Essay mills ‘infiltrating university websites’

‘Black hat’ techniques from drug sales and information warfare used on students seeking legitimate university services

March 31, 2021
3D rendering of a womans face trying to blend in with the black and white striped background
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Disinformation techniques used to influence elections and peddle illicit pharmaceuticals are being harnessed to promote contract cheating services on universities’ websites, research has found.

Hundreds of university websites have been infiltrated by hackers aiming to steer unwitting students into essay mills’ clutches, according to preliminary studies by US experts.

Content ghostwritten by the essay mills, complete with embedded hyperlinks, has been grafted on to universities’ student service web pages. Links to legitimate services have been rigged so that they redirect to contract cheating companies, while university chat sites have been peppered with recommendations for essay mills.

The most “egregious” infiltrations involve fake essay contests for students who, hoping to win scholarships, inadvertently supply the essay mills with “clean” content unknown to plagiarism-detection databases.

The researchers uncovered 117 “compromised” US university sites after scouring the American “.edu” domain for links to 14 prominent essay mills. A subsequent scan of websites ending in “.edu.au” – used by Australian schools, training colleges and universities – revealed 179 instances of infiltration.

Jim Ridolfo, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky, said these examples had been exposed by “small sample studies to show proof of concept that this is actually happening”. He said some essay mills used six or more domain names, and searches on the hundreds of other domains would certainly net more results.

The infiltration techniques emerged in 2018 but were “ramped up” in 2020, with hackers apparently exploiting website vulnerabilities as academics and students struggled with the pandemic-induced shift to online delivery. “This costs almost nothing to do,” Dr Ridolfo said. “[Hoodwinking] just a few students could be enough for it to be economically viable.”

Colleague Bill Hart-Davidson, of Michigan State University, said the team had been astonished to discover “shady web-marketing techniques” known as “black hat SEO [search engine optimisation]” in education. Such practices were typically deployed to sell drugs without prescriptions. “What really took us by surprise was seeing contract cheating services using these techniques on our own websites,” Professor Hart-Davidson said.

The compromised sites included a University of Western Australia (UWA) resource page for students. The page contains an advertisement for a now concluded essay contest run by EssayOnTime, a Wyoming-based company that provides essays for A$27.11 (£15.08) per 275-word page.

“Enter our scholarship contest and win a 1000$ reward to make your dreams come true,” the page urges students, who entered by submitting essays of up to 800 words on gun control, environmental regulation or transgender athletes. Times Higher Education sought comment from EssayOnTime, which did not respond to enquiries to its US or Australian branch.

A UWA spokeswoman said the university had been approached by an organisation claiming to be not-for-profit. “The approach was accepted in good faith and notice of a competition posted on the scholarship website in 2019. We were, of course, unaware that the competition was not genuine.”

The same contest was advertised on the web pages of four North American universities that have since removed the links. Five other US universities’ websites have been embedded with EssayOnTime web pages listing resources for women, veterans or students with special needs – a strategy to give the company a veneer of credibility and “bump up their rankings on university websites”, Dr Ridolfo said.

In another technique observed in Australia, Google search query indexes were hacked to generate fake results. The researchers scoured the domain www.cheapwriters.online – which links to London-based essay mill IQessay – and found 92 doctored examples of “search query indexing” including 14 mentioning Murdoch University.

After being alerted to the issue, Murdoch reengineered the indexing of its web presence. People who follow malicious Google searches to the Murdoch website are now redirected to the university’s regulations, which outline procedures for handling academic misconduct.

UNSW Sydney academic integrity researcher Cath Ellis said that students would assume that links on university websites were legitimate.

“These contract cheating companies have no scruples and they are actively going after students who are legitimately looking for help. Students with authentic learning needs are slipping into their clutches because they are predatory,” she said.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Essay mills using ‘black hat’ techniques to infiltrate university websites

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Reader's comments (2)

Well, you have to admire the breath taking effrontery of the financial model - advertise (through the University) a competition (perhaps without any intention of awarding a prize) and selling the submissions to cheats. I presume the conclusion is that the essay itself is no longer an appropriate assessment methodology.
Friendly hackers could help solve the problem of essay mills at a stroke, by accessing and publishing their customer lists. If it became known (as it surely would) that customer data was vulnerable in this way, this would both reduce demand from students and undermine the essay mills' business model.

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