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Authorities Shut Down A Global Network of Fake Universities

NEW YORK—A global network of universities that was duping students out of money for worthless degrees appears to have been shut down.

Chat functions on websites that once tried to draw students into paying money so they could get “scholarships” of no value are now silent, and no one is answering the phones at the numbers listed on the sites.

In A Web of “Diploma Mills” Preys on Arab and Western Students Alike, Al-Fanar Media exposed the illegal practices of phony online universities often targeting Arab students. The universities, including MUST University, which professed to be “the world’s largest university” and to be based in California, were actually part of an international network of diploma mills, with its home in Karachi, Pakistan.

A sham agency called the International Accreditation Organization that tried to legitimize MUST University and many other institutions, both within and outside of the Karachi-based network, also appears to have been shut down. (See related story: Faking Quality Control for Universities).

A couple of weeks ago The New York Times released its findings of an investigation run simultaneously and independently of Al-Fanar Media. The newspaper exposed a Pakistani company called Axact, which The Times said operated as many as 370 fake academic websites—including universities, high schools and accreditation organizations.

The people behind Axact’s scheme, which has allegedly conned thousands of students out of money, enjoyed employee benefits including a company swimming pool and yacht, The Times said. Estimates from ex-employees and fraud experts estimate the Axact network was raking in millions of dollars each month.

After The New York Times listed each of the fake institutions, it became clear there was overlap with the Al-Fanar Media findings. While The Times didn’t name Must University, it did include the International Accreditation Organization and related universities. (Ironically, the accreditation organization had been running seductive advertisements on the home page of The New York Time’s website just weeks before the investigation ran.)

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The New York Times identified the company that appeared to create the network, an area where the Al-Fanar Media investigation came up short.

“I think you were investigating the same people,” said George Gollin, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who tracks down diploma mills. “MUST and the International Accreditation Organization are most likely part of the Axact Empire,” he added.

Since the New York Times’ article, Pakistani investigators have raided Axact’s offices in Karachi and arrested the company’s boss, Shoaib Ahmed Shaikh—a well-known and influential man in Pakistan. Shaikh is also the owner of the BOL media group in Pakistan, which includes a TV news station and print magazines.

In a Q&A interview back in 2013, Newsweek called him “Axactly right” and “The man behind Pakistani media’s next big thing.”

Since his arrest, other executives have also been interrogated and arrested by Pakistani authorities and journalists from Shaikh’s media wing have resigned.

“The whole thing is so big that it’s frightening,” says Gollin.

In several written statements, Axact has said that The New York Times claims are unfounded and defamatory.

The recent crackdown is unlikely to spell the end of diploma mills, Gollin said. There’s too much money to be made.

Would-be students need to be better informed about websites offering online degrees, said Lori Wilson, from the San Francisco office of the Better Business Bureau, a non-profit organization that monitors marketplace fraud in the United States.

Her organization received additional complaints from ex-students of MUST University after the Al-Fanar Media investigation was published in February. When considering a particular university, applicants should be careful, she said.

“Students should be asking themselves if it’s an organization that they’ve heard of,” says Wilson, “if not then they need to do their homework and take their time.” Fake universities often used names that echo real ones, so even a familiar name is not a guarantee of quality. She added that promises such as being able to complete a degree much quicker than it would take in a traditional university are red flags. “If it seems like it’s too good to be true then it almost certainly is,” she said.

Wilson added that the solution isn’t necessarily for legitimate universities to find ways to differentiate themselves, because the fake ones would quickly copycat such practices. The way to combat diploma mills, she says, is for consumers to be more aware.

“Students should look to see if a school is accredited,” she says, “but that’s not enough because we’ve seen that some accreditation organizations are also fake.” (Al-Fanar Media has published a list of universities and programs with genuine international accreditation in the Arab world.) Wilson recommends that students should check if universities are accredited by legitimate organizations. Even if universities say they are accredited, students need to go one step further, says Wilson, and check with the accreditation organizations to make sure the universities aren’t lying about their credentials.
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