Pakistan is back in the news for letting its territory be used by non-state actors. This time, it is not Jihadis but a group of entrepreneurs running an internet based fake ID racket that adversely affected U.S. security.
This week, the United States imposed sanctions on Russian cybersecurity companies and officials that operate on behalf of Russian intelligence services. What stood out in this was a Pakistan-based company Fresh Air Farm House, that helped Russian operatives get a toehold in the United States.
According to a Reuters investigative report, the Karachi-based company, the Farm House, is run by 34-year-old Mohsin Raza. “According to a U.S. Treasury statement and an indictment issued this week by federal prosecutors in New Jersey, Raza operated a digital fake ID mill, churning out images of doctored drivers’ licenses, bogus passports and forged utility bills to help rogue clients pass verification checks at U.S. payment companies and tech firms. The six-count indictment charges Raza with making false documents and aggravated identity theft.”
As Reuters noted, this use by “Russian operatives of a Pakistani fake ID merchant to circumvent American social media controls “highlights why this globalized cybercrime economy that touches so many areas can be a perfect place to hide – even for nation-states.”
When Reuters contacted Raza he “acknowledged being a digital counterfeiter, saying he used “simple Photoshop” to alter ID cards, bills, and other documents to order. His facility, which features three bedrooms, a playing field, a water slide, and a BBQ area, is now on a U.S. list of sanctioned entities alongside Russian oligarchs and defense contractors.”
This is not the first time that a Pakistan based money making operation on the internet has received international attention.
In 2015, an investigative report by New York Times and others broke the Axact scam, a fake diploma mill scam by a Karachi based company founded by Shoaib Shaikh. Axact called itself “Pakistan’s largest software exporter, with Silicon Valley-style employee perks like a swimming pool and yacht. Axact does sell some software applications.” However, “according to former insiders, company records and a detailed analysis of its websites, Axact’s main business has been to take the centuries-old scam of selling fake academic degrees and turn it into an Internet-era scheme on a global scale.”
A detailed investigation into this scam by American and Pakistani officials found that “Axact’s fraud empire, already considered one of the biggest Internet scams on record, is bigger than initially imagined. Over the past decade, Axact took money from at least 215,000 people in 197 countries — one-third of them from the United States. Sales agents wielded threats and false promises and impersonated government officials, earning the company at least $89 million in its final year of operation.”
However, within a year, the local authorities lost interest in this scam. “The case against Axact, which at first seemed a rare instance in which tycoons with powerful connections were being held to criminal account, has increasingly appeared in recent months to be in jeopardy.”
Shoaib Shaikh and his fake diploma mill did not get punished by Pakistani law and it is unlikely that Mohsin Raza and his fake ID card business will get him punished either. In Pakistan, criminals go free but people with ‘wrong’ opinions end up in prison. And still Pakistanis wonder why the country’s image abroad is so bad.