Universities warned against rise in essay mill hacking

Two leading HE sector bodies have teamed up to raise awareness of the issue and help institutions strengthen their security defences

The UK higher education sector has been warned of a surge in cyber-attacks deriving from essay mills.

To raise awareness of the issue and provide advice that can help universities keep vulnerable students safe, Jisc has teamed up with QAA, the higher education (HE) Quality Assurance Agency. The organisations have urged universities to stay alert as the industry continues to tackle an unprecedented spike in ransomware attacks, with Jisc reporting last month (2 July) that the number targeting colleges and universities during the first six months of 2021 exceeded the total recorded for the whole of last year.

Essay mills, also known as contract cheating websites, are increasingly deceiving students and tricking them out of their cash, hacking into university websites to place content that seems legitimate and appears to align with institutional values, but is in fact promoting their services for their own financial gain.

Attackers typically post hyperlinks to their own essay mill websites on student-facing pages, or hijack links to legitimate services with redirects to contract cheating sites. Action against this form of malicious online activity aimed at universities has already been taken across the US and Australia, and many fear that failure to act could cause similar cases to continue to rise across the UK.

While ransomware aims to cause mass disruption which can be used as leverage for exploitation, essay mill attackers try to remain undetected by the institution at hand. Despite their differences, however, the majority of prevention advice remains the same.

Henry Hughes, director of security at Jisc, commented: “Cyber-attacks are a growing problem for colleges and universities and, as is probably the case with illegal essay mill activity, is often driven by organised crime.

“There are steps that can be taken to minimise risk, including using cybersecurity services that can block known malicious content, help mitigate phishing attempts and other forms of attacks against UK education and research.”

Hughes added that Jisc is working with education providers, sector regulators and other bodies to form a policy-based approach to blocking cyber threats.

QAA’s head of policy and communications Gareth Crossman believes it’s essential for essay mills to be stamped out, since they “present a threat to the world-class reputation of UK higher education”.

While introducing the Essay Mills (Prohibition) Bill in the House of Commons in February this year, former universities minister Chris Skidmore claimed to have identified 932 essay mills in the UK, up from 881 in October 2020, condemning the “corrosive effects” of such organisations and stating that the situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

These companies are unscrupulous and their exploitation of students risks their academic and future careers, while opening them up to blackmail and cybercrime” – Gareth Crossman, QAA

“As students have been forced to study remotely from home, away from on-campus welfare and support, taking their studies and exams online, they are increasingly becoming prey to essay mills, whose number has increased dramatically as they seek to take advantage of the desperate situation many students face,” said Skidmore.


In other news: ICO sees 20% decline in reports of data breaches


Crossman explained that these “unscrupulous” companies’ exploitation of students puts their academic and future careers at risk, also increasing their likelihood of falling victim to blackmail and cybercrime.

“[Essay mills’] only motivation is money,” said Crossman, “so we need action from governments and online platforms to make operation as difficult as possible. This is why QAA is also campaigning for legislation to criminalise essay mills.

“We urge universities to follow the technical advice available from Jisc and to raise awareness among staff and students of the new tactics employed by essay mills. Users need to know what to look out for and how to report any suspicions.”

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