Dubai/Islamabad: The man whose revelations led to the collapse of Axact’s global multi-million dollar fake degree empire and spawned a series of criminal investigations worldwide, said he hoped the arrest of Axact CEO Shoaib Shaikh would pave the way for his return to his home country.

Shaikh was jailed in Pakistan on Wednesday after being convicted in the $140 million (Dh514.92 million) fake degree racket and sentenced to 20 years in prison. “I am relieved that justice has finally been served,” former Axact staffer-turned-whistle blower Sayyad Yasir Jamshaid, who now lives in the United States, told Gulf News. Facing death threats, Jamshaid fled to the UAE from Pakistan in 2015, before moving to the US. Hundreds of US citizens, including army men, reportedly bought fake degrees and diplomas from the 350-odd fictitious universities propped up by Axact on the internet.

Shaikh was sentenced to 20 years in prison by an Islamabad court in July, but he managed to evade arrest. “The Axact chief had not surrendered to the court, following his conviction and managed to escape,” Pakistani newspaper the Dawn said. According to the newspaper, Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), which investigated the scam, reportedly did not make any effort for his arrest during the past two-and-a-half months. But the FIA finally arrested him on Tuesday after the Pakistan Supreme Court resumed hearing in the case last Thursday.

“Life has not been easy. Axact’s management has implicated me and my family in bogus cases and there’s an arrest warrant out against me in Pakistan. I thought I had done a great service to my country by blowing the lid off an international racket, but look what I got in the bargain?” Jamshaid said. “I hope authorities back home realise that the court cases against me are borne out of vendetta,” he said.

In Islamabad, the FIA submitted, during the Supreme Court hearing yesterday, that Shaikh had been arrested and moved to Adiala Jail. It also informed the court that one of his key accomplices was also detained from the New Islamabad International Airport (NIIAP), and that further investigation was underway.

The Passport and Immigration Cell of FIA arrested Nigel Brain, who was trying to fly to Qatar with a private airline from the airport, sources said. Brain is a close friend of Shaikh and a co-accused with the Axact CEO in the fake degrees case. He had arrived at the NIIAP to catch a flight for Qatar, but immigration officers detained him after noticing that his passport was blacklisted. They later handed him over to the Anti-Human Trafficking Cell for further investigation. The apex court has adjourned hearing for a month.

How Pakistan’s highest court took suo motu notice of Gulf News report

Pakistan IT firm Axact not just sold fake degrees to more than 200,000 people in 197 countries, but it had also used impersonation and threat to dupe its clients. In January 2018, the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Mian Saqib Nisar, took suo motu notice of media reports, including one published that week in Gulf News’ sister publication XPRESS, which exposed how Axact telesales agents sitting in Pakistan impersonated officials and called UAE-based clients to seek thousands of dollars towards legalisation fees of their certificates. Alarmed by the revelations, Nisar had then directed Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to submit a report on the issue within a week. “Our heads hang in shame due to the Axact scandal ... the scandal has maligned Pakistan globally. Cases pertaining to it are pending in the courts. The director general of FIA should submit a detailed report on the case,” he had said. Nisar said that if the news was true, then one should be prepared to deal with the scandal, but if it was incorrect, then it was Pakistan’s job to defend itself as the scam was sullying the country’s name.

Axact staffer-turned-whistle blower Sayyad Yasir Jamshaid, who now lives in the United States, said Axact had hired professionally-trained call centre agents who could speak in various languages. In fact it was a conversation between a telesales agent and an Arab girl in Al Ain that Jamshaid had overheard, which pricked his conscience and prompted him to expose the company.

“As one of the 110 quality assurance auditors, at Axact’s Karachi headquarters, my job was to listen to the interactions between customers and sales agents. One evening, I picked a call. What I heard shocked me into disbelief. “Speaking in fluent Arabic, an Axact agent was impersonating a US-based UAE diplomat and threatening to take legal action against the Arab woman if she did not pay up $5,000 [Dh18,390] towards legalisation fees for each of her 18 degrees. Now this woman had already spent $60,000 on these certificates over three years,” recalled Jamshaid who also understands Arabic. “But she got so scared that she wired $30,000 to the AXACT owned bogus Cambell University the same night and another $39,100 a fortnight later. Later that week, that telesales girl was given a Rs100,000 bonus for closing the deal. That’s when I decided enough was enough and quit,” said Jamshaid.

