The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has arrested Axact Company’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Shoaib Ahmed Sheikh in the fake degree scandal case and presented him before a court in Islamabad on Wednesday, September 26, 2018. Sheikh was arrested 82 days after being convicted. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: The long arms of the law have finally caught up with the man who built a multi-million dollar empire by selling fake degrees worldwide.

Shoaib Shaikh, the owner and chief executive officer of  Pakistan-based IT firm Axact, was arrested by the country’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) yesterday (Wednesday) after he was summoned by a local court for a hearing.

The arrest came 82 days after a district and session court in Islamabad convicted Shaikh and 22 of his  close aides in the $140 million (Dh514 million) fake degree scandal and sentenced them 20 years each. 

The convicts have also been fined Rs1 million each.

Gulf News’ sister publication XPRESS exposed the global online degree racket in June 2014 but withheld Axact’s name for legal reasons.

In May 2015, New York Times carried an extensive report naming Axact and detailing how it reaped millions of dollars by selling academic certificates from 350 colleges that  existed only in the virtual world.

Following the expose, Axact’s offices were raided and Shaikh was arrested only to be released on bail.

Subsequent investigations by XPRESS revealed that it was in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia  and the UAE where Axact sold most of its fake degrees.

UAE clients

“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,”  Axact staffer turned whistle blower Sayyad Yasir Jamshaid told Gulf News.

“Most UAE clients preferred multiple degrees and would happily fork out between Dh50,000 and Dh100,000 for each certificate.

“Rochville, Brooklyn Park, Gibson, Grant Town, Ashley, Nixon, Campbell, Belford, Paramount California were among the most popular Axact-owned bogus universities here,” he said.

Earlier this year, another investigation by XPRESS found that call centre agents at Axact were impersonating UAE government officials to extort ‘legalisation fees’ from fake degree and diploma holders in the country.   

Alarmed by the revelations , the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Mian Saqib Nisar took suo-motu notice of the matter and directed the Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to submit a report on the issue .

Middle East was favourite hunting ground for firm peddling fake degrees

Between 2009 and 2015, Pakistani software firm Axact, which also owns the media company BOL Network, peddled fake degrees to over 200,000 people in 197 countries.

Shoaib Shaikh, the owner and chief executive officer of Axact, was arrested by the country’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) on Wednesday after he was summoned by a local court for a hearing in Karachi.

The company’s favourite hunting ground was the Middle East where it reportedly sold 60,000 bogus academic certificates, according to former Axact employee turned whistle blower Sayyad Yasir Jamshaid.

“At Axact’s 24/7 Karachi headquarters, we handled roughly 5,000 calls daily. Of these, 60 per cent came from the UAE and Saudi Arabia,” Jamshaid said.

“Most UAE clients preferred multiple degrees and would happily fork out between Dh50,000 and Dh100,000 for each certificate,” he said.

It’s not an idle boast. Subsequent revelations revealed that hundreds made it to top posts in the region on the strength of bogus certificates bought from the 350 odd non-existent universities operated by Axact in the virtual world.

Axact lured people by inundating their Facebook newsfeeds with advertisements of their bogus universities, many of which claimed their “professional online courses” were specifically for UAE residents.

People who commented on these Facebook used to instantly get a message directing them to their inbox where they were asked to provide their name and phone number.

Soon a telesales agent sitting in Axact’s Pakistan office would call them, claiming he was a university counsellor based in the United States.

An Arab man who shelled out Dh85,000 for Axact’s bogus 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, whom I interacted with for months, was not a university faculty based in the USA’s Virginia Islands but someone sitting in a call centre in Pakistan?”

Impersonation and blackmail

Investigations reveal that Axact was not just content in conning people into buying degrees. It had another trick up its sleeve: impersonation and blackmail.

Speaking in an Emirati accent, Axact telesales agents would call their clients and demand thousands of dollars from degree holders towards the “legalisation fees” of their certificates.

And since they used spoofing techniques which allowed them to mimic any phone number — complete with area code — the recipients were often deceived into believing that the calls were legitimate.

A South African who paid 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 (Dh18,365) to the university towards a degree “legalisation fee” or face action.

“When I called back the number (04-609 999) that showed up on my cell phone, 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,” he said.

Among the many who fell for the scam was 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 United States.

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.

The story so far

June 5, 2014: XPRESS exposes online degree racket but withholds 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 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 Shaikh is released on bail

January 17, 2018: XPRESS reveals how Axact telesales agents impersonate UAE government officials to extort money from degree-holders in the UAE

January 23, 2018: Chief Justice of Pakistan, Mian Saqib Nisar takes suo motu notice of news report and directs Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to submit a report

July 5, 2018: Axact CEO Shoaib Shaikh is convicted by Islamabad court

September 26, 2018: Shoaib Shaikh is arrested by FIA