Seven Concerning Ways Essay Mills Are Connecting With Vulnerable Students

Essay mills, contract cheating providers and individual academic ghost writers are becoming increasingly savvy regarding the money on offer. They know about the need to market their services to prospective students. They are finding new ways to connect with students, many of which have their basis in the same marketing techniques that legitimate businesses use to engage their customers.

This blog post discusses seven of the more unusual customer engagement techniques that essay mills are known to be using. The information from this post could be considered anecdotal, but is has been gathered from a variety of discussions with academics and ghost writers, research presentations, media stories and my own experience observing the continual fast pace of development within the contract cheating industry.

 

Method 1 – Using Students As Brand Ambassadors

For a long time, essay mills have been finding students willing to represent their brand on campus. This is exactly the same process legitimate businesses marketing to students, such as nightclubs, food services and recruiting employers, use to expand awareness of their brand.

Here, students take responsibility for getting the word out about the company they work with. There are all kind of ways that they can do this, but often this will involve making leaflets, flyers and posters visible to other students. The student may receive a bursary, or may get a commission for every sale, with trackable links. Essay mills can quickly set up a new variant site for their service, with a university name or location embedded in it. This makes sales easier to track and can make it look like the service is operating locally or is officially endorsed by a university. A variant of this technique has also seen students used as brand ambassadors to recruit other students as paid ghost writers.

 

Method 2 – Disguising Themselves As Tutoring Services

Contract cheating services have been observed presenting themselves as proof reading services, copy editing services or tutoring services to thinly disguise their real offer. The service may initial appear to be legit, but may then upsell their real offer to the student. Other apparent support services may not even go through this pretence, or may have chat windows that pop up on their website offering essay writing and assignment production services.

A particular concern has been raised with tutoring services. These can operate within a university, for example when a student’s individual requirements have indicated that they need to be provided with further access to a tutor. That tutor is often only paid for the hours directly worked. Some tutors have admitted that they will see what kind of support the student needs and, if this goes beyond that which can be provided in the time available, they will use the contact as a bridge to offer contract cheating services, subtly or otherwise. Since students can become dependent on contract cheating services, this university provided introduction can be lucrative for individual contract cheating providers who choose to promote themselves through this route.

 

Method 3 – Sponsoring Stalls At Welcome Events

Many universities hold events for new students during a Welcome Week or Freshers Week. One common event is a Welcome Fair, where different companies and student societies set up stalls to interact with the new students. Commercial stalls are often seen at these events since they bring in money for a university or its Student Union and help to subsidise the running costs.

Contract cheating companies have been observed becoming involved with these welcome events. Although they may not blatantly offer a stall themselves, they have more subtle ways to be involved, such as sponsoring a stall run by students. The stall can be encouraged to host flyers or other materials about the essay mill. A recent example of this from an Australian university saw the advertising materials being presented in Chinese, making them hard to spot by anyone not familiar with that language.

 

Method 4 – Offering Students Free Essays For Referring Their Friends

Rather like a pyramid marketing scheme, essay mills are always keen to increase the number of customers on their database. Even if they don’t directly make a sale, just the email address of a student is of value to each business. That gives the essay mill the option to keep targeting the potential customer, offering them discounts until they buy. A referral is much more powerful than a standard advert. It demonstrates to students that they are simply following in the footsteps of a trusted colleague.

As well as providing an incentive for a converting referral, such as credits towards a free essay or a discount code to use on a subsequent purchase, essay mills can present this to students as if they are doing their friends a favour. They are providing them with access to the same support service that they used.

 

Method 5 – Setting Up Fake University WhatsApp Groups

Contract cheating providers seem to be investing more time and effort to develop relationships before going in for the sale. Those relationships can be nurtured using cheap international labour. One way they’ve begun to do this is by setting up WhatsApp group which is aimed at students from a particular university and which may appear to be endorsed by that university. Students preparing to go to university are often looking for supportive communities and can easily sign up for unofficial groups (if their university or specific subject even offers an official group at all).