People who use fake degrees could get up to ten years in jail according to UAE law.

The Middle East was Axact’s favourite hunting ground. The number of fake degree holders in the UAE is not known, but Jamshaid reckon they could be in hundreds if not thousands. A simple search on social networking website LinkedIn shows that several people in the country have climbed up the corporate ladder on the basis of these bogus certificates.

Random calls made to around 20 professionals flaunting phony credentials on the website at the height of the scandal in 2015 had revealed that many were unsuspecting victims. In fact, they didn’t even know that their costly degrees were not even worth the paper they were printed on.

The realisation left them shattered. Dr R.S., who works for a reputed hospital in Dubai, said she couldn’t believe her PhD in quality management from Midtown University was worthless. She had spent Dh40,000 on the ‘course’ between 2011 and 2014. Similarly, a senior IT manager who had forked out Dh18,000 for an online computer networking degree from Edgebrook was equally shattered when he was told that his degree was fake. An Indian schoolteacher in Dubai, who had spent $70,000 to acquire degrees from AXACT-run Gibson and Midtown, even faced jail after being caught in a web of deceit.

— By Mazhar Farooqui/Staff Writer

What is Axact and how did it work?

■  Operating from the Pakistan port city of Karachi, Axact used to employ more than 2,000 people and called itself Pakistan’s largest software exporter.

■  But Axact’s main business was to take the centuries-old scam of selling fake academic degrees and turn it into an internet-era scheme on a global scale.

■  As interest in online education boomed, the company aggressively positioned its school and websites to appear prominently in online searches, luring in potential international customers.

■  As a result, unsuspecting degree aspirants got themselves registered with fake university websites after being lured by their advertisements on social media. As soon as they registered, a live chat window would pop open and a Pakistan-based call centre agent, masquerading as a US-based university professor, would seek the candidate’s contact details.

■  The agent would then call the candidate and urge him/her to enrol for diploma/degree by paying a minimum of $200 via credit card and avail of an early-bird discount on the fees. Customers were advised to move to “better” universities where fees would range from $10,000 to $30,000. A team of in-house content writers would then send some online education material.

■  Candidates were also referred to other Axact-owned websites to seek help in submitting assignments and writing thesis, with charges ranging from $500 to $5,000.

■  But a new customer is just the start. To meet their monthly targets, Axact sales agents were schooled in tough tactics known as ‘upselling’. Sometimes they would cold-call prospective students, pretending to be corporate recruitment agents with a lucrative job offer — but only if the student bought an online course.

■  A more lucrative form of ‘upselling’ involved impersonating US government officials who would bully customers into buying forged State Department authentication certificates puportedly signed by the then US secretary of state, John Kerry.

■  Social media added a further patina of legitimacy. LinkedIn contained profiles of purported faculty members of Axact universities — such as Christina Gardener, described as a senior consultant at Hillford University and a former vice-president at Southwestern Energy, a publicly-listed company in Houston.

■  The heart of Axact’s business was the sales team — young and well-educated Pakistanis, fluent in English and/or Arabic, who would work the phones with customers drawn in by the websites. These sales team members would offer everything — from high school diplomas, for about $350, to doctoral degrees, for $4,000 and above.

■  At Axact’s headquarters, telephone sales agents would work in shifts around the clock. Sometimes they would cater to customers who clearly understood they were buying a shady instant degree for money. But often the agents would manipulate those seeking real education, pushing them to enrol for coursework that never materialised.

■  Revenue, estimated by former employees and fraud probe experts to be several million dollars per month, were cycled through a network of offshore companies. All the while, Axact’s role as the owner of this fake education empire remained obscured by proxy internet services, combative legal tactics and lax regulations.

■  In academia, diploma mills have long been seen as a nuisance. But the proliferation of internet-based degree schemes has raised concerns about their possible use in immigration fraud.

■  In 2007, for example, a British court had jailed Gene Morrison, a fake police criminologist who claimed to have degree certificates from the Axact-owned Rochville University.