Fake Diplomas, Real Cash: Pakistani Company Axact Reaps Millions
May 17, 2015 10:19 PM   Subscribe

“We host one of the most renowned faculty in the world,” boasts a woman introduced in one promotional video as the head of a law school. “Come be a part of Newford University to soar the sky of excellence.”
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.
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 many thousands of people around the world, all paid to a secretive Pakistani software company.
Declan Walsh for The New York Times
posted by p3on (42 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is horrifying, but also brilliant. Fake LinkedIn profiles for fake graduates!
posted by miyabo at 10:44 PM on May 17, 2015


The extent of their scam empire is amazing, complete with predatory upselling.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:44 PM on May 17, 2015


What a remarkable 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
...
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.
...
“We were dealing with an elusive and illusory defendant,” said Mr. Howlett, the lawyer for the plaintiffs.
...
The lawsuit ended in 2012 when a federal judge ordered Mr. Kureshi and Belford to pay $22.7 million in damages. None of the damages have been paid, Mr. Howlett said.


Wow. How can he get away with this? Why isn't the justice system finding any purchase on Shaikh? It sort of lends some plausibility to the idea that he has the backing of the Pakistani state itself.
posted by clockzero at 10:58 PM on May 17, 2015


It's hard to get any purchase on a company in a third world country that doesn't have any real assets abroad.
posted by tavella at 11:30 PM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well I guess the jig is up. Dr Literaryhero no longer.
posted by Literaryhero at 12:07 AM on May 18, 2015 [4 favorites]


'And there's doctors and lawyers,
And business executives'
posted by clavdivs at 12:11 AM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


Preying on people's dreams of self-improvement - there should be a special circle of Hell for that.
posted by Segundus at 1:12 AM on May 18, 2015 [4 favorites]


Metafilter: “I really thought this was coming from America,” he said. “It had so many foreigner stamps. It was so impressive.”
posted by Segundus at 1:13 AM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


So, the U.S. military sends drones; Pakistan responds by targeting individual Americans with fake online degree programmes. Have I got this right?
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:28 AM on May 18, 2015 [10 favorites]


I wonder if there is particularly high incidence of e-gullibility in the shrinking pocket of adults who reached maturity before the internet was in full swing. In any case, we should be educating kids on how easy it is to make credible-looking false claims on the internet. "Do your homework" has taken on a completely different meaning from the days when everything you could need to know was contained in your textbooks and the set of encyclopedias in the library.
posted by mantecol at 1:39 AM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


> Have I got this right?

The people making decisions about and profiting from the drone programs are not being victimized by the education scams. The people running the scams are not being attacked by drones.

So, no.
posted by ardgedee at 3:25 AM on May 18, 2015 [14 favorites]


Winston University.
posted by Marky at 3:30 AM on May 18, 2015 [4 favorites]


They're disrupting the entrenched accreditation system. Their service is so much more convenient, I'm not surprised they are making enemies from within the legacy government run industry.
posted by Poldo at 5:20 AM on May 18, 2015 [8 favorites]


Why isn't the justice system finding any purchase on Shaikh?

Are you serious?
posted by wilful at 5:41 AM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well, they're not generating the proper amount of loan debt, so, yeah, enemies.
posted by Bee'sWing at 5:42 AM on May 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


I guess you could say that their students learned a priceless lesson?
posted by blue_beetle at 5:56 AM on May 18, 2015


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 countersued and was awarded $700,000, but no damages have been paid, the company’s lawyer said.

This is the craziest part for me. How on earth does a company that offers made-to-order plagiarism operate in the open, let alone go to law and win?
posted by fifthrider at 6:01 AM on May 18, 2015


Made-to-order plagiarism could be marketed as a study guide service. While it might break every academic code of conduct and be highly unethical, it likely isn't illegal to do this.

