Rossen Reports

Hidden camera investigation: Secret world of student cheaters

May 30, 2013 at 7:33 AM ET

Video: In a new survey, 63 percent of college students admit to cheating, and these days it’s easier than ever. Students are now paying strangers for customized papers, fooling even the best professors. NBC’s Jeff Rossen reports on the ghostwriters helping students cheat.

The underground world of college cheating: Right now, students are taking finals, and you'd be surprised how far some of them go to avoid doing the work. TODAY National Investigative Correspondent Jeff Rossen and his team went undercover to report.

In a new survey, 63 percent of college students admit to cheating. These days, it's easier than ever. No more plagiarizing of downloading old papers online. Now kids are paying strangers for original work, fooling even the best professors. So who are these ghostwriters? And are the papers any good?

Taylor is your typical college student, overwhelmed with schoolwork. And she has a new paper due next week. That's why she hired complete strangers to write the paper for her.

Our hidden camera captured Taylor asking: "How does this whole thing work?"

"I'll just write it up for you and I'll bring you a hard copy," said a guy called Pete.

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But what Pete didn't know was that Taylor (not her real name) was no college student: She was a TODAY show staffer, helping us expose just how easy it is to cheat in school without getting caught.

Online we found dozens of ads offering "custom papers" at "competitive rates." So who are these people? To find out, we teamed up with Bethany Schneider, a professor at Bryn Mawr College and author of "The River of No Return." She gave us an assignment.

"The assignment was to write a five- to six-page paper on 'Little Women,'" Schneider said.

"A pretty straightforward English assignment?" we asked.

"Yes," she said. "Absolutely."

Then we responded to two different ads, hiring faceless ghostwriters to write our paper. With hidden cameras rolling, our fake student Taylor set up meetings with each of them at a local diner.

One of the was called Alex. His "term paper" ad promised "quick turnaround" and "years of experience." "I never guarantee people an A," he told Taylor on hidden camera. "I usually guarantee people like a B."

The next writer was called Pete. His ad bragged: "Above average grade guaranteed while you sleep through class."

"Has any student ever gotten caught?" Taylor asked Pete.

"No."

"Never?"

"Because I do it originally written, so what I write you cannot find online," Pete explained.

Alex said he can write any paper, for any class. "I wrote like, an entire final paper for someone's tech class about how to set up a network system," he told our Taylor. "So that was a pain, 'cause I had to teach myself how to do that and then write the paper on it."

Alex charged $140. Pete's price was $90. One week later Taylor met with them again to get the papers and give them the cash. But this time, when they left, we were outside with some questions.

"She gave you the book, you read it, you wrote the paper for her. Isn't that cheating?" we asked Alex.

"I mean if she hands it in, that's her business," Alex said.

He said he tells students the paper should be used as a guide, not handed in verbatim.

"Look, you're not breaking the law here, but isn't this a question of ethics?" we asked Alex.

"I do find the ethical concern in it," he said. "But that's why I always advise people that they have to make their own decisions."

"You make no apologies for this?" we asked.

"No."

Alex was happy to stick around and talk. Pete, not so much. "I gotta go," he told us.

"This is your online ad: 'Party on the weekend, paper done Monday morning, get well above average grade guaranteed while you sleep through class,'" we pointed out. "Isn't that pretty blatant?"

"That's not me, actually," Pete said.

"It is you, we responded to the ad," we said. "Can you just stay and talk to us for a moment?"

"I don't want to be on TV," Pete said.

Ethics aside, we wondered: Were their papers any good? We had our professor, Bethany Schneider, read them both. She gave Alex a C minus. Pete got a B.

"So they pass," we said.

"Yes, they pass," Schneider said.

"Would you have suspected either of these papers of cheating?"

"No," Schneider admitted.

"As a school official, what can you do to stop this?"

"Well, I can teach my butt off and make my students want nothing more than to write me an amazing paper," she said.

Now some schools are using anti-plagiarism software that scans papers for cheating off the Internet. Other schools have installed cameras in exam rooms to catch cheaters. But educators say it's an uphill battle.

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