Despite being housed in a ground floor office suite of a generic mid-rise office building—that draws a N. Causeway Dr. address, even though it’s at the corner of Village and Melville Dewey—in downtown Metairie, La., a relatively unknown web-hosting company might have the largest concentration of tuition paying students in the country. The company’s servers are the registered home of at least six separate colleges, three online high schools, and two accrediting agencies.
The problem is that the education-related sites hosted by the company are all illegal diploma mills. For decades the daily ebb and flow of information moving through the web have been carrying scams. For many years they were easy to spot, and easy to defeat. Deposed African royalty in need of assistance transferring their wealth to Western banks followed notices about winning foreign lotteries into the great Google spam folder.
However, scammers graduated from sending unsolicited e-mails—riddled with spelling errors—to crafting top-of-the line websites and promotional material, which is how a press release from a Pakistan-based operation showed up on Yahoo News.
Early on the morning of Aug. 13, a seemingly innocuous statement from Ashbery University—a website claiming to be an online college located in Brownfield, Texas—announcing five new graduate degree programs made it into the daily feed of PRWeb, one of the largest press release distribution sites on the internet. From there the news release was automatically uploaded to the press release section of Yahoo News, Virtual Strategy Magazine and Burlington, Ve.-based TV station WCAX.
At face value the press release seems legitimate, even if the degrees seem slightly off for an online college. There was a time, back before the higher education boom, when a school purportedly offering a “Master’s in Social Sciences” would raise an eyebrow, but with schools now offering degrees in everything from creativity to packaging, the announcement of a “Doctorate of Applied Arts” doesn’t seem that far-fetched.
It’s only when a prospective student clicks through to the school’s professionally designed website and sees the broken English, vague statements about faculty, and lack of a physical address that suspicion starts setting in. The website even claims that the school is accredited by an official sounding organization called the Accrediting Bureau for Distance Education and Training (ABDET). And like anything based on smoke and mirrors, the illusion of Ashbery University falls apart under examination.
Despite the news release being datelined with Brownfield, Texas the school is not registered with either the Texas Comptroller’s office, the state agency responsible for overseeing non-profit higher education institutions, or the Texas Secretary of State’s office, the agency in charge of for-profit institutions. The fraudulent school’s supposed accrediting agency isn’t listed with either the U.S. Department of Education or the Council on Higher Education Accreditation—the national organization for accrediting agencies.
Aside from the “school’s” promotional material, and Facebook page, the only place where Ashbery University or ABDET are mentioned is in the domain registration for their respective sites. Both sites are registered to a web-hosting company called DNC Holdings, Inc.
Like the much more high-profile Domains by Proxy, DNC Holdings specializes in hosting web sites anonymously, which makes it attractive to organizations operating on the shadier side of the Internet. In addition to Ashbery and ABDET, DNC Holding is also registered as administering the websites for Panworld University, McGraw University”, McFord University, Northern Port University, and Headway University.
The sites DNC hosts are some of the nearly 30 websites claiming to represent universities or high schools that have been linked to a Pakistan based fraud ring deceptively known as the Organization for Global Learning Education (OGLE). Based out of Salem Kureshi’s apartment in Karachi, Pakistan, and active since 2001, OGLE has been accused of fleecing students, primarily in the U.S. and Canada, by getting them to pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for fraudulent diplomas and degrees. While the total value of Kureshi’s enterprise is unknown, and may be unknowable, the Montreal based Coalition for Advocates of Online Education—which maintains the website diplomamillscam.com—estimates that Kureshi may be clearing between $55 million and $70 million a year.
A civil RICO lawsuit filed in 2009 in the United States District Court of Eastern Michigan, alleges that OGLE’s various sites offered students the ability to receive a high school diploma or college degree through equivalency tests and prior learning assessment. Prior Learning assessment and equivalency tests—like CLEP or GED—based degrees and diplomas are offered by many schools and, when administered by an accredited institution, accepted by many others, but since Kureshi’s enterprise is both unaccredited and lacks academic staff, any certifications or credentials students receive are worth little more than the paper they were printed on.
Beyond where he lives and his age, 30, very little is known about Kureshi or his operations. He has admitted in court documents that his phony schools have no employees, whether or not his enterprise does is another matter. The lawsuit names, in addition to Kureshi, 35 John or Jane Does and indicates that they are the people who take care of the day-to-day operations of maintaining Kureshi’s operations.
Seven of the John Does, specifically John Does three through ten, are people—like DNC Holdings registered president Vernon Decossa—who are responsible for some maintenance of Kureshi’s sites. However, the majority of OGLE’s sites are hosted in Panama.
Another four John Does are allegedly responsible for handling Kureshi’s billing through a company called Education Services Provider, Inc. While the lawsuit states that Education Services has offices in West Hollywood, the California Secretary of State has no records of any company with that name registering with the state.
The relationship between Education Services Provider and Kureshi’s other enterprises is murky; the Los Angeles branch of the Better Business Bureau lists Education Services Provider as an alternate name for Kureshi’s scam site, Adison High School. However, unlike Kureshi’s other sites Education Services’ website, educationsp.com, is registered to London-based proxy hosting firm Global Domain Privacy.
Although it may be unclear as to whether or not Kureshi does his own billing, it is clear that he outsourced his marketing efforts. The lawsuit alleges that, at least through 2006, Kureshi utilized a Dallas, Texas based SEO firm named Zunch Communications to raise the profile of his sites.
Zunch filed for bankruptcy in 2007 with $750,000 in debt. While the lawsuit does name Zunch Communications’ successor, Zunch Worldwide, it doesn’t name the former company’s executives—six of whom left to start their own firm Kinetic Results, which later changed its name to Dexterity Media, in October 2005.
While the loss of Zunch barely slowed Kureshi down, it did force him to change his strategy. Now instead of relying on legitimate businesses to attract people to the scam, OGLE has possibly started fabricating PR representative and entire PR companies to spread the word about Kureshi’s phony universities.
On Aug. 14, a press release from Kureshi’s McGraw University site was posted to the press release distribution site PR Newswire. From there it was picked up by the press release section of the Wall St. Journal’s Marketwatch website.
While the Marketwatch version didn’t identify the author of the news release, the PR Newswire for Journalists version (account required) listed the contact for the release as “Michael McGarety” who supposedly works at a firm called PR Authority. While there is a firm called PR Authority in L.A. which is a subsidiary of California based Ceila Company, who emphatically deny having any relationship with or knowledge of McGraw University or Salem Kureshi, PR Authority doesn’t seem to exist. And yet it’s everywhere.
In the last seven days 14 press releases, all attributed to Michael McGarety and PR Authority, for 14 different people purported to be clients, not including McGraw University, have been uploaded to various PR websites. McGarety’s productive success comes despite the self-described marketing executive having no social media presence, no working phone number, and no verifiable address.
Many of the press releases that were identified as coming from Michael McGarety listed his office as being on the non-existent W. Trade St. in New York City. All the phone numbers attached to the McGarety press releases were either disconnected or rang to spam accounts. Additionally, PR Authority is not registered as an incorporated entity with the New York Secretary of State’s office.
It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for Kureshi to have fabricated his own PR representative; he did admit in court documents that all of the names of the signatories on his fraudulent degrees are fictitious. And that’s the problem with a big con, trying to unravel it is like following smoke through a hall of mirrors.
Follow Alex Wukman @AlexWukmanCMN