"I had a gut feeling that it was not right." That was what Yasir Jamshaid felt when he started working for Axact, a Pakistani software firm. It turns out his sixth sense was correct, according to a New York Times exposé that reveals a company apparently bringing in tens of millions of dollars each year by offering fake online degrees and certificates through an intricate website network for hundreds of pretend schools. The Times' probe, also partially based on company records and interviews with former workers, paints a predatory picture: Employees allegedly cajole customers into paying big bucks for diplomas from schools that have what the newspaper calls "calculatedly familiar-sounding names" like Barkley and Columbiana. The "schools" are fabricated by Axact using polished-looking websites with stock photos, fake accreditations, and even made-up reports posted on a section of the CNN website used for citizen journalism.
Some of the "students" are being totally swindled (they think they'll eventually be sent legit coursework), while others know they're paying for an "instant degree," desired to boost their résumé or get a promotion—one Saudi man coughed up $400,000, Jamshaid tells the Times. Axact's CEO is an interesting guy, too: Shoaib Ahmed Shaikh always wanted to be "richer than Bill Gates" and mysteriously built up the company from what Quartz calls a "small garage startup" to the multimillion-dollar behemoth it is today—yet a Pakistani journalist uncovered that Shaikh paid just 26 cents in income tax last year. Axact doesn't mince words on its website in response to the Times' "defamatory article": "Axact condemns this story as baseless, substandard, maligning, defamatory, and based on false accusations and merely a figment of imagination published without taking the company's point of view." Read the full exposé here. (Read more Pakistan stories.)