Essay Mill Spam

Yesterday, payment company PayPal announced that they were no longer going to offer services to essay writing companies, often referred to as essay mills, forcing such services to find new ways to accept payments.

The move comes after the UK Education Secretary Damian Hinds called on PayPal to stop processing payments for essay writing services saying that it is “unethical for these companies to profit from this dishonest business.”

However, the ban will not be immediate. Instead, PayPal is starting the process of contacting essay mills to let them know they should “move their business elsewhere” and the process will take several weeks.

Still, the move could be a huge blow to many essay mill operations. In a check of 10 essay mill websites suggested by Google, all ten that listed their payment processor used PayPal either as their primary or as their exclusive processor.

This is likely because other payment processors have long banned essay mills from their service. Stripe, for example, specifically lists essay milll as a “high risk business”

and Square, though not mentioning essay mills directly, also bans similar high risk products and services.

As such, while this may not be a crippling blow against essay mills, it is a significant one and one that will make such operations both more difficult and less sustainable moving forward.

Why This is Important

As I discussed in my post on the International Center for Academic Integrity Conference, contract cheating is a major focus in academic integrity right now. Though essay mills are only part of that equation, they are one of the most visible and one of the most profitable.

Essay mills have also changed a great deal in recent years. The organizations behind essay mills are often extremely advanced relying on an international network of writers to bring costs down and using an equally impressive network of affiliates and websites to aggressively market their product.

These are in stark contrast to the fly-by-night operations that would advertise in the back of free newspapers in the pre-internet years. Though essay mills, in general, are still home to low-quality work and unethical consumer practices (including customer blackmail), their evolution into marketing powerhouses has many in academia understandably worried.

This has caused a pushback from academia but one that’s had little effect. Despite laws being passed in multiple countries to ban essay mills, the services have proved largely invincible due to their international nature. To make matters worse, they are difficult to detect with traditional plagiarism detection tools and prompted Turnitin to develop a new tool to detect authorship.

Disclosure: I am a paid blogger/consultant for Turnitin

However, this latest move hits essay mills where they are most vulnerable, their wallets. Following the money has proven to be a popular (and often effective) approach for targeting pirate sites, it stands to reason it would work well against essay mills.

To that end, losing PayPal is a major blow. For many essay mills it is the sole payment processor and the only place that will reliably process credit card transactions on their behalf.

Though there are other ways that essay mills can accept payments, such as cryptocurrency, those are much more complicated for the user. For essay mills to continue to operate as they are, they will either have to find a new credit card processor or try to fly under PayPal’s radar.

As important as this is, it’s not a death blow for essay mills or for contract cheating. Instead, it may be simply shifting the fight into a different direction.

Reasons to Remain Cautious

As good as this news is, it’s important to remember that essay mills only represent a small portion of the contract cheating landscape, at least in western countries.

According to research by Tracey Bretag in Australia, only 10.4% of students who admitted to contract cheating said they used a professional service of any type. Meanwhile, 60.2% said that they used a current or former student. Also, only 13.2% of students said that they paid anything for the paper, instead turning to friends and family or exchanging some other kind of favor.

This makes a great deal of sense. A current or former student will be much more trustworthy than an unknown person online and will be better able to complete the assignment. Likewise, such exchanges aren’t likely to involve cash transactions.

So, even if essay mills went away tomorrow, the bulk of the contract cheating problem would remain.

However, essay mills aren’t likely to disappear. As big of a blow as losing PayPal is, it likely won’t mean the end for such sites.

First, many operations may be able to fly under PayPal’s radar. PayPal has already admitted it will be difficult to separate essay mills from sites that provide legitimate tutoring services. This means many essay mills may simply rebrand to avoid the ban.

Second, there are other payment processors out there and some may be willing to risk working with essay mills. Unlike piracy, Mastercard and Visa do not appear to have specific policies barring essay mills. As such, mills may find cooperative processors elsewhere.

Finally, as mentioned above, there are other ways to handle payments, including cryptocurrency. This has become a favorite of pirate websites as a means of accepting donations after being cut off from traditional payment processors.

But where pirate websites are able to survive like this because they can make money from a few donating visitors, sketchy advertising and cryptocurrency mining, essay mills can only survive if they’re able to accept direct payment from customers.

If those payments become too difficult or too erratic, they will struggle to conduct business.

That would definitely be a good thing.

Bottom Line

This is, without a doubt, a significant blow against essay mills and likely a bigger blow than any of the legislative or technological ones that have been attempted before.

That being said, it would have been more effective if the action by PayPal had been more decisive, especially since we’re in the run up to the end of the semester, or if it were coming from the major credit card companies rather than PayPal.

In the end, essay mills will most likely suffer because of this. They will make less money and do business less efficiently. Those are both good things. However, it doesn’t spell the end for essay mills and definitely doesn’t spell the end for contract cheating as a whole.

When it’s all said and done, this is an important step but just one of many that needs to be taken.

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