NYTimes Exposes Giant Fake Diploma Mill Operating Out Of Pakistan; Company Threatens Everyone With Defamation

from the yeah-that'll-work dept

For well over a decade, we've written about the rise of diploma mills online. These are generally unaccredited operations that effectively sell you a degree so you can pretend to be more qualified than you really are. Every few years or so, there are big stories about some semi-famous/high-level person whose degree actually came from a diploma mill. Over the weekend, the NY Times exposed a large Pakistani "software" company, Axact, for not only being behind a bunch of diploma mill websites, but also for engaging in heavy handed boiler-room-style tactics to pressure people into paying ridiculous sums of money. The NY Times report is pretty damning, highlighting how Axact has become a big name in Pakistan, but very few people actually understand how or why it's become so successful. The company has done a lot to try to hide the nature of its large diploma mill business. As the NY Times shows, a bunch of the biggest bogus diploma mill sites are really run by Axact, and feature stock imagery, videos of students/administrators who are really actors (some of whom appear in videos for multiple such universities) and websites and names that make them appear kinda sorta like well-known universities. For example, some of the fake sites named are "Columbiana" and "Barkley University."


The whole NY Times article is absolutely worth reading, but here's a snippet demonstrating what's going on here:

Many sites link to the same fictitious accreditation bodies and have identical graphics, such as a floating green window with an image of a headset-wearing woman who invites customers to chat.

There are technical commonalities, too: identical blocks of customized coding, and the fact that a vast majority route their traffic through two computer servers run by companies registered in Cyprus and Latvia.

Five former employees confirmed many of these sites as in-house creations of Axact, where executives treat the online schools as lucrative brands to be meticulously created and forcefully marketed, frequently through deception.

The professors and bubbly students in promotional videos are actors, according to former employees, and some of the stand-ins feature repeatedly in ads for different schools.

The sources described how employees would plant fictitious reports about Axact universities on iReport, a section of the CNN website for citizen journalism. Although CNN stresses that it has not verified the reports, Axact uses the CNN logo as a publicity tool on many of its sites.

Social media adds a further patina of legitimacy. LinkedIn contains profiles for purported faculty members of Axact universities, like Christina Gardener, described as a senior consultant at Hillford University and a former vice president at Southwestern Energy, a publicly listed company in Houston. In an email, a Southwestern spokeswoman said the company had no record of an employee with that name.

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

Elsewhere in the article, it notes that there have been scandals about some of the diploma mills in question, but Axact has been quite careful to keep its own name out of such conversations, often with legal threats:

Axact has brandished legal threats to dissuade reporters, rivals and critics. Under pressure from Axact, a major British paper, The Mail on Sunday, withdrew an article from the Internet in 2006. Later, using an apparently fictitious law firm, the company faced down a consumer rights group in Botswana that had criticized Axact-run Headway University.

It has also petitioned a court in the United States, bringing a lawsuit in 2007 against an American company that is a competitor in the essay-writing business, Student Network Resources, and that had called Axact a “foreign scam site.” The American company countersued and was awarded $700,000, but no damages have been paid, the company’s lawyer said.

The article also notes that when a class action lawsuit was filed a few years ago against two Axact diploma mills (Belford High School and Belford University), some guy in Pakistan named "Salem Kureshi" claimed that he was running the websites:
But instead of Axact, the defendant who stepped forward was Salem Kureshi, a Pakistani who claimed to be running the websites from his apartment. Over three years of hearings, his only appearance was in a video deposition from a dimly lit room in Karachi, during which he was barely identifiable. An associate who also testified by video, under the name “John Smith,” wore sunglasses.

Mr. Kureshi’s legal fees of over $400,000 were paid to his American lawyers through cash transfers from different currency exchange stores in Dubai, court documents show. Recently a reporter was unable to find his given address in Karachi.

“We were dealing with an elusive and illusory defendant,” said Mr. Howlett, the lawyer for the plaintiffs.

In his testimony, Mr. Kureshi denied any links to Axact, even though mailboxes operated by the Belford schools listed the company’s headquarters as their forwarding address.

The lawsuit ended in 2012 when a federal judge ordered Mr. Kureshi and Belford to pay $22.7 million in damages. None of the damages have been paid, Mr. Howlett said.
True to form, the company has gone ballistic in response to the NY Times article, posting an angry threatening rant on its website, claiming that the story is "defamatory" and promising a legal response. The response is... an interesting read as well. It basically tries to smear everyone associated with the article, arguing that it's all some anti-Pakistan plot. It focuses on the claim that the NY Times is partnered with a company that is a competitor to Axact's new plans to create a new media giant named Bol.