How these groups work is that they initially operate appearing to be like a legitimate group. Workers representing the contract cheating provider take their time to get to know students. They find out about the student, their life, their frustrations and deadlines. When the pressure ramps up, they then move in for the sale, often presenting themselves as a fellow student showing the service they used when they were stressed and which a student can use to. These are the same techniques used in all kinds of other scams, such as catfishing.

Contract cheating services are also finding ways to get access to existing student WhatsApp, Facebook and WeChat groups. Many of these groups require little in the way of verification to join and posts are not always closely monitored by universities. And, many of these groups are set up by students, so are not directly part of a university at all. I’ve heard, for example, of essay mills joining groups set up to support students in individual university halls.

 

Method 6 – Providing Free Online Resources In Exchange For An Email Address

In the world of online marketing, contact information is king. Advertising on essay related terms can be expensive. Instead, companies are finding alternative services that they can provide, in return for which they a valid student email address or mobile phone contact number.

Generally, access to free software seems to work well for essay mills. This can include software that they claim detects plagiarism, access to large databases of sample essays, or use of referencing software. Essay mills have also been observed offering a certain amount of custom writing for free, such as the first page on a longer essay. Although this may seem counter-intuitive, the cost of offering such a service is low, perhaps only a dollar or two per page, certainly lower than the cost of a pay-per-click advert against a popular search term. Having writers create free original essay samples also keeps them busy, useful if they are salaried. Even if the student does not go on to order the full essay, the service still has the sample page available to use, as well as details about an assignment that a real student is undertaking.

Students who have used a free service like this can also be at the risk of blackmail.

 

Method 7 – Signing Up For Courses To Get Direct Access To Students

Contract cheating services have become wise to the idea that their best mechanism for connecting with students is to be inside the same courses as the students are. They are signing up to those courses to get access, particularly MOOCS and other large online courses where the students are unlikely to be personally known by teaching staff and the number of potential contacts can run into the thousands.

Having such access, whether it is in the form of email addresses, or the option to set up an off-site community, can be of immense value to contract cheating providers. They can present themselves as specialist in a particular course. They can access all the same resources used by legitimate students, including lecture notes, tutor access and library resources. Some companies have been observed operating a second side-hustle, by selling materials from within the course through sites such as CourseHero.

A variant of this technique has also been observed where contract cheating services do not need to register as a student themselves at all. Instead, they wait until orders for essays and assignment solutions come in from students. They then get direct access to the site from their customer instead. This approach raises all kinds of cybersecurity issues and asks the question do universities really check if the correct people are accessing their servers.

 

Stay Alert To The Changing Contract Cheating Industry!

Shareable Infographic

As this blog post has indicated, contract cheating services and essay mills are able to get their message out to students on campus. Their techniques are developing all the time as bright new entrepreneurs choose to enter this lucrative space. There are all kinds of other techniques in use. Connecting with students through social media properties, for example, is common.

I’ve recently heard about essay mills becoming even more brazen, sending out sales people to go into university canteens and other areas popular with students to talk directly about the ways in which they can help them.

I share new contract cheating industry developments all the time in my academic integrity talks and training sessions. Click here to contact me if you’d like to discuss ways in which I can work with you or your staff and students.

Do stay alert to changes in the contract cheating industry. The past few years have seen continual developments. Such changes to essay mill and contract cheating provider operation are likely to continue and the pace of industry change may even accelerate.

How Kenya Now Leads The World In Enabling Contract Cheating

My research into contract cheating, dating right back to when I first publicised the threat this poses to academic standards in 2006, has identified worldwide hot spots of individuals enabling contract cheating. These hot spots are international locations with essay mill companies and individual writers keen to make money by helping other people to cheat. They also represent locations where the income from enabling contract cheating is very good by local standards.

I mentioned the countries where contract cheating enabling is prevalent, such as Kenya, India and Pakistan, in this 2016 article for The Guardian. Indeed, I witnessed the growth of the essay writing industry in Kenya between 2006 and 2016, as evidenced, for instance in these 2016 slides, where I showed that the people bidding to complete low level academic work on Freelancer.com were coming mainly from India, Kenya, Pakistan and Morocco.

