This is the first of a three-part series on the “cheating economy.” See part two, about new efforts by colleges and governments to try to prevent contract cheaters. And look for part three soon.
It’s easier than ever for college students to find someone else to do their work for them—for a fee. In fact, such “contract cheaters” are increasingly seeking out students who aren’t even looking for these services.
While companies that offer to sell students “custom term papers” are nothing new, college leaders say that the shadowy industry has become more aggressive at recruiting students as customers, using a mix of social media, direct email and even parties.
“The number of actors in this space has proliferated,” says Douglas Harrison, vice president and dean of the school of cybersecurity and information technology at the University of Maryland Global Campus. “And they’re all using sophisticated marketing tools and outreach to really exploit this space that higher ed has largely ceded to these sources.”
Often, the media paints users of contract cheaters as spoiled rich kids who are too lazy to do their own work and are looking for an easy way out. But many experts on contract cheating say that the people who use the services are often working adults who are struggling to balance their jobs and studies, or those who may not be adequately prepared for college and unaware of the legitimate support services campuses provide.
“This is a really pernicious exploitation of some of the hardest-working and most dedicated students in higher education,” says Harrison. “If we want to do more than just engage in finger-wagging about kids these days, then we’ve got to acknowledge that it’s much more complex than that.”
Dave Tomar agrees—and he should know. He wrote thousands of student papers over the course of a decade as a contract cheater for hire—an experience he wrote about in his 2012 book, “The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat.” Tomar is now apologetic about that time, and he is working on a new book about the world of contract cheating.
“The vast majority of customers that I ever had were desperate students—they felt they had no other choice,” says Tomar. Most of his customers did not speak English as their first language, he says, and others seemed to lack the preparation for the work they were being asked to do. “The reality is there are students that cheat that need to be reached” with legitimate academic help, like tutoring or remedial courses, he adds. “They need more support, and they need to feel like they are not drowning in higher education.”
“I wrote thousands of papers, and I’d say the percentage of students who genuinely needed some kind of help was 85 percent. I would read just the instructions from a customer and I would think, ‘This person couldn’t write the paper if they tried,’” he says. “Only about 15 percent of [my customers] were the lazy rich jerks who just didn’t feel like doing their work.”
That’s not to say that students who buy papers and turn them in as their own don’t know they are doing something wrong, he adds. But he says that as the cost of college rises, and when students just see course work as a necessary way to get a credential rather than one of intellectual growth, it becomes easier to rationalize.
“If I’ve invested $200,000 for this education, and if it’s between paying someone to write a paper and taking these credits again” because of a risk of failing the class, says Tomar, “investing a couple more dollars in a paper that someone else is writing [may not seem] very much different than investing in a textbook or investing in a tutor—it’s one of the peripheral costs of education.”
Most companies selling custom papers insist that their services are not intended to be used for cheating, and most run carefully-worded legal disclaimers on their sites requiring students to pledge not to turn in the papers as their own work.
“We encourage our customers to use the work we provide as a guide,” says Avery Morgan, a spokesperson for EduBirdie, which advertises itself as a “professional essay writing service.” “From our perspective, not only would passing off other work go against most school/college policies, but it would also be unfair to the student. Education is a privilege and personal growth comes from learning through experience.”
But the marketing language on these sites boast of providing papers tailor made for an assignment, and promise to keep the communication with customers secret. The sales pitch is all about doing the work of students for them.
For instance, one customer testimonial on EduBirdie’s front page reads: “When I heard that we should write an essay about George Orwell’s ‘1984’ I was terrified as I haven’t read the book and there were only a few days before the deadline. But, luckily, I found Edubirdie.com. I was suspicious at first, but when I texted my writer, I was sure it is legit. The assignment was done on time, grammar was perfect, the quality was on the highest level. And no plagiarism!”
Here are some of the latest methods that contract cheating services use to attract students:
Harvesting student emails to make direct pitches
EduBirdie and many other essay-writing sites essentially operate platforms that connect students to writers. Those writers aren’t employees; they’re freelancers, and these freelancers are often looking for other ways to find customers directly without going through a company.
