WASHINGTON – A US district court on Tuesday awarded sentence of 21 months imprisonment to an executive of a Pakistani IT company, Axact, in an high-profile fake degrees scandal, local media reported.
Umair Ahmad, who served as vice president of the company, had pleaded guilty before US District Judge Ronnie Abrams to conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection with an international “diploma mill” scheme that collected tens of millions of dollars from thousands of customers.
Following his confession, the same judge while announcing the verdict on August 29 sentenced him to jail and imposed a fine of $5,303,020 on him.
In May 2015, Axact had come under investigation when The New York Times’ investigative journalist Declan Walsh exposed a scandal regarding the company’s notorious business of fake degrees. All offices in Pakistan were sealed following the news by enforcement agencies, besides arresting his top officials including CEO Shoaib Sheikh, Viqas Atiq who have succeeded in securing bails as the FIA didn’t pursue the case properly.
Hamid, who had joined Axact in 2006 as an assistant executive, also came under investigation. He escaped justice in Pakistan after making some startling confessions by becoming prosecution witness voluntarily.
Later, he reached the US in 2016 where he pleaded guilty for his crime and also signed an acceptance letter to pay $5 million and part of his wealth as fine in the case.
According to the Justice Department’s press release, he was involved in controlling online companies that falsely posed to consumers as legitimate educational institutions. Hamid had made various false and fraudulent representations to consumers in order to sell fake diplomas.
Acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim said: “Operating from Pakistan, Umair Hamid helped fraudulently rake in millions of dollars from unwitting American consumers who paid to enroll in, and get degrees from, high schools and colleges that did not exist. As a result of his fraud, people who thought they were investing in an education received nothing more than worthless diplomas and a harsh lesson in the worldwide reach of deceit. Together with our partners at the FBI and the Postal Service, we will continue to work to protect consumers from scams that victimize our citizens.”
Earlier, the court announced to hand out punishment on July 21 and later set date of August 21.
The Axact Scheme
According to a press release issued by US Department of Justice regarding pleading guilty, “HAMID, using the aliases “Shah Khan” and the “Shah,” and others operated a massive education “diploma mill” through the Pakistani company “Axact,” which has described itself as one of the world’s leading information technology (“IT”) providers. Working on behalf of Axact, HAMID and others made misrepresentations to individuals across the world, including throughout the United States and in the Southern District of New York, in order to dupe these individuals into enrolling in supposed high schools, colleges, and other educational institutions. Consumers paid upfront fees to HAMID and his co-conspirators, believing that in return they would be enrolled in real educational courses and, eventually, receive legitimate degrees. Instead, after paying the upfront fees, consumers did not receive any legitimate instruction and were provided fake and worthless diplomas.
Axact promoted and claimed to have an affiliation with approximately 350 fictitious high schools and universities, which Axact advertised online to consumers as genuine schools. During certain time periods since 2014, Axact received approximately 5,000 phone calls per day from individuals seeking to purchase Axact products or enroll in educational institutions supposedly affiliated with Axact. At least some of those consumers appeared to believe that they were calling phone numbers associated with the respective schools. When consumers asked where the schools were located, sales representatives were instructed to give fictitious addresses”.
Once a consumer paid for a school certificate or diploma that falsely reflected a completed course of study, Axact sales agents were trained to use sales techniques to persuade the consumer to purchase additional “accreditation” or “certifications” for such certificates or diplomas in order to make them appear more legitimate. Axact, through HAMID and his co-conspirators, falsely “accredited” purported colleges and other educational institutions by arranging to have diplomas from these phony educational institutions affixed with fake stamps supposedly bearing the seal and signature of the U.S. Secretary of State, as well as various state agencies and federal and state officials.
HAMID’s Role in the Scheme
The press release continues, “HAMID served as Axact’s “Assistant Vice President of International Relations.” Among other things, HAMID made various false and fraudulent representations to consumers in order to sell fake diplomas. HAMID controlled websites of purported “schools” that (1) falsely represented that consumers who “enrolled” with the schools by paying tuition fees would receive online instruction and coursework, (2) sold bogus academic “accreditations” in exchange for additional fees, (3) falsely represented that the schools had been certified or accredited by various educational organizations, and (4) falsely represented that the schools’ degrees were valid and accepted by employers, including in the United States.
As a further part of the scheme, HAMID and a co-conspirator (1) opened bank accounts in the United States in the names of shell entities, effectively controlled by HAMID, that received funds transferred by consumers in exchange for fake diplomas, (2) transferred funds from those bank accounts to bank accounts associated with other entities located elsewhere in the United States and abroad, at the direction of HAMID, and (3) opened and operated an account to collect and distribute consumer funds obtained in connection with their fraudulent scheme.
In May 2015, Axact was shut down by Pakistani law enforcement, and certain individuals associated with Axact were prosecuted in Pakistan. Nevertheless, after May 2015, HAMID resumed his fraudulent business of selling fake diplomas to consumers in the United States for upfront fees based upon false and fraudulent representations. Most recently, HAMID traveled to the United States in 2016 in order to open a bank account used to collect money from defrauded consumers.”