Image Credit: Gulf News

DUBAI: Not hundreds or a few thousands, but over a staggering 200,000 people from the Gulf countries bought fake online degrees and diplomas from dubious Pakistan IT firm AXACT in the past four years.

This shocking revelation comes from none other than former AXACT staff turned whistle blower Sayyad Yasir Jamshaid, the key figure in the New York Times story.

His tip-off not just led to the arrest of AXACT CEO Shoaibh Shaikh and the dramatic collapse of his global multi-billion dollar fake degree empire but also spawned a series of criminal investigations worldwide.

“At AXACT’s 24/7 Karachi headquarters, we handled roughly 5,000 calls daily. “Of them 60 per cent came from the UAE and Saudi Arabia,” Jamshed told XPRESS in a freewheeling interview.

“As one of the 110 quality assurance auditors, my job was to listen to the interactions between customers and sales agents. We had a software which filtered incoming calls from various countries. It was rendered useless as almost every second call I picked was from the Gulf.

"Between 2011 and mid 2015, AXACT issued degrees and diplomas from 350 nonexistent universities to over 200,000 Middle East residents, mostly from UAE and Saudi Arabia,” said the Pakistani.

XPRESS cannot verify Jamshaid’s claim, but independent investigations and conversations with AXACT sales agents in Pakistan show he may not be off the mark.

“We were 900 plus agents working round the clock and attending nonstop calls from GCC countries for years, so one can well imagine how many degrees were sold in these places,” an AXACT employee told XPRESS on conditions of anonymity.

A young Pakistani college dropout who was trained to speak heavily accented English said the UAE and Saudi Arabia were the company’s real cash cows.

“Most UAE clients preferred multiple degrees and would happily fork out between Dh50,000 and Dh100,000 for each certificate. “In Dubai alone I know at least a dozen professionals with up to five degrees in various disciplines. I know this because I was communicating with them in the guise of a professor from the Midtown University,” he said.

Rochville, Brooklyn Park, Gibson, Grant Town, Ashley, Nixon, Campbell, Belford, Para-mount California were among hundreds of other AXACT-owned universities popular among UAE expats and Emiratis.

XPRESS has names, credit card transaction details and payment receipts of several high-profile Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al Ain based clients who paid ridiculous amounts to obtain degrees from such institutions, all of which existed only on stock photos and computer servers.

The glossy degrees bear attestation stamps and seals of various government entities and some are even accompanied by US State Department authentication certificates carrying the signature of John Kerry.

Money maker

According to Jamshaid, AXACT made money from three key areas – priority learning assessment (PLA), research and sponsored programmes (RSP), sale of degrees and legalisation/ attestation through embassies/ministry of foreign affairs/ ministry of higher education.

“Legalisation charges started from $5,000 and went up to $60,000. In September 2014, the month before I quit, the firm made $800,000 from PLA, $400,000 from RSP where PhD aspirants seeking help for writing theses were directed to other websites operated by AXACT. Sale of degrees accounted for $1.7 million.

From the websites and professors to glowing endorsements, video testimonials and accreditation, everything was fake. It was a well-knit racket. We even had a dedicated Google Search Engine Optimisation (SE0) team which ensured AXACT owned universities showed up in search results.”

A Dubai-based Lebanese who shelled out Dh85,000 for Gibson University’s MBA programme, said the charade was so convincing he never suspected a thing. “Who would’ve thought that the soft-spoken professor Terry Howard I interacted with for months was not a university faculty based in USA’s Virginia Islands but someone sitting in a call centre in Pakistan? I am ruined.”

Whistle blower Jamshaid, who fled to the UAE from Pakistan in the wake of death threats, says there is still hope for the victims.

“I have used my knowledge of AXACT’s protocols to help 17 UAE residents get refunds totalling $300,000.” Since the money was paid using credit cards, victims can file dispute claims with their banks,” said Jamshaid.

XPRESS has refund receipts of two UAE residents who have got their entire money back following Jamshaid’s intervention.

Among them is an Abu Dhabi-based Indian, 39, who recovered $33,300. The junior accountant was mired in debts after maxing his credit card limits and taking personal loans to fund his master’s programme in business administration from Grant University and a string of certification courses from other bogus universities.

Alarmed at the scale of the scam, Pakistan interior minister Chaudary Nisar has sought help from the Interpol and FBI.

And now with Pakistan talking about extending the investigation to the Dubai where AXACT had an office, it remains to be seen how it would impact bogus degree holders in the UAE where forging academic qualifications could land one in jail for 10 years.