By Amiabelle Kong
I had an undercover conversation with an agent working for a cheating company to understand what it’s like inside the cheating industry.
The following is a conversation I had in a UNSW student group on WeChat about students coming to UNSW in 2022.
Me: “There are a lot of excellent restaurants and cafes across the campus, so you don’t need to worry about where to eat.”
A friend of mine: “Oh really? That’s nice!”
A stranger: “Professional ghostwriting services guarantee you a satisfying grade, covering numerous subject areas and different assignments and exams, ghosting your lectures and
tutorials — our services never disappoint you!”
Me: “Huh? What?”
The stranger: “The other day, I was chatting with my friends online in a group, introducing university facilities to them. Then, contract cheating services spammed an advertisement in the group chat.”
Me: “Again? Group leaders, please kick him out. ”
This happens to me every day. Contract cheating advertisements can appear anywhere at any time. You could be approached online and bombarded with advertisements in any of your group chats, particularly on WeChat.
Some companies hire individuals to pretend to be students: they speak like students, ask when the census date is, and recommend easy electives for WAM boosters — you will never know their real identities, and might even treat them as real friends until they burst out with ghostwriting advertisements.
Before entering university, I had already heard of ghostwriting services; and how popular they are among international students. Some students are concerned about their grades, some live under stress from their parents’ high expectations, and some are just lazy.
In the 2022 group chat above, the agent was removed from the group, but they left a contact account in their post, just below the advertisement.
I pretended to be a commerce student and talked to the ghostwriting agent.
A Conversation with a Ghostwriting Agent
I gave them the course outline of a random course of basic commerce and economic fundamentals that outlines the types of assignments and their weightings, which are a critical analysis (25%), a multiple-choice quiz (20%), a pitch report (40%), and some short weekly entries (15%).
It didn’t take long. The agent gave me a price: of $4500RMB (equal to AUD $967). The number was surprisingly low, just one-sixth out of the total course fee.
The Contract Cheating Phenomenon since COVID-19
Contract cheating is the hiring of others to finish your assignments and coursework on your behalf. It is a severe form of academic dishonesty and can be counted as a crime, leaving you with a permanent record. International students can be deported and have their visas cancelled.
Recently, a novel form of cheating called “ghost class services” has become popular among international students. Ghost class services involve contract cheating companies and agencies being paid to attend lessons, submit assignments and take exams instead of the enrolled student. These services cost approximately $150 to $190 per week for undergraduate courses and $150~$210 per week for postgraduate students. Agencies and companies often claim they’re safe as they have unique technology that works against authorities that chase your IP address. One of the companies I looked into said on their website, they “guarantee the process is safe”.
Contract cheating companies nowadays prey on students by constantly emphasizing that the services are easy to use — to provide some basic information about the assignments or exams, and they can get price lists and excellent grades guaranteed. They often provide a comprehensive solution to avoid the students’ security authorization and university departments’ surveillance. The cheating companies promise to give additional summary notes of the course for students to ensure they can catch up and understand the course content, and help to write emails to university staff in case the student is suspected of cheating.
On the 100Due official website, a cheating company I looked into, they claim they have provided contract cheating services to 23,231 students and completed more than 456,273 transactions in the past 15 years.
According to the UNSW 2021 Student Conducts and Complaints Annual Report, the total amount of plagiarism and misconduct incidents rose last year from 1,973 to 2,551, increasing 29% compared the previous year. This study found that 70% of the cases of plagiarism and misconduct caught were using online help sites such as Chegg or cheating services sold through social media platforms like WeChat and Discord.
The Conduct and Integrity Office (CIO) spotted a rapid evolution of student contract cheating models: from providing access to someone else to help finish their assessment and sharing notes on online platforms such as Chegg and CourseHero in 2019 to buying a whole solution for an assessment question from a provider who sells their products and services on WeChat and Little Red Book (also known as XiaoHongShu) in 2021 Term 3. The latter companies were claiming they had a former tutor from the relevant subject provide course information in Mandarin, helping students with actual course assessments and answer sheets.