I'm glad my degree from the Miami Institute of Technocracy is real. It's printed on the back of a real Wheaties box, and is signed by that US Navy hero, Cap'n Crunch.
posted by scruss at 6:10 AM on May 18, 2015


I am glad my wife didn't fall for these. Hindered in her career progression by the lack of a degree, she had looked into the for-profit school route, which was still a few years away from its recent collapse. I would not be surprised if a few of these schools came up in the search. We eventually got her into a real school and she has a real degree, but during moments of frustration and desperation, I am pretty sure these looked like an easy solution.
posted by Badgermann at 6:43 AM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


They're disrupting the entrenched accreditation system. Their service is so much more convenient, I'm not surprised they are making enemies from within the legacy government run industry.
Yes, the official disruption agent for the distance and online education markets is apparently going to be LinkedIn.
posted by Sonny Jim at 6:57 AM on May 18, 2015


[Comment removed, I know accusations of trolling are sort of de rigueur on a lot of the internet but it's something that's rarely good for conversation here. Just say what you're thinking instead of what you think someone else is thinking, if you want to talk about it.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 7:25 AM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


Unusual for a software entrepreneur, Mr. Shaikh does not habitually use email or a cellphone, said several people recruited to his new station, Bol.

And that's why he gets shit done!
posted by sour cream at 7:39 AM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


Why isn't the justice system finding any purchase on Shaikh?

Apparently there's some educational value to this scheme after all.
posted by sneebler at 7:43 AM on May 18, 2015


So, the U.S. military sends drones; Pakistan responds by targeting individual Americans with fake online degree programmes. Have I got this right?

And who is the real victim here?
posted by Pyrogenesis at 8:12 AM on May 18, 2015


There is a list of all the sites the Times could find here.
posted by Samizdata at 9:43 AM on May 18, 2015


I've always entertained the idea of buying from one of these places since I don't have a degree but do have a ton of experience and the idea that me not sitting in a 101 level class on World History or English or something disqualifies me from a job I've already done for over a decade runs me up the wall. Downside, of course, is the Times runs an expose on my phoney baloney college and, welp, which is why I haven't. Interesting that it runs so deep.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:10 AM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sorry, guys, my old boss got a letter so i guess we'll just have to cease and desist.
posted by cortex at 11:32 AM on May 18, 2015 [30 favorites]


HAHAHAAAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAAAHAHAAHAAHAHA

oh wow, that's rich
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:42 AM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


Sorry, guys, my old boss got a letter so i guess we'll just have to cease and desist.

This is super funny and I also wish there were sanctions for stuff like that simply because while yeah, in this case it's pretty hilarious, it's also a way that those with resources (money, time, legal teams) can limit the speech of those with fewer resources simply by using the thread of the legal system. If it were possible to sue someone who tried to make you take down content when they didn't have the right to, maybe we'd get fewer bullies with lawyers trying to intimidate people who post legal and legitimate criticisms of them.

I recognize that this is is not that simple but it really, REALLY bothers me that these kinds of threats can be made consequence-free and will often work simply because hiring a lawyer is expensive and ignoring the threats can be risky.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 11:59 AM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


http://xwebsrvdenew:705 is one of my favorite website
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 12:07 PM on May 18, 2015 [6 favorites]


Why isn't the justice system finding any purchase on Shaikh?

Are you serious?


Yes, I was serious. I'm not a lawyer, so my question is asked from a position of some ignorance about how this would work, but it surprised me. Perhaps that was a naive question, but it's also not obvious exactly how or why the company seems to be evading any concrete consequences of committing a massive fraud operation.
posted by clockzero at 12:28 PM on May 18, 2015


Wow, that C&D letter is rich.

Your act of circulating the same defamatory content, amounts to libel for republication of the defamatory content.

As a result of the circulation, our client and his reputation have been severely damaged by the circulation of your harmful and damaging statements. No monetary compensation can repair the wrong caused upon our client by your unlawful acts,
however, the estimated loss occurred till now has reached PKR 500 Million and is growing every minute.

Hereon on receipt of this Notice, you are advised to act in accordance herewith within 24 hours failing which we have definitive instruction to initiate Civil as well as criminal proceedings against you in U.K, U.A.E, U.S and all/any jurisdictions applying in the circumstances of the case.


