Revealed: How essay cheats use social media to drum up business

Collage of marketing methods used by essay mills, including memes, tweets and direct messages

Written by Ivan Edwards |

Companies who will write university assignments for you are using internet memes and sending unsolicited messages to students on Facebook to drum up business.

People recruited by essay writing companies have been adding students as friends, joining student groups and sending direct messages. Potential customers can easily be found by joining student Facebook groups or searching profiles by university.

Essay writing companies, also known as ‘essay mills’, are a growing business, with social media making it easier to attract customers, and with students finding themselves under unprecedented pressure. They are increasingly popular as they offer custom-made essays, which bypass plagiarism software used by universities.

‘Essay mills’ are legal in the UK and easy to find. Photo: Pexels

Paying someone to write an essay for you is not illegal, but using the service goes against university terms and conditions, and any student submitting work that is not their own is likely – if they are caught – to get kicked out.

However, it is a particular problem for universities, because the work is original it cannot be detected by software such as Turnitin.

According to a Swansea University study last year of more than 50,000 students, 15.7% admitted to paying someone else to write assignments for them since 2014, up from an average of 3.5% over the past forty years. A 2016 study showed that 50% of UK students would be prepared to purchase one essay for their course.

Last year, 46 university leaders signed a letter to the Education Secretary calling for the companies to be outlawed in the UK. They are already illegal in the USA and New Zealand.

Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of the Office for Students, told The Falmouth Anchor: “The essay mills industry constitutes a cynical attempt to normalise cheating and it has no place in universities.

“The well-deserved reputation of universities in this country relies on degree awards retaining their value. The Office for Students will work with the government and the higher education sector in any efforts to end the damaging influence of essay mills.

“Universities and colleges can only register with us if they demonstrate that they are providing a high-quality academic experience, and the qualifications they award remain credible over time.”

Essay mills are becoming more popular, but they could threaten the integrity of university degrees. Photo: KitAy

Who writes the essays?

Essay mills use a network of freelance writers and agencies. One writer, who requested to remain anonymous, agreed to speak to The Falmouth Anchor.

He told us that he is registered with a freelance writing agency and also deals with students directly. The writer, based in Kenya, earns $50 USD for referring a student to a company, and between $100-$250 USD for writing essays.

He said: “Payment depends on number of pages, urgency and technicalities involved.”

The writer told us he can complete “two [essays] in a day” on average, meaning he can earn significant sums writing university essays in a country where the average salary is less than $600 USD per month.

He confirmed that he has written essays for students at UK universities. Many essay writing companies make a special effort to market themselves as ‘British’, and students may assume the essays are written by someone in the same country.

The writer declined to answer whether he had written essays for any Falmouth or Exeter students. 

Targeting Students

There are now a multitude of companies offering essay-writing services, and competition between them is hot. One company, Ivory Research, uses relatable memes, which students often tag their friends in, to spread its name into Facebook news feeds.

Essay writing company using a meme on Facebook. The meme says: "How to start your dissertation: 1. Write the introduction 2. Cry". It has 207 comments and 88 shares.
Memes are used by essay companies to increase awareness of their services, as students share and tag their friends

Traditional marketing methods are also popular. One company is known to have distributed leaflets on campus of Queen Mary University offering “the original and best academic writing service”.

In 2016, an essay writing company was able to buy poster adverts at tube stations near London universities, before Transport for London removed them.

Students at Falmouth and Exeter are getting messages sent to them, and the recruiters are even targeting those who haven’t started their course yet. One first-year Falmouth student said a man working to find potential customers was able to join a Facebook group for 2018 applicants. He then messaged students directly to offer “professional ghost writing services.”

A Facebook message sent to students offering essay writing services
A Facebook message sent to Falmouth students

The student said: “He seemed to message quite a few people, seemingly not of any particular course. He contacted all of us by joining the applicant chat at the start of the year. I’m not sure how widespread it got before we reported him.”

“We have no idea how he got in. We had to provide a student number when we applied to join the group so I would assume he managed to get a hold of one somehow.”

On Twitter, some companies use ‘bot’ accounts and direct messages to target students who have expressed any kind of difficulty over completing an essay.

A series of automated tweets replying to other tweets, advertising essay writing companies
Automated Twitter accounts search for keywords to send messages to potential customers directly

While social media has made targeting students easier, the increased pressure faced by students could also be linked to the growth of contract cheating, with some students finding an offer of “help” too difficult to resist.

Amatey Doku, National Union of Students Vice President (Higher Education), told The Falmouth Anchor: “Some students turn to essay mills because there is the pressure to get the highest grades when they face debts of £50,000, and it is often overwhelming. Many students have to spend so much time earning money to pay for their studies that time for academic work is squeezed.

“Structurally, there needs to be an urgent intervention in the capacity of universities to deliver effective academic and pastoral support services with enough funding to adequately see all students who need to use them, and embedded as part of the higher education environment. This should eradicate essay mills type services in the longer term.”

As the industry grows and competition increases, companies may turn to underhand methods to help students cheat at the expense of honest colleagues.

Danielle King, a freelance proof-reader, warned against uploading essays to ‘free plagiarism check’ websites, saying: “Many of these so-called free plagiarism checks can result in a dodgy website duplicating your document and selling it on to an essay writing company.”

Case Study: Dissertations available for £999

I was sent a friend request in October 2018 by a woman whose profile says she works for Essay Writing Service. Everyone who knows me knows I always play by the rules and would never dream of cheating on my assignments. However, I was excited to make a friend, so I accepted the request.

 
Things got off to a slow start, and it took her until 28th November to message me, simply saying “Hello Mr Ivan”. “Hello” I said, and from then our burgeoning friendship seemed to blossom, as only three months later she asked “how are you?”.
 
With a faster reply rate than some of my real friends, I had no reason to suspect an ulterior motive. But eventually she sent a message offering “to help you with your coursework’s [sic] and dissertation”, claiming to be a “senior project consultant at Projectsdeal”.
 
Posing as an interested potential customer, I asked her more about the service. She claimed that “more than 40% of your classmates are already working with us”, and guaranteed a Turnitin plagiarism score of under 6%. I clicked a link she sent me, and after filling in a few details, I was offered a price of £999 for a 10,000-word history dissertation, ready before the deadline in May and payable in three instalments. Because of my strong sense of honour and fair play, and having already spent my entire student loan on Stannary coffees, I turned the offer down.

Dissertation for sale for £999
Dissertations for sale… but is it worth the risk?
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