Fake Pakistani degree mill poses danger to South Africa

23-fake-30346_640The uncovering of what the American FBI called “one of the largest degree scam operations ever” should serve as a wakeup call for both the public and the private sector in South Africa.

Operated by a Axact, a Karachi-based software company in Pakistan that the New York Times claims has made millions selling fake degrees through a sprawling empire of bogus diploma and degree websites, the company has been operating for at least the past ten years.

Kirsten Halcrow, the Managing Director of EMPS, one of the oldest background screening companies in South Africa, said there were so many secondary and tertiary institutions involved in the scam – most allegedly based in the United States – that it was impossible to say how many of their fraudulent qualifications had been taken at face value in South Africa.

“We have been battling the degree mill scourge for a long time and it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell the real from the fake because a growing number of bogus institutions now offer a 24 hour verification service.

“Their websites look real and their call centres through which they aggressively market their fake degrees are staffed by Pakistanis who speak fluent English.”

She said the proliferation of Internet-based degree schemes had raised concerns about their possible use in immigration fraud, and about dangers they may pose to public safety.

“Hands down, this is probably the largest operation we’ve ever seen,” said Allen Ezell, a retired F.B.I. agent and author of a book on diploma mills who has been investigating Axact. “It’s a breath-taking scam.”

They offer everything from high school diplomas for about $350, to doctoral degrees for $4,000 and above.

Halcrow said a fake qualification was generally easier to spot than one that had been bought and had the look and feel of a real degree or diploma.

“Qualification fraud Is on the rise and it is evident that a growing number of South Africans have availed themselves of these fake degrees to advance their careers as we have seen with a number of high flyer government employees who have been caught red-handed with bogus credentials.”

Halcrow said 7,6% of qualifications submitted to her company for verification in the first quarter of 2015 were unverifiable. In some instances the qualifications could not be verified as the institutions had long since ceased to exist. In other instances the institutions had not kept accurate records which created issues.

Danie Strydom, CEO of one of South Africa’s largest qualifications verification companies, QVS, said it is encouraging to see that the authorities started to act against qualifications fraudsters.

“There is no difference between qualifications fraud and any other form of fraud.”

The case of former SAPS spokesman Vincent Mdunge who was sentenced to five years in jail for fraud after faking his Matric certificate was clear proof of the fact that successful prosecutions were possible, Strydom said.

He said the private sector should take note of government’s initiative to beef up background checks for public service employees to ensure that all qualifications claimed on CVs were valid.

“The recommendations by a parliamentary portfolio committee urging Department of Public Service and Administration to beef up its vetting procedures to ensure that government does not employ people on the basis of false qualifications is laudable,” he said.

He said there had been a noticeable increase in the number of fraudulent and false qualification verifications done by his company.

Over the past 24 months this figure has been steadily climbing.

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