Contract Cheating Writers Based In Kenya

My recent paper looking at the ghost writers working internationally in the contract cheating industry found that the majority of writers for contract cheating companies were based in Kenya. The real percentage may be higher than I found, as some workers seemed to be disguising their location, perhaps pretending they were in a country their essay buyers would consider more desirable, such as the United States.

The Chronicle of Higher Education also explored contract cheating in Kenya, demonstrating what big business this type of work had become in a country where poverty is common.

In every apartment building in Nairobi, you could find two, three writers.

The Chronicle source too found writers told not to reveal that they were from Kenya and to instead pretend they were British or American. The fact that many essay mills really use writers from Kenya is a (not so well hidden) secret in the essay industry.

Academic Writing Work In Kenya Is Often Low Paid

Chloe Walker presenting at Plagiarism Across Europe 2017

I’ve previously mentioned Chloe Walker’s ongoing research into contract cheating in Kenya.

Chloe has still to formally publish her findings, but her work has explored the legitimate feel of the contract cheating industry in Kenya. That is, the participants think of their jobs as providing a service of value, not as helping people to cheat. They see themselves as working as academic writers.

The money is also good. Even writers earning as little as $2 to $3 USD per essay still look at this as being a better income than the level of money they could earn in another job.

That is, if they can get another job at all.

Kenya is a country with 35% youth unemployed. This has led to estimates from both Chloe and the Chronicle of 20,000 people in Kenya being employed as academic writers (with many more working from home to produce other types of writing, or having involvement in the wider Gig Economy).

For those at the upper levels, the rewards can be much greater. The Chronicle article shows one business, essentially a writer who subcontracted work to four trainees, earning up to $14,000 USD from contract cheating per month. That’s a figure not to be sniffed at anywhere in the world.

The situation in Kenya is not helped by corruption at the highest levels of society. In 2016, MPs in Kenya were told that they had to hold degrees before the next election (in 2017). This ruling was subsequently scrapped after it was found that it had led to MPs buying their degrees rather than putting in the work needed to gain academic qualifications legitimately.

Social Media Is Used Heavily In The Academic Writing Industry In Kenya

Getting to work as an academic writer really is a job that is in demand in Kenya. So much so that people will pay for the opportunity.

In this post, I discussed the Facebook groups selling accounts working for contract cheating providers to people who wouldn’t otherwise be eligible. One Facebook group has 1289 ads in it. Many of those both selling and buying accounts are based in Kenya.

There are private groups discussing the latest tricks to get ahead providing academic writing services that are much bigger. I’ve found a Facebook group which is “strictly for Kenyan writers only” with over 100,000 members and over 300 posts a day. Numbers like these make it look as though the number of people now employed as academic writers in Kenya may well have expanded well beyond the 20,000 figure previously discussed.

Example of a private Facebook group aimed at academic writers in Kenya with over 100,000 members

You can even find whole web sites aimed at people in Kenya keen to make money telling them how to get started as academic writers (and often selling their own guides and account set up services to take advantage of those people who are already desperate). These use such statements as:

It’s no longer a secret that many freelance writers in Kenya are now reaping big in academic writing.

Another uses typical marketing techniques designed to remove objections, in this case eliminating concerns about vocabulary that even native English speaking students would never use:

Must I know hard English words like despot, fractious, inveterate and such like tough words?

Some sites promote this essay writing work as a “side hustle“.

I won’t link directly to sites such as these, but they are very easy to find, as are the many classified ads aimed at recruiting academic writers from Kenya.

The Messages About The Workers For Contract Cheating Companies In Kenya

We need to be alert about where the push for contract cheating is coming from.

It is international in focus, particularly from countries such as Kenya, where contract cheating appears to be an important contributor to how many individuals there are able to survive.

It is a highly competitive industry that won’t go away on its own.

That is why we see such heavy social media promotion of cheating opportunities to students, spamming techniques, as well as attempts by individuals to blackmail students who use their services.

There is still a need for formal academic research about contract cheating in Kenya (and other countries), looking from the points of view of providers, students and other stakeholders.

I have a research paper idea relating to contract cheating in Kenya in mind. I’m looking forward to seeing more about what Chloe Walker (and others) have been working on.

