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January 17, 2018

Thousands of Britons fooled into buying Axact fake degrees

Top Story

January 17, 2018

LONDON: Thousands of people in the UK have bought degrees from fake online universities set up by a multi-million pound ‘diploma mill’ in Karachi called Axact, a new British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) investigation has found.

National Health Service (NHS) consultants, nurses and a defence contractor are among those who have purchased fraudulent degrees, said the BBC. One British buyer spent almost £500,000 on bogus documents. The Department for Education told BBC said it was taking "decisive action to crack down on degree fraud" that "cheats genuine learners".

Axact, which claims to be the "world's largest IT company", operates a network of hundreds of fake online universities run by agents from a Karachi call centre, said the BBC report, adding that it attracts customers through names such as Brooklyn Park University and Nixon University, featuring stock images of smiling students and even fake news articles singing the institution's praises.

According to documents seen by BBC Radio 4's File on Four programme, more than 3,000 fake Axact qualifications were sold to the UK-based buyers in 2013 and 2014, including master's degrees, doctorates and PhDs.

A trawl through the list of Axact UK buyers, seen by the BBC, revealed various NHS clinical staff, including an ophthalmologist, nurses, a psychologist, and numerous consultants also bought fake degrees and a consultant at a London teaching hospital bought a degree in internal medicine from the fake Belford University in 2007.

The doctor -- who had previously been disciplined by the General Medical Council (GMC) for failing to report a criminal conviction -- told the BBC he had not used the certificates because they "had not been authenticated".

An anesthetist who bought a degree in "hospital management" told BBC he had not used the qualification in the UK and a consultant in pediatric emergency medicine, who bought a "master of science in health care technology", claimed it was an "utter surprise" when the BBC told him it was fake.

The Higher Education Degree Datacheck (HEDD) chief executive Jayne Rowley said only 20% of UK employers ran proper checks on applicants' qualifications. The BBC said while purchasing a fake diploma was not illegal in the UK, using one to apply for employment constituted fraud by misrepresentation and could result in a 10-year prison sentence.

"[The GMC] are correct in that [doctors] are licensed to practice medicine if they have a legitimate medical degree. But [by buying a fake degree], they have still committed fraud and could still be prosecuted," she said.

In 2015, Axact sold more than 215,000 fake qualifications globally, through approximately 350 fictitious high schools and universities, making $51m (£37.5m) that year alone, said the BBC.

According to a conservative estimate, the Axact made tens of billions of dollars through selling fake degrees over the years.

Former FBI agent Allen Ezell, who has been investigating Axact since the 1980s, said: "We live in a credential conscious society around the world. So as long as paper has a value, there's going to be somebody that counterfeits it and prints it and sells it.

"Employers are not doing their due diligence in checking out the papers, so it makes it work. It's the damnedest thing we've ever seen." Defence contractor FB Heliservices bought fake Axact degrees for seven employees, including two helicopter pilots, between 2013 and 2015.

One of these employees, speaking anonymously to the BBC, said soon after he had been given a contract to work on the Caribbean island of Curacao, the local government decided all those working in the territory had to have a degree.

"We looked into distance learning, and contact was made with this online university. It was just something that needed to be done to keep working in the country. Everyone knew they were not bona fide. But no-one had a problem with it."

Following a New York Times expose in 2015, Axact chief executive Shoaib Sheikh and Waqas Atiq were arrested and an investigation launched by the Pakistani authorities but then the investigation was halted after the prosecutors were bombed and one judge was reportedly bribed to get bail for Shoaib Sheikh.

Senior manager of Axact Umair Hamid was sentenced to 21 months in a US prison in August 2017 for his part in Axact's fraud and he remains in jail. A prosecutor who dealt with the Axact case once said on a national television that he didn’t want to reveal why he stopped following the case of Axact. He said he feared for his life and life of his family.

Allan Ezell said Axact continued to launch new online universities all the time -- and had now branched out into extortion and blackmail. "It's a whole new game," he said. "Normally a diploma mill is finished with you by the time you get your degree. That's just the beginning now. You get a telephone call that looks like it's coming from your embassy or local law enforcement, threatening to arrest or deport you unless you get some additional documents to help support the phony diploma you already have. We've never seen that before."

Cecil Horner, a British engineer based in Saudi Arabia, was still getting threatening calls from Axact agents after paying nearly £500,000 for fake documents. Mr Horner's son Malcolm said he believed his father, who died in 2015, had bought the qualifications because of the fear of losing his job.

"It makes me so angry," he said. "It's unfathomable these websites still exist and they can't be shut down." Action Fraud, the UK's national cybercrime reporting centre, told BBC it did not have the power to close fake Axact websites but instead had to provide evidence to domain registries and registrars, which could take months.

MP James Frith said he was "staggered" by the "aggressive tactics" used by Axact and would ask the Education Selection Committee to look into the issue. The Department of Education said HEDD was taking a proactive approach. "Degree fraud cheats both genuine learners and employers, so we've taken decisive action to crack down on those seeking to profit from it," a spokesman said. Axact did not respond to a request for an interview from the BBC.

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