Cyber-attacks and Essay Mills: Are You at Risk?

Cyber-attacks targeting students are nothing new, with many scams typically dangling tempting financial opportunities. We've put together this helpful article so that you know how to avoid being scammed.

Cyber-attacks targeting students are nothing new, with many scams typically dangling tempting financial opportunities. 

Every year, coinciding with the start of a new term, student loan fraud is common. Freshers in particular are targeted by phishing emails purporting to be from the Student Loan Company and asking for bank account details or username and password credentials before their money is released.

Common types of Cyber Crime Glossary

  • Social Engineering – The act of tricking someone into divulging information or taking action, through email and other devices. The idea behind social engineering is to take advantage of a potential victim’s natural tendencies and emotional reactions.
  • Website Spoofing - Where forged websites mimic legitimate sites.
  • Phishing - A broad term for any attempt by cybercriminals to fool victims into sharing confidential information such as passwords, usernames, and financial details for malicious and criminal purposes.
  • Spear phishing - Where cybercriminals target a specific individual or audience to gain sensitive personal or business information.

Cyber Crime

In the previous two academic years, £850,000 has been protected by the Student Loans Company’s Customer Compliance teams who deal with phishing attacks. The NFIB Fraud and Cyber Crime Dashboard have also identified that 20 to 29-year-olds as the most common victims of fraud and cyber-crime. Therefore, it is clear that these crimes directly affect our community. Whilst these experts can help students who have been targeted, we must be knowledgeable about how to protect ourselves to prevent these scams from happening in the first place.

Top tips:

  • THINK before you click on any link or provide any sensitive information, as fraudsters can impersonate well-known brands and companies, including Student Finance. In particular, it is not common practice for any organisation to ask for banking details in emails or texts.
  • CHECK the quality of the communication you have received. Bad grammar and poor spelling are common signs of phishing.
  • AVOID using the same password for all your accounts. Create different passwords utilising symbols, numbers, and letters.
  • ENSURE that you have set your privacy settings across all social media to private and check how much personal information e.g birthdays and pet names are available on these platforms.
  • INSTALL two-factor authentication and anti-malware programmes on your accounts and devices. This is because this conduct is classed as ‘commissioning,’ which is submitting a piece of work you have asked someone else to do for you.

According to the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, the watchdog for standards in UK universities, there are currently over 1,000 in operation.

A survey in 2018 found that 15.7% of recent graduates admitted to cheating, but Universities UK states that the use of essay mills by students was rare.

What are Royal Holloway’s regulations on using essay mills or commissioning?

Using essay mills is a form of plagiarism which is a serious academic offence. The policy on misconduct and the process for investigations into alleged offences is outlined in the College's Regulations on Academic Misconduct.

On the Student Intranet, there is a dedicated section for guidance for students on Academic Misconduct. This section provides extensive detail on what academic misconduct is and the process if you are suspected of it.

Students are strongly encouraged to contact the Advice Centre if they are accused of academic misconduct. Our Student Advisors can support and provide guidance on the process, as well as accompany students in meetings.

Check out the University's flowchart on the process.

Why avoid cheating?

Because it’s wrong and risky, obviously! Unfortunately, our advisors find that although students who cheat often realise that it’s wrong and risky, they usually don’t understand why it’s wrong and just how risky it is!

It is also important to consider that cheating is a violation of several of the University’s General Regulations which is a serious offence. This can lead to being expelled from the university, which will have obvious repercussions on your future.

Why is it academically/ethically wrong to cheat?

You come to university to learn new skills and progress your education. If you cheat, you aren’t doing either of these as well as being dishonest to your peers and teachers. So not only are you cheating the system, you are cheating yourself. Furthermore, by cheating, you will undoubtedly have knowledge gaps that will become obvious in your future career or education, putting your career, or even others’ safety and wellbeing at risk; to add to this, you could put your future employer’s business and future colleagues’ incomes into risk. Remember, the alternative to cheating is asking for help.

What are the risks of cheating?

If you cheat, you are more than likely going to get caught as your work is marked multiple times and put through TurnItIn. The consequences are considerable if you are found to have commissioned or cheated in another form. The University will launch an academic misconduct investigation. If it is found that major academic misconduct has taken place, the case will be referred to the Senior Vice Principal, who will decide on a penalty, which can include expulsion from the University. If you are on a professional course like Social Work, it can lead to you being barred from your chosen course and profession for life. If your future employer finds out that you were involved in cheating, there could be similar serious and permanent repercussions, especially in professional vocations like engineering and law. 

How would your cheating harm others?

By using commissioning services and websites, you are only encouraging these criminal websites to continue to take advantage of students who are often vulnerable. You are also undermining all the hard work your friends and peers undertake across the academic year. Those who run these commissioning sites are not looking to help you, they are looking to take advantage and make money. There have been cases of sites like these blackmailing students for considerable sums of money by threatening to report them for buying essays, so do not be mistaken: these sites are not run by helpful people.

Can you cheat without realising it?

This year, more than ever, commissioning websites, or ‘essay mills’ are targeting students, aiming to exploit the vulnerability of those struggling with assessments. Essay mills are aiming to illegally hack universities, ‘covertly placing content in an effort to advertise’ (Henry Hughes, 2021) their cheating services. As this content would appear to be from university services themselves, this can be confusing and make even students who aren’t considering cheating vulnerable to doing so. 

In American and Australian universities, attackers have been able to publish/post on student-facing websites, linking to their own websites, or hijack links to legitimate services, redirecting them to cheating sites without the universities knowing. This may have started happening in the UK, and so always check the address bar of each new web page you land on.

Top Tips to Avoid Cheating

  • Ensure you comply with your department’s referencing guidelines. If you're unsure of how to reference contact your personal tutor or CEDAS.
  • Do not write your assignments with your friends. Initial discussions are fine and a good way of brainstorming but avoid writing together as this can lead to allegations of collusion.
  • Do not be drawn into the businesses on social media and sites that offer pre-written essays, essay writing help, or bespoke/original essays. These are often scams and picked up by TurnItIn. If you are tempted to utilise these essay mills, often there is something else going on that is preventing you from carrying out your work independently. Please utilise the services at the University to support you if you are struggling along with extensions and extenuating circumstances procedures.

Further support

Our Advice Centre is a free, independent and confidential service for all students here at Royal Holloway. Our friendly, experienced and professional staff will provide a listening ear and offer general and specialist advice. We’re here to support you with a whole range of issues, big and small, and if we’re not the best people to help you with a particular issue, we’ll point you in the right direction.

Our advisors hold drop-ins on Zoom every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoon 13:30-15:30. You can find more information on our events calendar and can join the virtual drop-ins using this Zoom link

Email us at advice@su.rhul.ac.uk with any questions or to ask for a different meeting time.