Home Australian News These university students cheated on a test and got away with it. Then the blackmail started

These university students cheated on a test and got away with it. Then the blackmail started

These university students cheated on a test and got away with it. Then the blackmail started

“These companies are brazen, aggressive and highly adaptable as they look to illegally exploit the vulnerable,” she said.

Dr Helen Gniel heads the academic integrity unit at TEQSA – the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency – which was set up after Australia outlawed selling and advertising cheating services in 2020 and now monitors Australian traffic to such sites.

“They’re predatory,” she said.

Students are inundated with their offers to help, sometimes via their university email, advertised as study support. Syndicate members also infiltrate social media and messenger groups pretending to be new students.

In Australia, where higher education is a booming export, international students are particular targets, Lancaster said. They are seen as cashed up but likely to struggle with English and often under pressure to perform.

Cheating can pose risks to the wider community, said Federal Education Minister Jason Clare. Students in medicine and engineering could graduate without the proper knowledge.

Dr Helen Gniel investigates contract cheating sites as head of TEQSA’s Higher Education Integrity Unit

Dr Helen Gniel investigates contract cheating sites as head of TEQSA’s Higher Education Integrity Unit

But it also opens them to compromise. “They expose themselves to criminals and potential blackmail,” Clare said.

University of Canberra law professor Sascha-Dominik Dov Bachmann said that risk increased throughout their career.

“If you were told you could not just lose the degree behind your job, but your job, what would you be willing to do?” he said.

Students and graduates who spoke to this masthead anonymously to protect their identity or posted in online forums with verified university email addresses have described threats arriving from those claiming to have written their assignments many years after they contacted a cheating service.

Often, increasing demands for cash were accompanied by screenshots of a student’s original assessment order.

One student said they were sent the contact details of the university dean who the syndicate planned to hand the evidence over to, with a “countdown” of threatening messages pinging through over WhatsApp: “Two hours til disclosure, one hour. Twenty minutes.”

“I’ve heard of some high-profile cases of people fired over past cheating,” Gniel said. “It’s a real worry.

Organised crime groups running such cheating syndicates could sell compromising information on former student cheaters to rival nations, warned La Trobe University law professor Louis de Koker, who studies how these groups work.

“Or maybe their internal databases will be hacked,” he said. “It’s a ticking time bomb.”

Bachmann – a former military officer in Sweden – pointed to warnings from ASIO that more foreign agents were trying to recruit Australians for intelligence.

“Contract cheating should be treated as a national security threat, not just a threat to academic integrity,” he said, “especially in the age of [the AUKUS defence pact].”

Bachmann wants to see enforcement efforts to shut down syndicates, calling for Australian authorities to work with global counterparts if the trail leads to known syndicate countries such as Pakistan, Kenya and Russia.

Gniel said TEQSA had blocked nearly 300 sites targeting Australian students, 841 social media accounts and helped set up an international consortium named “GAIN” to better track the syndicates behind them.

Misconduct expert Professor Cath Ellis has found that while “essay mills” will often craft networks of different sites to give the illusion of a competitive marketplace, often there is just one syndicate behind them all.


“There are a few big fish and there’s a lot of traffic redirection,” Gniel said, back to these “very sophisticated operations” run by criminal gangs from multiple countries.

“But we know they’re onshore too.”

Lancaster said there were also cases of impersonators hired to sit tests for students. Stickers and posters, often in different languages, will appear on campuses advertising cheating services.

“They’ll be places you wouldn’t look to take down, like the back of toilet doors,” said Gniel. “With QR codes. One university here was clever. They just stuck their own QR code over the top and instead of being taken to a cheating site, people were redirected to student support services.”

Ellis said some on-shore providers were swooping in to help cover a student’s tracks when essays and exams were flagged for potential misconduct. Tell-tale signs of cheating – such as particular patterns in phrasing – were also beginning to appear in student responses to an allegation.

“I know investigators who say if the student brings a support person, often they suspect that person is from the contract cheating group,” she said. “It’s a full service.”

Deakin University is the only Melbourne university to release cheating data publicly, telling this masthead that while plagiarism cases had fallen of late, contract cheating had “increased considerably” to 514 cases reported in 2022, something the university attributes to better detection, including its own Overcast software and Turnitin’s authorship analysis tools.

In 2023, the University of Sydney recorded 940 reports of potential contract cheating, 473 of which had so far been substantiated, but it also attributed “the recent surge in reported cases” to its own significant boost in detection resources and education for both staff and students.


“If we suspect blackmail or unscrupulous behaviour from a cheating service, the student’s safety is our first concern,” Wright said. “The vast majority of our students do the right thing. ”

Lancaster said Australian universities were among the best in the world at monitoring contract cheating.

Some now have special programs to support students who are blackmailed, including UNSW, which said it will contact “the person blackmailing them to put a stop to the threats if [the student] fully discloses all their past cheating with UNSW”. The default penalty is a 0 per cent score on the assessment, a spokeswoman said.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here