“Attachment mills” are bringing fraud into the digital age and we should all be concerned

In some parts of the world, it is becoming increasingly illegal to provide essay writing services to students and to sell them pre-written work. It’s already a criminal offense in countries like the US, New Zealand and Ireland. And earlier this year, the UK government passed the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, making it a criminal offense to offer scam services commonly known as attachment mills. In short, the legislation makes it illegal to offer contract fraud services.

The contract scammer is a nefarious stooge who is often unknown to the person using their services. At its core, contract fraud is about outsourcing academic work — paying someone to write an essay, research paper, or even an entire PhD. Such services are becoming easier and easier to find as attachment mills are popping up all over the internet. Some sites even brazenly advertise their services as “100 percent plagiarism-free.”

A large multinational study published in boundaries in education in 2018 reported that the rate of college students using such services was as high as 15.7 percent, with a significant increase in recent decades. Contract fraud is big business and those offering such services advertise aggressively on social media and other web-based channels.

The rate of college students using such services was 15.7 percent, with an increase in recent decades

Many of these essay mills try to give an appearance of legitimacy by promoting their contract fraud service as a legitimate study aid. Other operators make no such attempt to pretend, blatantly touting the speed and quality (deception) of their services and even offering money-back guarantees. The whole row risks normalizing the notion of cheating. Buying stationery and textbooks is normal. Buying essays is not.

Academic misconduct is nothing new. However, the internet has changed the nature of the game. For example, plagiarism — copy-paste piracy — is much easier to accomplish in the information age. In an increasingly connected world, where vast archives of information are so easily accessible, the temptation to copy work and pass it off as the original can be irresistible. However, thanks to automated and increasingly sophisticated plagiarism detection services like SafeAssign and Turnitin, copying is much easier to spot.

In recent years, several prominent figures have been accused of academic dishonesty and retroactively deprived of their degrees. Last year, for example, it was discovered that Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel had plagiarized large parts of his 1998 habilitation thesis in public law and political science. Only two of the 56 pages of the dissertation were free of plagiarism. Under threat of consequences from his former university, Mr. Bettel decided to give up his diploma.

Mr. Bettel is not alone. Pal Schmitt resigned as President of Hungary in 2012 after his PhD was revoked by Semmelweis University in Austria over allegations of plagiarism related to his 1992 dissertation. Annette Schavan, the former Federal Minister of Education and Research, was also stripped of her academic award in 2013 after plagiarism was discovered in her doctoral thesis. Former US Senator John E. Walsh had his master’s degree revoked for the same reason. The list goes on, and we generally only hear from those in public office.

Those students who are now using essay mills and cheating their way through college need to rethink. Technology that can conclusively determine the origin and authorship of any work will soon be readily available. AI algorithms can precisely identify and distinguish people based on their writing style. For example, a 2019 study published in Harvard Data Science Review discusses how this technology has been used to identify the authorship of controversial content – from Ronald Reagan’s speeches to the Beatles’ songs, so why not the origins of student essays?

How many future politicians and business leaders will have their academic credits stripped away because of the application of tomorrow’s technology to papers written and bought today?

Think of once-celebrated cyclist Lance Armstrong, who was banned for life and stripped of his medals (seven Tour de France titles) long after he won it. Such retrospective verification is possible because sports and athletics federations typically keep urine and blood samples from competitive athletes for at least a decade. These governing bodies know that tomorrow’s technology will allow them to retest samples for performance enhancers undetectable today. Likewise, many universities keep copies of student work for decades, even centuries. But again, who knows what tomorrow’s technologies may uncover?

The UK government’s attempt to restrict the activities of the attachment factories is to be welcomed. However, to make this effective, other nations must join the chorus. More importantly, internet platforms need to do more to prevent these contract fraud services from even getting off the ground. Inaction on this issue will seriously undermine our education systems, with negative ramifications across society. When scammers thrive, nations suffer.

Published: November 02, 2022, 09:00

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