Often, that means trying to find the email addresses of students who might become clients—essentially “leads” for customers.
Here’s a scenario that happened at the University of Maryland Global Campus: A student is negotiating the price of a custom term paper, which might start out at $300. If the student balks at the price, the writer might offer a steep discount—charging only $200, say—if the student takes a picture of all the email addresses of students in the class email list. “Then the contract cheater will reach out to all those students and say, ‘I’ve helped other students in this class, and they’ve earned A’s and B’s as a result,’” says Harrison.
“If someone out of the blue contacts you presenting themselves as a tutor, and they’re saying they’re a tutor that has helped other people in the class, some of these students reasonably think that these are legitimate tutors,” he adds.
Of course, plenty of students see the proposition as fishy, and report the email to college officials—which is how Harrison knows of the practice.
Creating fake “study groups” for specific classes
Some contract cheaters turn to social networks to try to find customers.
One method is to create a study group for a specific class at a college and then advertise their services to people who turn up.
“They’ll say it’s the study group for Econ101,” says Tricia Bertram Gallant, a long-time leader with the International Center for Academic Integrity and director of the Academic Integrity Office at the University of California San Diego. “They’ll post something like, ‘Hey is anyone else having trouble with the paper? Do you want to meet up?” Then the contract writer will offer to write papers for those who reply. And they are practiced in talking students into it. “Basically they seduce them,” says Bertram Gallant.
Using pop-up chat sessions on websites
If you go to the homepage of many sites that offer paper-writing services, a text chat pops up at the bottom of the page asking what kind of help you are looking for.
“Somebody will immediately hit you with a popup that says, ‘I see you’re looking for a paper, how can I help you?’” explains Tomar, the former contract cheater. “And it’s a live person, and they’re interested in pulling you into a purchase. As a student, I might be inclined to take them up on it even if I hadn’t been that serious.”
That is a tactic borrowed from many legitimate service companies to make sure people engage with the site, and it’s one that makes it more likely the site visitor will become a customer.
“One thing I’ve always tried to stress is to just think of it as any other business,” adds Tomar. “People think that because it is illicit in nature that somehow this is secretive, and it exists in a kind of black market space. But it is very much out in the open. It’s like any other semi-agressive web-based service.”
Hosting social gatherings on campuses
A less common, but perhaps more surprising tactic used by paper-writing companies is to support on-campus parties to raise awareness of their services.
A few years ago, for instance, EduBirdie ran a promotion for what it called “Epic Parties.” Participating students could receive “250 branded party cups” and an EduBirdie cardboard mascot to use at their social event. And if the party was hosted by a sorority or fraternity, the company would provide $250 in cash to cover costs (presumably for drinks and food). In return, the student organizer had to post at least five pictures of the party with the mascot prominently in view, using the hashtag #EduBirdieParty.
“The party that receives the most coverage on social media will be awarded $3,000 in cash and a 2-hour DJ set from one of the world’s top DJs,” said a website about the promotion.
Morgan, the spokesperson for EduBirdie, says the company no longer sponsors parties, but she defended the practice. “We sponsored a few parties in the past, but have moved on to focus on other efforts,” she says. “We do not believe that this is an aggressive service. There is no requirement for students to use the platform, but instead gives students an opportunity to have fun while they are young and in college, while merely educating them about EduBirdie’s services, which can be helpful in proofreading especially during busy seasons like midterms and finals.”
Just last year the company posted a job ad for an employee who would be in charge of social-media outreach and for hosting events at colleges to raise awareness of the essay-writing service. The job title was “Glory Days Conservation Specialist,” and the ad apparently sought someone who wanted to relive their party days of college in a full-time job, according to an article in CNBC.
Next week, in part two of this series, we’ll look at what college officials are trying to push back against contract cheating companies, and to better educate their students about issues of academic integrity.
Correction: This article original misstated the title of Tricia Bertram Gallant.