Contract Cheating in the Context of Covid-19: Five Key Ideas to Consider – Webinar Slides

Epigeum invited me to deliver a webinar looking at the particular challenges posed by contract cheating as we deal with the Covid-19 situation. I focused on five key areas, considering particularly how contract cheating services are using Covid-19 to their advantage and encouraging students to buy from them.

You can see the slides I used below (and also on my SlideShare account).


The session went well with no shortage of questions. It was illuminating to look at the type of advertising being used by the sites, with Covid-19 guarantees offered and all kinds of assurances that the firms were still operating and meeting deadlines.

Epigeum have also released the video, which you can watch here.

Social Media Enabled Contract Cheating – Presentation From Canadian Symposium On Academic Integrity 2019

What can we learn about the contract cheating industry from social media? That’s the question I asked when I delivered the feature presentation for the first Canadian Symposium on Academic Integrity.

Having often presented previously on social media use in higher education (and, of course, on contract cheating), this presentation afforded me the opportunity to bring both these topics together for the first time.

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


For me, this was a really interesting presentation to deliver, with lots of new ideas. These include everything from how contract cheating providers attract students to do business to them, to how they recruit writers, to how they hold their own conferences to develop writers and how contract cheating businesses are now being sold and traded like any other legitimate company.

Thanks to Sarah Eaton and her team for organising such an interesting event. Here’s a photo Sarah captured of the packed room of people attending.

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.

The Modern World Of Essay Mill Spam

Essay Mill Spam

Click here if you’d prefer this post on essay mill spam in the form of a video

Essay mill and contract cheating services are as visible as they’ve ever been. This has to be creating a challenging market for those companies looking to peddle their unethical wares to students. After all, students now have a wealth of people offering assignment production services that they can choose to purchase work from.

Companies have already begun to play hardball with their marketing to try and get customers. This has got so severe that some essay writing ads have already been banned in the UK, certainly a step in the right direction.

What’s next with essay mill marketing? What we’re now seeing are companies finding ways to get their messages to students, whether they’ve expressed any interest in paying for a completed assessment or not.

I’ve rounded up several examples of how essay mills are spamming their services for this post.

 

Email Spam

Here is an extract from an email advert that one of my former students received directly to his university email account.

This is also an email address he hadn’t used outside the university and for which the account details weren’t listed anywhere online.

It may not be the best ever advert, but it would certainly get noticed in a student email account.

All of the classic sales points are there, including the mention of prominent universities, a distinctive offering of statistical services and the option to sell Turnitin reports (something which really shouldn’t be possible).

Despite being advertised as a UK company (including a UK address), further investigation suggests that this company is almost certainly based in Pakistan.

It is not clear how the student’s email address was accessed. It may be through access to email account details, through a link inside the university with access to address books, or perhaps just automatically guessed email addresses (many universities use email accounts that are formulaic in nature).

These services don’t differentiate between staff and students. I too have received spam emails from essay mills to my university staff email account.

 

Twitter Spam

I’ve discussed before how essay mills and individual academic ghost writers have used Twitter to connect with students. Some accounts are set up to “talk” to anyone who posts tweets about essays. Here’s a post with an example of how Twitter spam takes place.

This process is now much more automated than it ever was before. If your tweet contains word combinations along the lines of write essays, chances are you’ll immediately receive both public and private offers to help from would-be helpers.

Thankfully, many people are now starting to fight back, or at least make it clear that they do not support the essay company spam. Here are some recent examples from Donna Yates and Joseph Gordon Diehard.

Other Types Of Essay Mill Spam

There are many other ways in which essay mills use spamming techniques to get the message about their companies out there.

If you run an educational blog, post related videos on YouTube, or submit content to anywhere that allows comments, you’re bound to find essay mill spam posted to them before too long. There’s a chance you’ll get such comments even if your site has nothing to do with education, as so much of this spam comes from automated software.

Sometimes this is more subtle. Right now, one of my contract cheating articles on The Conversation has several comments from essay mills showing. Even though the comments may not be spam, the links going back to the essay writing services themselves are very visible.

Use Facebook and find yourself looking at Facebook Pages relating to essay companies? Don’t be surprised if the Messenger box puts up and asks if you need help.

I wouldn’t be shocked to hear of essay mill spam being circulated through SMS messages and WhatsApp.

Even the Wikipedia articles on essay mills has seen companies attempt to edit at and themselves as credible sources. There are also essay companies taking advantage of web site vulnerabilities to spam.

There’s only one place I think is safe and that’s your own letterbox. I haven’t heard of essay mills physically pushing leaflets through people’s doors – at least not yet!

For More Information

You can find out more about essay mill spam in this video.

You can also contact me if you’d like to find out more about academic integrity and working with me.

Page 1 of 512345»