A self-described software company based in Pakistan appears to be a front for one of the largest global networks of fake diplomas and has made millions of dollars off of unsuspecting students and professionals.

An investigation published yesterday in the New York Times has revealed the shadowy dealings of Axact, a Silicon Valley-style company that bills itself as Pakistan’s largest software exporter. In reality, however, the enterprise seems to be primarily an international diploma mill, selling degrees from hundreds of universities that don’t actually exist.

The company has capitalized on global interest in online education, seeking out prospective students around the world and targeting them with marketers and sales representatives who convince them to fork over money for coursework that never arrives or just for the degree itself.

Sales employees take aggressive and dishonest tactics with customers, including promising them that their life experiences are enough to qualify them for a degree and even impersonating US government officials to convince students to pay more for supposedly “authenticated” documents.

“Customers think it’s a university, but it’s not,” Yasir Jamshaid, a former quality control official at Axact, told the Times. “It’s all about the money.”

Sales representatives offer potential customers a range of different options (at a range of prices), from high school diplomas at about $350 each, to doctoral degrees, which can run more than $4,000.

The company reportedly earns revenues of several million dollars each month, which is then shuffled through a network of offshore companies.

Axact operates a vast network of hundreds of websites that appear to be for universities with reassuringly American- or British-sounding names like Columbiana, Woodbridge and McKinley. The sites even feature promotional videos with testimonies from professors and students – except that all of the people who appear in the videos are actually paid actors.

Still, the marketing seems to have worked on many unsuspecting victims, from Abu Dhabi to Michigan, who have paid the company thousands of dollars to enroll in degree courses – only to end up with a useless piece of paper.

Axact has faced several major lawsuits, including a class-action suit brought against two of its websites, for Belford High School and Belford University, that included an estimated 30,000 claimants just in the United States. Belford lost the case and was ordered to pay $22.7 million in damages, though none of that money has yet been paid out.

The Axact case is an especially large example of the troubling growth of so-called “diploma mills,” which prey on innocent workers and students and convince them to pay for degrees or accreditation they need – but only provide useless documents, often from nonexistent educational institutions, in return.

Diploma mills have been around, in some form or another, for decades, but the growth of the internet and increased global connectivity has exponentially exacerbated the problem, allowing online enterprises like Axact to seek out victims all around the world, with the promise of a coveted degree from universities in the US or UK.

Even if this investigation leads to the demise of Axact, there’s no doubt that another shadowy company is simply waiting in the wings to take over.

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