The story is authored by some reporter Declan Walsh of NYT who was expelled from Pakistan as Persona non-grata by Pakistan Interior Ministry allegedly due to his involvement in damaging Pakistan’s national interests. Even the media group he is affiliated with, the Express Tribune, published a story against him (click here to read more). Several other organizations have also written about him as well as failure of NYT to deliver credible news (click here to read more). This reporter has worked and devised a one-sided story without taking any input from the company. A last-minute, haphazard elusive email was sent to the company demanding an immediate response by the next day to which the attorney for Axact responded. Click here to view the response.

Moreover, this reporter has not mentioned the conflict of interest which the NYT has due to its association with Express Media as its revenue source in Pakistan. This necessary disclosure regarding the criminal cases on NYT Partner in Pakistan was deliberately omitted and is an injustice to the reader not expected of a publication like NYT.

But it's not just the NY Times that Axact has been apparently threatening. Axact proudly trumpets on its website that "truth prevails" as Forbes was pressured into removing a story about the NY Times story. Indeed, a Google search suggests that Forbes had such a story yesterday, but if you click on the link to a story by James Marshall Crotty, it now takes you nowhere.
Separately, a new NY Times report notes that Axact has threatened a Pakistani blog for merely collecting a bunch of tweets that were mocking Axact. You can see the post on Pak Tea House here, as well as its post about the threat letter from Axact. The blog does not appear interested in giving in, noting that "this is against the principles of free speech." As it further points out, "if the company is aggrieved it should present counter-facts and prove that NYT story is wrong," rather than bullying the blog for merely posting tweets of people responding to the NY Times story.

Lashing out with claims of defamation, rather than actually responding to the details in the story, is only going to increase the attention on Axact. One gets the feeling this story is far from over...

Update: Oh, and the Pakistani government has now raided the offices of Axact and arrested a bunch of employees, in response to the NY Times' story.

Filed Under: defamation, diploma mill, fake univerisities, pakistan, threats
Companies: axact, barkley university, belford university, columbiana, ny times


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  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 19 May 2015 @ 11:59am

    Hmmmm.. Some sort of Prenda but in academics? Grab the popcorn, Alan Cooper may land at any time now!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 May 2015 @ 3:01am

      Re:

      So after a decade of fraudulent activity and official inaction, there's a big story in NYT, and within 4 days 45 people are arrested by Pakistan authorities.

      It seems Axact's fear of the media was rational.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 May 2015 @ 12:19pm

    Pakistani authorities raided Axact's HQ today, so they may have less time to dedicate to their frivolous legal threats.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 May 2015 @ 12:21pm

    The cc line of the letter to the blog

    I love the:

    cc: the client

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Beech, 19 May 2015 @ 12:25pm

    Defamation

    Are you trying to say that my hard-earned diploma from Hardvard Univercity isn't worth the paper I printed it on? I ought to sue YOU for defamation!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DB (profile), 19 May 2015 @ 12:41pm

    Hmmm, looks they are all too willing to send out legal threats with no basis in law, but unwilling to back up any statement.

    http://www.thelogofactory.com/logo_blog/index.php/sigh-logo-design-splog/

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    HMTKSteve, 19 May 2015 @ 12:41pm

    does it matter?

    What this story exposes is not a diploma mill but the over reliance on diplomas as a barrier to entry into the job market. As well as the skewed value they represent in the work force.

    If someone gets a job using a worthless diploma and succeeds at the job what does that say about the diploma and what does it say about the worker?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      mcinsand, 19 May 2015 @ 1:00pm

      Re: does it matter?...ouch!

      It says a lot about the people doing the interviewing and screening, I'm afraid. In graduate school, a post-doc came into my group claiming to have a doctorate and having been associated with an internationally-regarded expert in my field. The other students and I quickly noticed that things weren't adding up. Chemical principles that any first year undergrad would be expected to have mastered were well beyond him. Our advisor didn't quite catch on until he used hiring this person as an excuse to call Dr. Peters (the global expert), and Dr. Peters had no knowledge of the 'postdoc,' nor did his university have any record of him having attended. His diploma was a forgery. He disappeared shortly after that (thankfully!).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 May 2015 @ 1:23pm

      Re: does it matter?

      Being qualified for the job every interview ended with "Oh, you don't have a degree? We will get back to you."

      So off to school I went so I could land my dream job.

      One of my school mates recommended me for a job two years before graduation. Been here for 12 years now.

      Guess I just needed to get out of my parents basement and spend time with like minded people, not go to school. Thats the most important thing I learned and it only cost me $50k!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      James Burkhardt (profile), 19 May 2015 @ 2:34pm

      Re: does it matter?

      This story exposes nothing of the sort. Yes, if you dig deep and read between the lines you can learn WHY a diploma mill is so valuable, but that is not what hte article is about. The (Techdirt) article, on its face, is about a (NY TIMES) expose on the secret company behind most of these mills and the subsequent attempts to memory hole the expose via legal threats, which only bolsters the claims of the expose.

