Massive US online degrees’ fraud exposed: Goa News

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Perpetrator traced in Karachi; lured gullible people through 370 attractive websites

A massive fraud of awarding online American degrees in dozens of disciplines in the name of hundreds of universities and high schools was on Monday exposed, with its perpetrator traced in Karachi, running the virtual world fraud with over 2,000 staffers of a software firm.

Don’t be surprised to run into someone in India flaunting the degrees of any of the universities with elegant names as victims of the big academic fraud exposed by The New York Times are from across the globe, lured by 370 attractive websites that none could suspect to be a mirage.

Names of the universities from whom degrees were awarded are quite impressive like Barkley, Newford, Belford, Granttown, Rochville, Columbiana and Headway. None would have suspected as seen from the Internet, it is a vast education empire with smiling professors at sun-dappled American campuses, enthusiastic video testimonials, glowing endorsements on the CNN iReport website and even the State Department authentication certificates bearing the signatures of Secretary of State John Kerry.

NYT found out that very little in this virtual academic realm is real — except for the tens of millions of dollars in estimated revenue it gleans each year for many thousands of people around the world, all paid to a secretive Pakistani firm called Axact, whose founder Shoaib Ahmed Shaikh has already built a massive empire and recruiting prominent journalists in Pakistan for launching a television and newspaper group later this year.

Shaikh seized the opportunity that came his way from a booming interest in online education, aggressively positioning his portal websites to appear prominently in online searches, luring in potential international customers and impersonating American government officials to persuade the gullible customers to buy certificates and authenticated documents.

Revenues, estimated by former employers and fraud experts at several million dollars per month, were cycled through a network of offshore companies, while 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 tailors its websites to appeal to customers in principal markets, including the United States and Persian Gulf countries. One Egyptian man paid $12000 last year for a doctorate in engineering technology from Nixon University and a certificate signed by John Kerry.

Last May, Mohan (39), an Indian employed as a junior accountant at a construction firm in Abu Dhabi, paid $3,300 for what he believed was going to be an 18-month online master’s programme in business administration at Grant Town University. All that he got was a cheap tablet computer in the mail, but no education applications or course work but only a series of insistent demands for more money.

When a caller identifying himself as an American embassy official railed at Mohan for his lack of an English language qualification, he agreed to pay $7,500 to the Global Institute of English Language Training Certification that turned out to be another Axact-run website. In the second call, he was pressed to buy a State Department authentication certificate signed by Kerry and he was charged $7500 more to his credit card.

In September came a call from a main claiming to be from the United Arab Emirates government, threatening deportation unless he legalises his degree locally and so he agreed to pay $18,000 in installments. By October, he was $30,000 in debt and sinking into depression.

Mohan’s sheer luck was that he ran into Yasir Jamshaid, an ex-employee of Axact who quit the company and moved to UAE in October, taking with him internal records of 22 individual customer payments totalling over $600,000. Jamshaid has contacted most of these customers, offering his services to get back their money. After weeks of fraught negotiations, Axact refunded Mohan $31,300.

Axact’s role in the diploma mill industry was nearly exposed in 2009 when an American woman in Michigan challenged the useless diploma awarded to her. The case quickly expanded into a class-action lawsuit with an estimated 30,000 American claimants. But instead of Axact, one Salem Kureshi, a Pakistani, stepped forward claiming to run the websites from his apartments. His legal fees of over $400,000 were paid to his American lawyers through cash transfers from currency exchange stores in Dubai. The lawsuit ended in 2012 when a federal judge ordered Kureshi and Belford to pay $22.7 million in damages. None of the damages have been paid.

Kureshi has vanished into thin air while Belford is still open for business, using a slightly different website address to continue to cheat the gullible.