Update: I’ve added the statement from PayPal at the footer of the article.

On April 3rd, PayPal announced that it would no longer serve essay mill firms. The services, which offer to write “plagiarism free” essays on behalf of students for a fee, have long been the bane of educators at all levels.

Though there was skepticism about the move, especially since it came on the heels of the UK Education Secretary Damian Hinds calling on PayPal to take action, many (myself included) saw it as a great opportunity to strike a blow against such sites since nearly all used PayPal to process transactions.

At the time, PayPal had warned that the process could take “several weeks” as the processor was going to reach out to essay mills and let them know they should “move their business elsewhere.”

However, six weeks later, that doesn’t appear to have happened. In a check of the top essay mill websites on a Google Search, all are still listing PayPal as their payment processor and, when I was able to test, the sites had functioning PayPal buttons.

Whether this is because the ban is happening slower than anticipated, the sites were able to set up new accounts or there has been an unannounced change in policy is unclear. I reached out to PayPal for comment on this story but, after 24 hours, they have not responded. I will update this story when and if they reply.

The result of this is very simple: At the very least, PayPal’s blockade of essay mills is taking longer than expected. At the worst, may not be effective at all.

PayPal Buttons Everywhere

When it comes to payment processors for essay mills, PayPal is the runaway favorite.

Where Stripe, Square, 2Checkout and most other payment processors already have policies against essay mills (dubbing them “high-risk businesses”), PayPal has generally welcomed them.

The announcement in April caused a twinge of optimism among those combatting essay mills. Losing PayPal, though not necessarily a death blow, would be a significant loss for essay mills that rely on stable, low-cost transactions to stay in business.

However, in testing ten of the top essay mill web sites found in a Google query, all were still using PayPal as of this morning.

Though I wasn’t able to test all of the carts due to privacy concerns, of the five I could test all of the PayPal buttons were functioning. I could not find a single instance of a site that had dropped PayPal.

Instead, what I did note was that more and more providers were adding backup payment processors. Only one of the sites, on this viewing, had PayPal as their exclusive processor.

What this means is that the cautious optimism that followed PayPal’s announcement needs to, at the very least, be tapered a bit.

Whether PayPal is simply taking longer than expected or is struggling to execute its new policy is impossible to say. But even if they do turn things around and are successful, the warning has given many essay mills ample time to find a new partner.

This just further shows why the move would have been much more effective with strong and decisive action. By waiting many weeks and they threw a lifeline to essay mills and, even worse, they did it right as finals were ramping up.

Lessons From Piracy – Follow the Money

In many respects, essay mill sites have a lot in common with pirate websites. Even though the service essay mills provide may not be outright illegal, at least not in most countries, if students use them as advertise they are violating their school’s honor code.

Yet, like pirate sites, they serve to fill a black market demand.

Over the past few decades, countless approaches have been tried to reduce piracy and there have been varying degrees of effectiveness with them.

However, when it comes to shuttering the sites themselves, two processes have been effective: Legal action and following the money.

Legal action, including both civil and criminal action, have shuttered many sites. Just last week Ukrainian authorities shuttered one poplar group of websites through direct criminal action.

However, since essay mills aren’t illegal, at least in their host countries, that approach isn’t very viable. The other approach, following the money, is.

With pirate sites it’s been effective even when legal maneuvers haven’t worked. For example, in 2011 two of the largest porn BitTorrent trackers went down simply because they couldn’t make the investment in upkeep. Many other pirate sites have likely done the same but they rarely make the news since there are almost never press releases about them.

This is also an approach that essay mills are vulnerable to. Though pirate sites can rely on large numbers visitors contributing a small amount each, either through advertising or donations, essay mills need a relatively small number of customers to pay larger amounts.

Such a shift can make following the money very powerful but only if payment processors cooperate. Without a ban from Mastercard and Visa, there will likely always be processors willing to take essay mill money. However, eliminating PayPal does take away one of the most common and easiest processors for such sites.

Sadly though, PayPal’s ban has not had any discernible impact yet. Hopefully that will change and get the ball truly rolling in this battle.

Bottom Line

When it comes to essay mill services, their money is probably their biggest weakness. If credit card transactions are blocked, such sites can’t survive.

Though PayPal’s announcement last month was a cause for celebration, it hasn’t borne any fruit yet. However, even if it does it’s going to be crucial for academics to keep on top of it, reporting sites that still use PayPal and restricting the flow of dollars.

On the anti-piracy side, rightsholders have organizations that do that right now. Academics may want to look at doing the same.

That said, it’s also going to be important to place pressure on Visa and Mastercard. Until the credit card companies themselves consider essay mills off limits, there will always be new partners willing to work with them.

Still, it’d be nice if PayPal weren’t one of them…

Update

After this article was published PayPal got back with me and said that the site’s I listed in my email to them are in the “review process” and that they are working with businesses associated with essay writing services. I’ve pasted their full statement below:

PayPal is working with the associated businesses to ensure our platform is not used to facilitate deceptive and fraudulent practices in education. PayPal will continue to diligently review and take appropriate action on accounts found to facilitate cheating that undermines academic integrity.

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