      Trying to reframe the NY Times article as an expose on the overvaluing of degrees and downplaying the problems associated with a fake degree excuses the actions of Axact and recasts their actions as merely serving a need, rather then defrauding both their customers and the public. There are many professions where a degree is often a necessary step to ensure you know what you need to know. Accounting can be learned on your own, or under the tutelage of an experienced, trained accountant, but my personal experience with accountants trained this way is a regular failure to understand basic underlying concepts that are integral to the Accounting process. Proper education can help prevent pitfalls which could end up costing a business a lot of money. And I am talking about Associate's level training. Columbiana University offers PHD programs. If your job needs a PHD, it likely needs the ton of schooling it would normally take to get that.

      If HR requires a degree where no need exists, yes that is a problem. But not one that should be solved with expensive, worthless fake degrees.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Derek (profile), 19 May 2015 @ 1:07pm

    Diplomas may be relevant in many fields because they kind-of set a baseline of what is expected to 'know' in order to do the job.

    That said, I had a colleague (in the IT field) who insisted that we call him by his Professor title. Which I did, until I found out that his PhD was in Zoology. Which is as relevant in the IT industry as my own Hotel & Restaurant Administration degree.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 May 2015 @ 3:06pm

    ..."Barkley University."

    I read this and thought of retired basketball player Charles Barkley.

    If he was really running a university you can be sure those diplomas would be earned!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 May 2015 @ 3:32pm

    transcripts, student loans, garnishment

    Former students can't get their transcripts until their student loans are paid. Paychecks can be garnished without a court order because the loans are government loans.

    So drop-outs or graduates can't get a decent job without transcripts, and they can't get transcripts until they pay off their loans while working at a low-paying job, while having their paycheck garnished. They can't transfer either, without the transcripts.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Dan (profile), 19 May 2015 @ 5:45pm

      Re: transcripts, student loans, garnishment

      Former students can't get their transcripts until their student loans are paid.

      Nonsense. It may be the case that you can't get your transcripts if you're in default (i.e., you aren't paying as agreed) on a loan made directly by the school, but it's a rare student loan that's made directly by the school in question. They otherwise don't have any way of knowing your loan status, much less do they care.

      This is a different situation from having a balance on your student account. Owe a library fine? The school may well hold your transcripts. Owe $100k on a Stafford loan? The school has no fucks to give.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 19 May 2015 @ 9:55pm

      Re: transcripts, student loans, garnishment

      "Former students can't get their transcripts until their student loans are paid."

      Not exactly true. They can't get their transcripts if they are in default on the loans. If the payments are kept up, then the transcripts are available to them.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 May 2015 @ 5:05pm

    It's not defamation when it's true

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 May 2015 @ 2:01am

    It may have a proper accreditation if you subscribe to it's accreditation process. Let's see how the Pakistani authorities work it out.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    huma, 20 Jun 2015 @ 11:05pm

    Please expose these people as they are black magicians and running a fake companyu

    I know an organization Environmental Management Consultant Pakistan Karachi anum estate opposite duty free shop shahrah-e-faisal whose owner name is Syed Nadeem Arif ,his father Arif, his manager Saquib Ejaz Hussain , Samita his elder son Syed Umar Arif, his younger son Syed Abdullah Arif and his grandmother and Sultan Zaman those people are mischievous. They are involved in all kind of criminal activities including black magic, killing people, destroying people’s life, ruining reputation, threatening people by using their company official photographs especially of girls. Please keep an eye on their activities as they all are involved in black magic and they kill people with the help of this criminal activity black magic. Mr. Syed Nadeem Arif and his father Mr. Arif use to say wrong things about people’s personal life and say that person is mad and we will destroy that person and they give money so that they can keep an eye on peoples professional as well as personal life and they tease, blackmail and disturb people in this way. They all are sick and serial psychotic killers, the director Syed Nadeem Arif and his father Arif is showing official photographs of employees as well as ex- employees without any reason. What steps should be taken as they all are liars and pimps. They interrupt in people’s professional and personal life and even they say wrong things about people character, dignity and create negative perception of a person so that no company will hire a person and even they say that xyz person is mad and we take that person to mental asylum. Please take legal action against this serial killers psychotic family people. These are their numbers 021-34382860, 021-34311466, 021-34321532, 03452447202.
    In recent years, “dignity at work” has been used as a term to describe a working environment free from bullying and harassment. In Pakistan what steps should be taken to stop this bullying and harassment and what policy and rule should be followed. In cases which appear to involve serious misconduct, and there is reason to separate the parties, a short period of suspension of the alleged bully/ harasser may need to be considered while the case is being investigated. This should be with pay unless the contract of employment provides for suspension without pay in such circumstances. A suspension without pay, or any long suspension with pay, should be exceptional as these in themselves may amount to disciplinary penalties.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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