Axact impersonated Rex Tillerson in fake degrees scam, BBC journalist reveals

The BBC journalist who led investigation into the fake degree mill, Axact, has revealed he was offered a fake degree in business administration

Saeed Niazi
Wadood Mushtaq

LONDON: The BBC journalist who led the investigations into the fake degree mill, Axact, has revealed that he was offered a fake degree in business administration within 10 minutes of his call to the Axact office in Karachi despite the fact that he knew nothing about business.

BBC investigative journalists, Simon Cox, Helen Clifton and Matthew Chapman exposed that Axact from its Karachi office had sold thousands of fake degrees to customers in Britain, including doctors, nurses and engineers.

The report was published on BBC websites (English and Urdu). The report aired on BBC World Service and BBC Radio 4 did a 40-minute programme on the scandal that had affected thousands of Britons.

Simon Cox told The News in an interview that as part of the investigation, Axact offered him a degree from fake online “Nixon University” costing $3,600 within 10 minutes after the BBC reporter called Axact.

“They showed me what it (degree) would look like. They showed me a course I was supposed to have taken. All they wanted to know was my credit card details and then I could get the degree delivered at my doorstep. They kept calling me and they were very persistent. They were concerned about getting money out of me.”

BBC journalist Simon Cox

The BBC reporter then got back in touch with the Axact weeks later to tell them that they are not a real university. “They tried to maintain this fiction that they did really exist and that they were in southern California. I kept asking them about the university’s address but they asked me about my address. They wouldn’t own up to the fact they didn’t exist. The first person I spoke to said they were in Washington, DC. The second person said they were in southern California. And when I countered them that they were lying, they said we have branches all over America. So they had an answer for everything."

The reporter said that the victims included those whose first language was English as well as those with English as second language. Simon Cox said that the BBC reporters spoke to a large number of victims who were duped into buying worthless fake Axact degrees. “We talked to a victim from Israel who paid over $100,000 to Axact. This lawyer figured out that he was being fooled when Axact rang him pretending to be the American Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. He realised that it couldn’t be true but by now he had paid over $100,000 and they wanted more. They wanted $200,000 from him.”

Simon Cox said that the BBC investigation established that the USA remained the biggest market for Axact, followed by the Gulf Arab countries and Europe.

“We have obtained evidence that Axact sold over 200,000 degrees worldwide. It’s obviously going to be more than that now. We worked on this for a long time, for many months. In fact one of our teams had first worked on a fake degree story ten years ago. What’s interesting about the New York Times and Canadian TV’s expose is that Axact should have been shut down years ago but it's back in business.”

He said that the BBC investigation found that over 3,000 fake degrees were sold in the UK “to various professionals such as doctors, nurses, psychologists and lawyers, people in responsible situations”. He said that most of these professionals had mainly original degrees and they needed “additional degrees” in order to get a promotion. “What was surprising was the scale and the number of the degrees they were selling here, and to the people they were selling to and the amount of money they were making.”

He said it’s easy to dupe the ordinary people who seek help online. “When we told UK’s educational bodies about Axact’s activities in the UK, they were simply not aware Axact was operating again. They are using these loopholes where the UK can’t do anything. Because they will say it’s up to Pakistani authorities or American authorities because they are pretending to be an American university. When someone on phone tells you that you can buy a degree for $3,500 and you don’t have to do any kind of work, you know it’s not a genuine degree.”

The BBC investigative reporter revealed that information about Axact continuing fake degree business came through various documents and sources who told the BBC that the company sold fake degrees through around 500 websites on full time basis.

“We were told that employees pretended to be Saudi ministers and American officials, they pretend to be from American universities. They would pretend anything to sell degrees. We know Axact employee played the part of American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Another guy said they did fraud regularly and pretended to be politicians trying to fool people.

“We spoke to some people who worked for Axact and told us about how it works and talked about making money. He said a few years ago, Axact realised if you look on those website you see that these are fake universities. So they planned to make money from the people who already bought degrees. And they can keep going back to them again and again. And we have spoken to one victim from the UK who paid $600,000. Another UK victim paid $400,000. There are people in the UK we spoke to who have paid between $40,000 to $50,000 and this is from the initial purchase of fake degrees from maybe $5,000 or $10,000. Axact kept coming back and kept putting pressure on them with threats of shame exposes, deportation or arrests and prosecutions unless more money was paid. The customers paid more.”

Simon Cox said that the BBC based its investigations on a combination of things including looking at the investigation done by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and “looking at a lot of documents, who had bought these degrees, how much they paid, where they were from and insiders who had worked there and knew how it worked, and we saw how they go back again and again and again until these customers had no money left and unless they get as much as they could”.

He said the BBC found that the Axact continued to run fake university sites such as Brooklyn Park University, Neil Wilson University, Nixon University which exist only “online and don’t exist on the ground”.

Simon Cox said that the BBC did a thorough investigation to establish the involvement of Axact in the fraud business. When contacted, Axact told BBC its lawyers would contact the BBC but then no version was given.

The victims told BBC how they were fooled. One victim Cecil Horner, a Briton who worked in Saudi Arabia, paid around $600,000 to Axact and was threatened and blackmailed repeatedly. “He initially paid $1,000, then made 80 more payments in four years and paid $600,000 in total. He was told he would lose his job if he didn’t pay, he would be exposed and he would be shamed that he was holding fake degrees. He was told he could go to jail and deported. It went on and on.

“In this case, they (Axact) drained Cecil Horner, he lost his pension, all his savings, everything. He died two years ago of cancer. Even when he was on his deathbed, they (Axact) were ringing him for more money and they knew he was a sick man and on his deathbed. He worked in Saudi Arabia for 20 years. He kept a secret of what was happening. After he died, his son found emails and fake degrees from Axact. On his deathbed, he was asked to pay more and he paid $50,000. Just before he died.”

He said there had been a case against Axact in Pakistan but the prosecutor had resigned and there had been allegations a judge had been bribed which he denied. “It became very messy and it would be interesting to see if Pakistan investigated Axact again. The FBI in America will be successful but Axact is now weary of American market where it fears FBI agents." 

The Axact employee whom this correspondent spoke to said that they would offer him a degree with a seal from the American government and that’s what would get Axact in trouble in America again for selling fake degrees as official American degrees. Action has to happen in Pakistan where Axact is based, he said.

Simon Cox said that there were various counts of how much Axact could have made in the last 20 years. “The FBI estimates that Axact has made around $130 million over 10 years but there are bigger estimates, sometime Axact made up to $50 million a year and that means that over a period of 20 years it could have made an estimated $1 billion.”

Originally published in The News