day and night to become a judge, doctor, engineer, police officer, journalist, professor, pilot, etc. Not only are degrees now easily available, they can also be authenticated on the payment of money. You can even get the US State Department’s and the US Secretary of State’s letters by paying some more money. Most importantly, you need not to go anywhere for the purpose; everything is available here in Pakistan. Just contact Axact.
It is interesting, however, that Axact’s official website will not share any information whatsoever regarding its education projects. Not even the slightest details are available; you will have to find them by using some tricks.
‘Pakistan’s largest software exporter’, as claimed by its CEO, is not even a member of the association of IT and software exporters and until one year ago was not even registered with the Pakistan Software Export Board. Not only this, the ‘leading software company of the world’ is unable to disclose its software products (names of software prepared by it) on its official website as all leading IT firms of the world do.
The company is selling degrees from the high school to university-level across the world in more than 100 countries, and has so far sold certificates and degrees to a huge number of people and is earning tens of millions of dollars per month. According to the NYT report, nothing exists in reality, neither any university nor any high school,and everything is done merely by telephone marketing clerks who can speak good English or Arabic. This has been going on since years, with huge voice data traffic to hundred-plus countries, but ironically the activity was never monitored or traced.
Axact, in its official response, however, said that the NYT story is ‘baseless, substandard, maligning, defamatory, and based on false accusations and merely a figment of the imagination’. It said the story was carried at the behest of their competitors in the business. Axact will be pursuing strict legal action against those involved, the company said.
The scandal, undoubtedly, can be considered the biggest ever financial scam of its kind. The entire international media is following the story and is unable to compare it with any other financial scandal of this nature.
Shoaib Ahmad Shaikh, the owner of the company Axact, in various speeches (videos present on company’s official website) used to claim that he wants to become the richest person in the world, even richer than Bill Gates of Microsoft.
The volume of the scam can be judged from the statement of a retired American FBI official, Allen Ezell, who also investigated Axact and is quoted in the NYT story as saying, “Hands down, this is probably the largest operation we’ve ever seen.” Allan Ezell, who is also the author of a book on diploma mills, also stated, “It’s a breathtaking scam.”
Now the Pakistan government and federal agencies are facing one of the biggest challenge to take swift action against those involved in this international-level alleged fraud before the world imposes any sanctions or announces its own verdict. There is no leadership, as the executive lacks decision-making power to initiate real action.
The NYT reported, “Axact’s response to repeated requests for interviews over the past week, and to a list of detailed questions submitted to its leadership on Thursday, was a letter from its lawyers to The New York Times on Saturday. In the letter, it issued a blanket denial, accusing a Times reporter of ‘coming to our client with half-cooked stories and conspiracy theories’.”
The whole world was shocked after the breaking of this shameful scandal by New York Time’s investigative reporter Declan Walsh who worked extremely hard to bring forward one of the best investigative stories reported in years. Axact officially responded to the NYT story but tried to give a spin to whole issue as is the practice in Pakistan. ‘Kill the messenger, instead of responding to actual allegations and start making allegations against others to confuse the whole issue,’ is what always happens in Pakistan. Axact responded that its competitors and rival groups are running a campaign against it. However, the NYT story carries court judgements passed in 2007 and 2009 in the UK and the USA respectively and at that time the company had not even announced any plans to set up a media business. A majority of past instances of fraud, selling of fake degrees, court cases and judgements are from five to seven years ago and are hard facts.
Many big names in the field of anchoring had joined the media project of Axact. However, all of them initially avoided defending their parent company’s involvement in this heinous fraud case at the international level. However, a senior anchorperson, who is known because of his thousands of investigative stories, tweeted on Monday afternoon, and while completely avoiding denying the NYT story’s contents or even discussing them, simply referred to some old NYT stories on Pakistani politicians and institutions, and asked people to not to ignore the pattern. However, the senior and respected anchorperson himself used to give references of these NYT stories in his own articles. Especially, references to the NYT stories on politicians and institutions in his stories for Daily Jang and The News are still fresh in people’s minds. It is important to note that the story was so strong that even the anchorpersons who are taking lucrative salaries, perks and privileges from the Axact Group completely avoided denying its contents and this senior anchorperson only confined his tweet to some past stories of the NYT. Interestingly, he even avoided denying or contradicting those old NYT stories.
