Scam master Axact is now resorting to impersonation and blackmail to dupe its victims. Image Credit: Illustrative purpose only

DUBAI: Call centre agents in Pakistan are impersonating UAE government officials to extort ‘legalisation fees’ from fake degree and diploma holders in the country, XPRESS can reveal.

Between 2009 and 2015, over 200,000 people in 197 countries, including the UAE, paid up to Dh100,000 for professional online courses at universities such as Midtown, Rochville, Brooklyn Park, Gibson, Grant Town, Ashley, Nixon, Campbell, Belford and Paramount California.

Little did they know these universities, among 350 others, were fake. They were not based in the US or UK as people were made to believe. Instead, they existed only in the virtual world and were operated from Karachi by controversial Pakistan IT firm Axact.

Threat and impersonation

Now Axact has come up with another trick to dupe its victims - impersonation and blackmail.

Speaking in an Emirati accent, Axact telesale agents are calling clients and demanding thousands of dollars from degree holders towards the ‘legalisation fees’ of their certificates.

And since they use spoofing techniques which allow them to mimic any phone number -- complete with area code -- the recipients are deceived into believing that the calls are legitimate.

A South African expat in Dubai who forked out thousands of dollars for an academic certificate said he was shocked when a man, claiming to be a Dubai Police officer called him and asked him to remit $5,000 to the university towards degree ‘legalisation fee’ or face action. “When I called back the number ((04-609 999) that showed up on my cellphone it was answered by someone at Dubai Police Headquarters. Initially, I got scared and thought it was indeed them who had called but then I found out it was a scam so I ignored their subsequent calls,” he said.

Phony calls. A man holds up his cellphone on which he received spoofed calls mimicking Dubai Police Headquarters’ landline number. Right: Yasir Jamshaid (© xpress/mazhar farooqui)

Another expat who bought a degree from one such university said he got a similar call from a man who claimed he was from the ministry of human resource department. When XPRESS called the phone numbers they turned out to be the board line numbers of the two government entities. Former AXACT staff turned whistle blower Sayyad Yasir Jamshaid told XPRESS the company uses caller ID-spoofing which enables them to display a number different from the one from which the call was placed. “They’ve hired professionally trained call centre agents. Axact clients in other countries are also getting such calls,” he said.

Among the many who fell for the scam is a medical technologist in Al Ain. Fearing action, the woman sold all her jewellery to raise almost $70,000 of which $30,000 was remitted to AXACT the very night she got a call from an agent claiming to a representative of the UAE embassy in the US.

Speaking fluent Arabic, the agent told the Arab medical technologist that she would face legal action if she didn’t immediately pay the amount to cancel her many degrees and get an accredited one from a Sharjah university.

The Arab woman had bought 18 degrees from various AXACT run universities over three years for $60,000 to get a promotion. XPRESS has evidence showing she wired $69,100 to AXACT owned bogus Cambell University over two days after getting spoofed calls.

Back in business

Following startling revelations, Axact CEO Shoaib Ahmad Shaikh was arrested by Pakistan authorities in May 2015. In September 2016, he was granted bail by a District and Sessions Judge who later admitted before an inquiry panel to have taken a bribe of Rs5000,000 (Dh1,67,000) to pass the bail order.

Since his release, Facebook newsfeeds in the UAE are again inundated with advertisements offering ‘accredited online degrees’ in various streams.

The story so far

June 5, 2014: XPRESS exposes online degree racket but witholds Axact’s name for legal reasons.

May 17, 2015: New York Times names Axact saying it ran 370 degree and accreditation mill websites

May 27, 2015: Axact CEO Shoaib Ahmed Shaikh is arrested by Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency

April 10, 2016: New details suggest Axact sold fake degrees to 215,000 people in 197 countries

September 2, 2016: Shoaib Ahmed Shaikh is released on bail

What is caller ID spoofing

Caller ID spoofing is a technology that allows a caller to masquerade as someone else by falsifying the number that appears on the recipient’s caller ID display. Caller ID spoofing is provided as a service by several vendors. To make a spoof call, all that you have to do is to open a form on the vendor’s web page, enter your phone number, the recipient’s phone number, and the number you want to appear on the recipient’s caller display.

Some VoIP providers also allow the user to configure their displayed number as part of the configuration page on the provider’s web interface.


XPRESS calls fake California university professor’s bluff

Posing as a candidate, XPRESS editor Mazhar Farooqui registered with one of Axact’s online degree mill offering “affordable MBA degrees” from a university in California. Within minutes, the undercover journalist received a call on his cellphone with a US telephone number flashing on the screen. The caller identified himself as the university’s counsellor, professor John Smith.

Excerpts from the conversation:
Professor John Smith:
I understand you’re looking for a masters degree in business administration.

Undercover journalist: That’s right.

Professor Smith: Great, do you have any work experience?

Undercover journalist: About seven years as a sales executive in Dubai.

Professor Smith: That’s very good. We’ll convert your work experience into credit hours and, on behalf of that experience, our university will award you the master’s degree. Does it sound good?

Undercover journalist: Yes, but I am not sure if I can clear the examinations as I doubt if I will get any time to study.

Professor Smith: Don’t worry about that...our online courses are specifically designed to help working professionals like you.

Undercover journalist: Thank you Professor Smith, but I still have concerns. Can I ask some questions?

Professor Smith: Yeah, sure.

Undercover journalist: So how long have you been living in California?

Professor Smith: Since birth, why?

Undercover journalist: Could you tell me what time is it in California now? [it was 2.40am in California, 2.40pm in the UAE and 3.40pm in Pakistan at the time]

Professor Smith: Ugh... the time, here is.... well..

Undercover journalist: Never mind, can you tell who is the Governor of California?

Professor Smith: The Governor, err... You see Donald Trump is our President..

Undercover journalist: Yes, but who is your governor?

Professor Smith: Aah.. actually [long silence] .. so I was talking about this MBA degree...

Undercover journalist: Can you name any five counties in California?

Professor Smith: Well... they are.. [sound of feverish typing on a computer keyboard is heard in the background ]

Undercover journalist: Are you seeking Google’s help?

Professor Smith: Ugh...(sighs). The line is disconnected.