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The Axact offices in Karachi.— PPI/File
The Axact offices in Karachi.— PPI/File

An in-depth investigation carried out by the national broadcaster of Canada over the course of several months has revealed that hundreds of people working as professionals in diverse fields across Canada possess bogus degrees issued by Pakistan-based IT company Axact.

Many of the professionals holding fake degrees may still be working in different institutions across Canada, the investigation by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has revealed.

See: The spectacular crash of Shoaib Shaikh's digital empire

A counsellor, a university professor and a deputy clerk working for the city of Regina are among the more than 800 people who obtained degrees from fake diploma mills, most of them from Axact, the investigation revealed. Reports from the investigation by CBC's Marketplace programme were published online earlier this month.

In a written response to CBC, Axact's US lawyer, Todd A. Holleman, said the company "does not own or operate any online education web sites [sic] or schools, and there has never been any evidence produced to show that Axact owns or operates any such web sites [sic] or schools."

Holleman said the diploma mills were created by clients of Axact and that it "does not condone or support any alleged wrongful or fraudulent conduct by its clients, who are independent businesses".

Testing the diploma mill

Testing the diploma mills for themselves, the CBC programme executives were able to purchase three PhD degrees from Axact-linked universities: two from Almeda University and one from Gatesville University, along with transcripts with a 3.92 GPA and record of attendance documents for just US $1,550.

Marketplace during its investigation obtained business records from Axact which linked it to the people buying degrees from Axact-linked schools, which the Canadian press says are based in the United States. However, despite not having a physical address, the schools offer degrees in exchange for "life experience" and money.

To acquire the degrees, sent to CBC by mail, Marketplace staffers only had to provide their employment and educational records to university representatives over the phone. No coursework was required by the universities.

In obtaining the degree, Marketplace was assisted by Allen Ezell, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent who has investigated diploma mills for decades.

The professor with a phoney degree

Marketplace confronted a Croatian-origin professor about his master's degree in computer science. After initial hesitation in naming 'Almeda University' as his alma mater, Dubravko Zgrablic told CBC he has acquired the degree in three months after paying a few thousand dollars and taking "basically 11 phone exams".

The professor had been teaching at renowned Canadian schools such as the University of Toronto, Centennial College, Ryerson University and Seneca College. He claimed that his employers had checked his degree with Almeda University, but according to the CBC report, "a key service in Almeda's scam was its department that verified degrees for any third parties, such as employers".

In another case, Marketplace journalists went undercover as a couple to expose a counsellor in Toronto who had obtained a PhD in 'biblical counselling from Almeda University'. The counsellor's contract was later terminated.

Former employee defends Axact

A former quality assurance employee at Axact, Yasir Jamshaid, told CBC that most of the company's customers were aware of what they were getting themselves into. He said 95 per cent of the customers "were crooks themselves".

"They knew they're buying something that is not real but they're still going for it. They're not innocent," he said

Axact first came into the limelight in 2015 when a New York Times report titled "Fake Diplomas, Real Cash: Pakistani Company Axact Reaps Millions" outlined how the "secretive Pakistani software company" had allegedly earned millions of dollars from scams involving fake degrees, non-existent online universities and manipulation of customers.

According to the report, Axact had created a series of fake websites involving “professors” and students who it said were in fact paid actors.

Umair Hamid, a vice president of Axact, was last month sentenced to 21 months in prison in the US for his role in the international diploma mill scheme. In addition to the prison term, Hamid, 31, from Karachi, was ordered to forfeit $5,303,020. He had pleaded guilty on April 6, 2017 to conspiracy to commit wire fraud.