In recent years, the popularity of essay-writing companies (sometimes called essay- mills) has grown.
These companies purport to offer original, “plagiarism-free” assignments in exchange for a fee. Some studies estimate that worldwide up to 1 in 7 students have enlisted the help of essay mills for at least one assignment.
Aside from detection by the student’s institution, a risk of using essay mills is blackmail. And we are increasingly coming across cases of it.
What is blackmail?
Blackmail is a criminal offence under section 21(1) of the theft act 1968, punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment. The offence is comprised of three principal elements.
1. Demands made with menaces: “pay us or we will inform your institution”
In order to commit blackmail, there must be a menacing demand. A demand, whether explicit or implicit, is menacing if it is detrimental or unpleasant to the victim.
Essay mills demand payment. In default, they threaten to inform the institution that the student has used, or attempted to use, their service.
In one case, Simon (not his real name) wanted to cancel his contract with an essay mill after he got cold feet only minutes after ordering the work. The company refused a refund and warned that its legal department could take “strong actions” against him.
The essay mill sent Simon a deluge of frightening emails and notified him that, in the event of non-payment, they would inform his university of his attempt to use an essay mill, post the work online and sue him for a “serious academic act”. Simon agreed to pay for the essay.
In another case, similar underhand tactics were used. Rosie (not her real name), tempted by an attractive discount, paid an essay mill to write an assignment. When she received it, she found that it failed to follow the brief, contained errors and was not written by a native English speaker.
Despite boasting a “100% money back” guarantee on its website, the company refused to return the money.
The company informed Rosie that it would need to contact the VC of her university to confirm that she was not using the essay. The company, however, offered to close down her account without the need to contact her university for £300.
Rosie paid up. Soon after, the company’s compliance officer informed her that the money had not been received and requested that a further £300 be paid into another account. This is a common tactic.
In both cases, the essay mills made demands for money. As enlisting third-party assistance for assignments can lead to expulsion, the essay mills know that threatening to inform the university is “unpleasant or detrimental”. It was this fear that caused Simon and Rosie to yield to the essay mills’ demands.
2. Unwarranted demands: “we are entitled to the money”
To constitute blackmail, the menacing demands must be unwarranted. The 1968 act provides that a person making a menacing demand will be committing blackmail unless they genuinely believe that:
- they have reasonable grounds for making the demand, and
- it is proper or lawful to reinforce it with those menaces.
In Simon’s case, the essay mill had no genuine belief that they were entitled to demand more money or that the threat was proper. The threats to contact Simon’s university, post the work online and sue him for a “serious academic act” were coercive attempts to get him to continue with a contract which he was entitled in law to cancel.
Similarly, in Rosie’s case, the essay mills fabricated the closing down fee to compel further payment. Since the closing down fee was a sham and inconsistent with its own terms and conditions, the company could not have genuinely believed that it was reasonable to ask for the payment.
That the essay mills ceased correspondence with simon and rosie once they realised that a lawyer was involved reflects their lack of genuine belief in their entitlement to the money. They knew that their demands were unwarranted and that their arguments would not withstand legal scrutiny.
3. Your loss is their gain
Finally, the offence of blackmail requires the unwarranted and menacing demand to be made to make a gain or cause loss to the victim.
The essay mills in simon’s and rosie’s cases acted with a view to their own financial gain. Feeding off the students’ fear that the university would be tipped off, the essay mills’ only motivation was to wring more money out of them.
This brief analysis reveals that some essay mills commit the criminal offence of blackmail to extort more money from students.
Beware of the blackmailers
Our advice to students is obviously to avoid using essay mills. If, however, students do use one and find themselves on the receiving end of intimidatory tactics, they should not reply, not pay any money (since the chances of recovery are slim) and seek specialist help immediately.
This article does not constitute any form of legal advice and should not be relied on or treated as a substitute for specific advice relevant to particular circumstances. You should consult your own lawyer for legal advice.