Among the 2,117 plagiarism and academic misconduct cases last year, the Faculty of Engineering had the most number of cases, 765 in total, which is an increase of 51% compared to 2019; the Faculty of Science detected 410 cases, showing a 91% growth in cheating cases; whereas the Faculty of Medicine and Health had 113 cases but increased the most, with a growth of 371%.
Threats and Risks of using Contract Cheating Services
Contract cheating is illegal, and students face severe consequences once caught. Companies can also manipulate their personal information. Although most agencies claim they can protect your privacy, students can still meet the dangerous risk of disclosing their private information, where blackmail, and financial and identity threats may happen.
“Blackmail doesn’t end when you complete your degree. It can continue and may worsen,” said an Arc UNSW Legal and Advocacy representative. “Blackmailers will threaten you that if you don’t pay, they will tell the university, your family, or your new employer. It might start at $30 per month, and you think that’s not much, but before you know it, it could increase to hundreds, then thousands… Can students afford to pay?”
“Students who are caught doing this face serious consequences – at the very least, failure in their exam and possibly failure in their course or suspension from UNSW, and if they were caught on more than one occasion, they would risk suspension or exclusion from the university and revocation of their degree,” said the representative. “This has huge visa implications for international students, and there is a permanent (confidential) record of the misconduct kept by UNSW.”
According to the UNSW Plagiarism Marking Rubric, there are five levels of plagiarism” “Poor Scholarship”, “Minor”, “Moderate”, “Significant”, and “Serious”, ascending from the lowest to the highest. For students who are detected as having “Poor Scholarship” or “Minor”, educational intervention strategies would be implemented, such as referring students to Student Academic and Career Success (SACS) for academic skills development and integrity training, and to repeat ELISE modules. Whereas “Moderate” and “Significant” levels of plagiarism can include academic penalties such as warnings or asking students to resubmit their work or have their mark reduced according to their situation. The maximum mark students who have committed “Moderate” and “Significant” levels of plagiarism can get is 50/100. The students who are detected as “Serious” will receive either a fail for any relevant assignments or their entire course.
Any student caught using contract cheating services is counted as severe academic misconduct. Not only will students fail their courses, but they can also get a criminal record. International students could have their visas cancelled.
Future Control and Prevention Strategies
“We have put stacks of information on the Arc website, run Facebook live events with university staff talking about this issue, tweeted about it, produced flyers and booklets, spoken to students each orientation week, and teaching staff also keep emphasizing warnings about the risks of using services like this,” said the Arc UNSW Legal and Advocacy representative.
“We try and get the message out that there is always an alternative to cheating and legitimate services to help students if they are struggling,” he said. “But some people will cheat no matter what anyone does.”
Targeting the growing amount of contract cheating cases, UNSW has implemented a series of policies and prevention strategies, and put effort into promoting the value of academic integrity.
According to the 2021 Student Conduct and Complaints Annual Report, the Conduct and Integrity Office (CIO) will develop and implement more digital tools to detect contracts and other forms of cheating, such as cheating in online exams and other assessments. The CIO says it will continue to collaborate with the Pro Vice-Chancellor Education Office (now named the Pro Vice-Chancellor Education and Student Experience Office) to discuss more ways to assess students rather than just exams, to minimize the threats of online academic misconduct lowering UNSW’s reputation. To improve the detection of academic misconduct and management of plagiarism, more online and face-to-face information and training will be provided for academic/professional staff, and regular reviews of the management of complaints and investigations at UNSW.
Considering that most of the contract cheating companies advertise on Chinese social media websites, we have asked UNSW Media Team whether there are any specific policies targeting Mandarin speakers and contract cheating companies, but we haven’t gotten a response from them yet.
The conversation with the agent and the website captions are translated from Mandarin, and some of the wordings are modified for clarity.