George (not his real name) was studying for a university degree in England. He had been diagnosed with cancer some months earlier and underwent a major operation, which had left him with little energy.
Soon after the start of the course, he received unsolicited WhatsApp messages from a number of companies with names such as “Academic Dissertations” and “My Academic Paper”, claiming to offer help on the course.
George had no idea how they had obtained his mobile number – but, fatigued and eager to do well, he replied to one.
WhatsApp with that
For the next few months, George used the company to help with his assignments, spending approximately £1,500. The company proof-read some essays and wrote others, apparently to a satisfactory standard.
All the correspondence took place via WhatsApp, although the company regularly deleted the messages.
One Saturday morning, George received a WhatsApp message from an unknown number. It was from “Peter Shilton from the Compliance Department” claiming that there was a “serious issue” to discuss.
George, who had never heard of Peter Shilton, replied by asking what this was about. There followed a long conversation, in which Mr Shilton explained that he was from the essay-writing company George had used earlier and that the university had contacted them about a possible case of academic misconduct against George.
The university, he wrote, was threatening legal action against the company and George.
Via WhatsApp, Mr Shilton sent George an e-mail purporting to be from his tutor – the name was indeed his – to the company, requesting pertinent documents to assist the university with an ongoing investigation into possible academic misconduct.
The university had apparently offered the company two options – disclose all the information relating to George’s dealings with them or settle the case for £899. Mr Shilton said the university had given them 24 hours to select their preferred option, failing which the university would report the matter to the Council of Higher Education.
In the event of a settlement, the university’s attorney would draft the settlement agreement.
George felt intimidated by the company’s messages, which emphasised the catastrophic consequences of disclosure for George’s degree, reputation, and career prospects, and he asked for some time to reflect on his options.
Having searched the internet for assistance, he contacted me and we arranged for an emergency consultation on Sunday. In cases of this type, speed is essential as some threats have been acted upon by essay mills, leading to the student’s expulsion from university.
There were a number of giveaway signs that the company’s request for payment was a scam:
- First, it is a common strategy to approach the “target” by someone – usually with a plain-sounding English name – from the “Compliance Department”.
- Second, the initial approach from Peter Shilton did not specify the name of the company to maximise the likelihood of the target “biting the bait” and responding.
- Third, the approach took place on a weekend, which makes it harder for the target to seek help.
- Fourth, the e-mail address of George’s tutor was a Gmail address rather than an institutional one.
- Fifth, the tutor’s email was sent by WhatsApp rather than email to avoid analysis of the e-mail’s metadata.
- Sixth, the inherent implausibility of a university i) offering to settle the case for money and ii) giving an ultimatum of 24 hours.
- Seventh, there is no “Council of Higher Education” in the UK.
- Finally, UK universities are unlikely to refer to their lawyers as “attorneys”, which is a term more commonly used in the United States.
- Two can play the threats game
Following our consultation, we decided to write a forceful letter to the company. The letter included the full bank details of the various accounts where George had deposited the money for the company’s services.
We wanted the individuals to be worried about their traceability since banks, if ordered by a court, can share details of account owners.
The letter, which came from me as George’s barrister, referred to the criminal offences of blackmail (punishable with a maximum of 14 years in prison) and fraud by false representation (maximum 10 years in prison), as well as breaches of the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013.
The letter made it clear that the company should henceforth only deal with me and not George. It is generally helpful to withdraw the student early from the interaction to remove the sting of any intimidation tactics, as well as minimising stress for the student.
The letter had the desired effect – George never heard from the company again.
It is concerning that new university students are targeted via WhatsApp by predatory essay-writing companies, and it is unclear how the company obtained George’s number.
Universities and their SUs may wish to warn students that such unsolicited approaches may occur and educate them on the wrongs and dangers of engaging their services.
Thank you to George for allowing me to convey his story so that others may learn from it. Some other details have been modified slightly to maintain anonymity.