According to the NYT story, the design and layout of all the websites of high schools and universities owned by the Axact Group were almost the same. None of these universities or high schools exists at all anywhere. Declan Walsh also revealed technical details of the company’s internet servers which are used by all these fake universities and high school websites and reported in the following words, “There are technical commonalities, too: identical blocks of customized coding, and the fact that a vast majority route their traffic through two computer servers run by companies registered in Cyprus and Latvia.” All the tactics of the modern science of being at No-1 or No-2 on popular search engines were being used.
The major tool used to fool ordinary people in so many countries of the world was hiring expert blogging teams who labour day and night to praise these universities and other fake institutions on popular blogs like CNN’s iReport section. According to the report, “The sources described how employees would plant fictitious reports about Axact universities on iReport, a section of the CNN website for citizen’s journalism. Although CNN stresses that it has not verified the reports, Axact uses the CNN logo as a publicity tool on many of its sites.”
The cost of fake degrees from high schools to universities varied from US$400 to $400,000. A shocking part of the NYT report is that Axact was showing itself as a partner of the US government to its clients and according to the reporter all this was fake and in reality Axact has no link with the US State Department or any US official. The US government has not denied Declan Walsh’s report till the publication of this story. The part about John Kerry reads, “A more lucrative form of upselling involves impersonating American government officials who wheedle or bully customers into buying State Department authentication certificates signed by Secretary Kerry. Axact employees often follow up aggressively with previous customers, pushing them to buy more. Some pose as American officials, badgering clients to spend thousands of dollars on State Department authentication letters. Payments are funneled through offshore firms.”
All students and professors shown on the universities’ websites are paid actors. The NYT report reads, “LinkedIn contains profiles of purported faculty members of Axact universities, like Christina Gardener, described as a senior consultant at Hillford University and a former vice president at Southwestern Energy, a publicly listed company in Houston. In an email, a Southwestern spokeswoman said the company had no record of an employee with that name.”
The NYT story refers to court cases where degrees issued by fake universities owned by Axact were proved fake after a trial. In one case, Axact was a party while in others universities owned by Axact become parties. The following paras explain briefly the court cases:
“In 2007, for example, a British court jailed Gene Morrison, a fake police criminologist who claimed to have degree certificates from the Axact-owned Rochville University, among other places.”
“It has also petitioned a court in the United States, bringing a lawsuit in 2007 against an American company that is a competitor in the essay-writing business, Student Network Resources, and that had called Axact a ‘foreign scam site.’ The American company counter sued and was awarded $700,000, but no damages have been paid, the company’s lawyer said.
“In his interview with The New York Times in 2013, Axact’s chief executive, Mr. Shaikh, acknowledged that the company had faced criticism in the media and on the Internet in Britain, the United States and Pakistan, and noted that Axact had frequently issued a robust legal response.
“We have picked up everything, we have gone to the courts,” he said. “Lies cannot flourish like that.” The following case in the USA is the most important example in the NYT story:
“Axact’s role in the diploma mill industry was nearly exposed in 2009 when an American woman in Michigan, angry that her online high school diploma had proved useless, sued two Axact-owned websites, Belford High School and Belford University.
“The case quickly expanded into a class-action lawsuit with an estimated 30,000 American claimants. Their lawyer, Thomas H. Howlett, said in an interview that he found ‘hundreds of stories of people who have been genuinely tricked,’ including Ms. Lauber, who joined the suit after it was established.
“But instead of Axact, the defendant who stepped forward was Salem Kureshi, a Pakistani who claimed to be running the websites from his apartment. Over three years of hearings, his only appearance was in a video deposition from a dimly lit room in Karachi, during which he was barely identifiable. An associate who also testified by video, under the name ‘John Smith,’ wore sunglasses.
“Mr. Kureshi’s legal fees of over $400,000 were paid to his American lawyers through cash transfers from different currency exchange stores in Dubai, court documents show. Recently a reporter was unable to find his given address in Karachi.”