I'm impressed that MeFi is powerful enough to inflict losses of nearly US $5M in 14 hours. Also, I'd like to see the statutes these assholes intend to sue under in the US. Bring on the criminal charges!
posted by Existential Dread at 12:36 PM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


How many times can someone use the word "impugned" in a single letter? Lots, apparently.
posted by surazal at 12:48 PM on May 18, 2015


No monetary compensation can repair the wrong caused upon our client by your unlawful acts,

Wow. Between this and the manic rhetoric about the new media company, the client really comes across as borderline-delusional.
posted by clockzero at 12:56 PM on May 18, 2015


I love the Columbiana homepage screenshot featuring a mirrored illustration of the American continent.
posted by clearlydemon at 1:02 PM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


Ghostride The Whip: “I've always entertained the idea of buying from one of these places since I don't have a degree but do have a ton of experience and the idea that me not sitting in a 101 level class on World History or English or something disqualifies me from a job I've already done for over a decade runs me up the wall. Downside, of course, is the Times runs an expose on my phoney baloney college and, welp, which is why I haven't. Interesting that it runs so deep.”
I actually kind of hope stories like this help people to understand that two decades of experience means more than any degree. I had a client a couple of years desperate to hire me full time. They got told by their HR department that the job requires a bachelor's level of expertise and they were not permitted to hire me. The fact they were paying my day rate for me to do the job they wanted to hire me for didn't even occur to the geniuses in HR.
posted by ob1quixote at 1:54 PM on May 18, 2015 [4 favorites]


There are plenty of legitimate, accredited universities that can give a legitimate degree online such as, Old Dominion, or seeking a master's, Georgia Tech. A lot of institutions offer credits and degrees online. My University will let you get credit for prior learning, as an example, so get the BA/BS, it not that hard from a legit university.
posted by jadepearl at 2:48 PM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


Reading that C&D letter I am put in mind of what is known in English legal circles as 'The Reply In Arkell v Pressdram'. More details here, but the original letter and the famous Reply are brief enough to quote in full (for context, 'Pressdram' is the business identity of Private Eye magazine).

------------------------------

29th April 1971

Dear Sir,

We act for Mr Arkell who is Retail Credit Manager of Granada TV Rental Ltd. His attention has been drawn to an article appearing in the issue of Private Eye dated 9th April 1971 on page 4. The statements made about Mr Arkell are entirely untrue and clearly highly defamatory. We are therefore instructed to require from you immediately your proposals for dealing with the matter.

Mr Arkell's first concern is that there should be a full retraction at the earliest possible date in Private Eye and he will also want his costs paid. His attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of your reply.

Yours,

(Signed)

Goodman Derrick & Co.

------------------------------

Dear Sirs,

We acknowledge your letter of 29th April referring to Mr. J. Arkell.

We note that Mr Arkell's attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of our reply and would therefore be grateful if you would inform us what his attitude to damages would be, were he to learn that the nature of our reply is as follows: fuck off.

Yours,

Private Eye
posted by Major Clanger at 12:18 AM on May 19, 2015 [14 favorites]


the NYT has also published a response from axact. i would say that someone is spending a lot on lawyers, and not that much on PR.
posted by bruceo at 10:18 AM on May 19, 2015


from columbiana university: "We place no discrimination when it comes to imparting education to the women." oof.
posted by bruceo at 10:35 AM on May 19, 2015


Axact CEO taken into custody after a raid on their Karachi offices.
posted by beowulf573 at 5:31 AM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is super funny and I also wish there were sanctions for stuff like that simply because while yeah, in this case it's pretty hilarious, it's also a way that those with resources (money, time, legal teams) can limit the speech of those with fewer resources simply by using the thread of the legal system. If it were possible to sue someone who tried to make you take down content when they didn't have the right to, maybe we'd get fewer bullies with lawyers trying to intimidate people who post legal and legitimate criticisms of them.

What you're looking for is anti-SLAPP legislation. Depending on the state you may actually have some protections from this sort of thing. My lawyer was instrumental in passing anti-SLAPP legislation in Nevada and I donated to a to a Republican candidate in Iowa that was sponsoring such a bill here. If you're in Nevada this law was recently under attack.

I love C&D letters. My favorite was from some right-wing Conservative retailer that wanted me to take down their address from my website. I wrote them back and said, "I want to tell you to go fuck yourself, but I have a lawyer for that, so please direct all further correspondence to him." My lawyer's response was something like, "I concur with my client. Go fuck yourself."

I also donate to a lot of legal defense funds to fight SLAPP suits. My most recent was this one: Faith healer sues atheist video blogger for using science to expose him on YouTube as a ‘swindler’ I wanted to make a FPP over that, but decided I was too close to the source material (we share the same lawyer). The faith healer dropped his case. If she'd lived in a state with robust anti-SLAPP protections she's have been able to hit him back for lots of cash and any ethical lawyer wouldn't have taken the faith healer's case.
posted by cjorgensen at 12:21 PM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


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