Buy A PhD – Essay Mills And Contract Cheating Pricing (Infographic)

How much does it cost to buy a full PhD thesis from an academic ghost writer or an essay mill?

This infographic illustrates how much it would cost to buy a PhD of around 75,000 words.

The PhD pricing is based on the PhD providers I discussed in this post. There, you can find out more about the problem of original PhD theses available for sale on the Internet.

It is harder to fake your way to a PhD qualification than just a bachelor’s degree. You also have to plan to successfully complete a viva, or find some way of cheating the system to get away without this. Although some companies do offer training for this, it’s likely to involve an additional expense.

Some countries make the viva process even tougher by requiring the PhD to defended in public, in front of an open audience. This puts much of the burden of ensuring that the candidate is prepared back on the supervisor, as it would reflect badly on the supervisor if they sent an ill-prepared candidate out in this public setting. Perhaps the public defence approach is one that needs to be more widely considered in light of the PhD mills?

Can You Really Buy A PhD Online?

Much attention has been paid in the UK to the petition aiming to ban the advertising and provision of essay mill services. This says that you can buy a PhD for £6,750, a figure which has been floating around the media for some time.

But, is it really possible to buy a PhD online and for a price similar to this?

The answer, unfortunately, is yes.

You can definitely buy PhD level writing. And a student who is familiar with how the essay industry works can find a better value PhD thesis than that offered by a typical essay mill.

How Do You Go About Buying A PhD?

You can, of course, buy a fake PhD certificate, or use your “life experience” to get a qualification from a fake university. But such qualifications are unlikely to stand up to external scrutiny.

You might try and make connections directly with a writer and work with them.

But I suspect most people will see the type of advertising for PhD mills that appears when you search on Google. It’s hard to avoid it, as even a prospective student looking for advice about which university to study a PhD at will be hit with ads of this type.

The advertising for PhD writing services is nowhere near as advanced as for essay mills but many of the same marketing techniques are in use. You see guarantees, discounts, promises of fast turnaround times and the old favourite of “0% plagiarism“. But, with my marketing hat on, I think you can also tell that these services don’t really understand the prospective PhD market – although I’m not about to provide free consultancy for here to help them improve.

The less developed market for PhD writing services is also reflected in the cost per click prices charged by Google (the amount each advertiser pays every time someone clicks on the link). Advertising for PhD mills is generally cheap.

There are some high value keywords. For instance, Google in the UK suggests that advertisers bid between £11.22 and £20.49 per click for the search term “phd thesis” to get at the top of the first screen (the only position that really counts).

But many terms go for much less. A search term like “buy phd online” only requires a cost per click between £1.15 and £4.92. These costs are usually far lower than the equivalent terms for essays, coursework and assignments.

How Much Does A PhD Thesis Cost?

The web market for buying PhD level work is nowhere near as advanced as equivalent essay mills for undergraduate level. Many of the essay mills I checked advertise they will write PhDs, but do not have any detail or pricing information available on their website.

I did find a site which sold PhD by chapters. A 75,000 word PhD thesis would cost around £6,000, not far from the headline figure used at the start of this post. However, the site also advertised having coupons available and I suspect I could have easily have pushed that price below £5,000 had I asked for a discount in the online chat.

There are much more developed PhD mills out there. Some show understanding of the contract cheating PhD level market.

One PhD mill, for example, splits its services to match the stages of the PhD journey where a student might want to hire support.

This includes everything from help with the initial application and proposal, through to chapter writing, to tutorials and mentoring for the final viva. It also claims to offer a premium service of publishable level work, produced in collaboration with an academic expert. For that level of service, enough to build the credentials for an academic job, the 75,000 word thesis would work out at £22,500.

As my research investigating academic writers has shown, many essay mills find low priced writers and just act as an intermediary. Such budget price writers do exist at PhD level, even if they are harder to find. Presumably, some writers relish the intellectual challenge of completing advanced research as opposed to just writing basic essays.

And, you can buy a custom written PhD thesis much cheaper.

A report in the Indian media has shown that an original PhD thesis can be purchased in India for 50,000 Indian rupees (about £540), with payment in installments possible. The source claims that PhD writing offers like this one are not uncommon and that academics will moonlight as PhD writers. I also understand that similar services can often be found advertising in newspapers in India.

PhD writing requests also occasionally appear on the major freelancing sites.

A (live at the time of writing) request for a PhD thesis on English Literature, from a buyer in Pakistan, saw 7 people, mostly from India, offering to complete this in six weeks at rates between £750 and £1,500 (with an average of £1114) for 75,000 words. 4 of the 7 bidders were from India. At face value, fulfilling the request in that time does not seem realistic for anyone, but this may be enough to secure a successful PhD completion in Pakistan.

What About Buying A PhD Literature Review?

Just as one of the PhD mills advertises its approach of completing a PhD thesis in collaborative stages, a student using a freelance site may also outsource their PhD thesis chapter by chapter. This may be because they feel able to complete part of the thesis themselves, but need help with some sections, or they may use it as an opportunity to audition a writer to work with throughout the process.

Here is another freelance site example, taking bids, with 40 people from around the world offering to complete a 3,500 word literature review for a PhD thesis.

The person making the request states that they are in the UK (this information is mostly reliable as the requester is verified). They are also pricing in pounds, which is not common for people outside the UK.

They have proposed a budget between £20 and £250, with offers received between £20 and £500. The mean (average) offer is at £165 (which would be about £47 per 1000 wordswhen I looked at essay pricing, I found lots of people willing to work for £7.50 for 1000 words). Perhaps a better measure is the mode, where 17 offers are at £150 (or £43 per 1000 words).

This is a prolific group of bidders, with 4884 successfully completed jobs between them, with most coming from Kenya, Pakistan and India, but also including offers from the United Kingdom, United States, Australia and Canada.

Just looking at the bidder profiles is interesting. I even found a graduate from a university I used to work at (but not someone I knew), using his MBA as a credential, completing assignments for students and even preparing fake reference letters for them (for which the going rate is around £20 per fake reference).

It just goes to show that there are many ways to get a PhD if you’re creative about it.

Should We Focus On The PhD Contract Cheating Market

The area is very much understudied. Although I’ve provided other examples in previous academic papers and talks the amount of data available is small, so it is difficult to study this systematically.

It does appear that PhDs are easier to achieve in some countries than others. We need employers to understand that not all qualifications are equal.

I’ve often discussed how an MBA is often just seen as a stepping stone to a higher level leadership job. So, people will contract cheat here. In some places, it appears that a PhD is also considered like this.

The good news is that, if academic integrity processes are suitably robust, simply buying a PhD level thesis in the UK should not be enough for its holder to be awarded a PhD title.

The student still has a spoken viva exam to get through.

Yes, students can train for this viva (and, as I’ve shown, there are services offering to prepare them), but here examiners need to have the confidence to fail the candidate if they do not have the in-depth knowledge and understanding that is required.

It all comes down to the academic integrity of the supervisory team and examiners, along with the institutional process this sits within. And getting the right student, with the motivation and ability to complete a PhD is important too. PhD students most certainly have a role to play in preserving academic integrity.

Who Writes The Assignments For Our Students? Presentation From Plagiarism, Ethics, Pedagogy and Practices 2018

I was invited to accept the prime speaking slot at the Plagiarism, Ethics, Pedagogy and Practices 2018 conference, held in Stockholm, Sweden in August 2018. This conference is supported by URKUND and has been running for a few years now, although it is the first time I’ve been able to attend.

I took the opportunity to share what I know about the writers and other individuals who are working for essay mills and keeping the contract cheating business running. Previously on the blog, I’ve looked at the type of individuals taking essay mill writing jobs. I’ve done a lot more research since and have some papers going through review in this area, so this talk allowed me to give an updated overview, including 12 things you should know about academic writers for essay mills.

The slides I used are available on my SlideShare account. They are also included below.


With the essay industry becoming such a complex beast, the reasons why writers join the business remain varied. For many, it is a low paid profession, but still one that is desirable, with the opportunity to work from home on a flexible schedule. It remains a fascinating area.

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