February 15, 2023
Dave Tomar (@dtomar) is an expert on cheating in higher education. His latest book, The Complete Guide to Contract Cheating in Higher Education, a comprehensive source on contract cheating in higher education released in June 2022. Dave worked for a decade as an academic ghostwriter before bringing widespread attention to the thriving cheating industry with his viral 2010 article, “The Shadow Scholar.” He is currently managing editor and senior content developer at Academic Influence.
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On this episode of The Score, we look at cheating from a different angle than we have before. Our guest is Dave Tomar. From 2001 to 2010, Dave worked as the ultimate ghostwriter. He was a contract cheater. He wrote thousands of college essays, reports, and even master’s degree thesis. After a decade of putting words into other people’s work, Dave Tomar put the cheating life behind him. He’s since written two books about his experiences.
Dave Tomar (05:26): Well, I saw quickly that this type of service was popular with my classmates. But I had no idea how large the demand was, and when you start working for these companies, suddenly it’s not simply that you’re getting paid to write, it’s that you have more writing work than you can handle, which was a unique and exciting position for me to be in, honestly.
Dave Tomar (07:58): Yeah, it was a bit of a barter system as well on the college campuses. But no, the real difference was that while I was charging between $10 and $20 a page, both independently and while working for online companies, the online companies were charging twice that. I would get half of it, but that was the model for profitability. As an independent contractor, I would get half, they would get half, so I was essentially learning that I could have been charging twice as much on campus. However, it was worth splitting the proceeds because the work was so plentiful.
Kathryn Baron (09:19): About what did you earn a year?
Dave Tomar (09:21): I probably started when I went full-time earning just a little over $30,000, which so you know, was a raise from my legitimate job. By the end, bear in mind, inflation now applies, but this was 2010, I think I earned about $66,000 in my peak year.
Kathryn Baron (10:00): Do you have any sense of how many independent contractors like yourself there are working for these companies?
Dave Tomar (10:07): Certainly thousands. Every company that I’ve worked for has a different size pool. Some of them, you could tell was a couple of dozen, but others were sort of these broad online syndicates where when you get a sense of the surface level of this industry, there are big faces looking out to customers, but there maybe 20 of them affiliated with the same writing pool. The back door that I worked in for one company was a name that you would never see in public, but they pulled in assignments from a couple of dozen different outlets that are pretty well-known, and so that was a pool of hundreds. Now, when you get to the real essay mills, which are some of the lower-grade ones that might be operating overseas with even fewer rules, they could be working with stables of thousands.
Dave Tomar (11:11): The smaller companies would actually reach out to you with individual assignments. They’d say, “You interested in this one? You interested in this one?”, which is a bit of a clunky model, but I certainly have worked that way. The best companies that I have worked for use an automated system. You go onto a page like cheat.com and you order your assignment, and it automatically shows up on a board that I and hundreds of other writers have access to. As soon as it shows up, it tells me when it’s due, what it’s about, what the college level/graduate level is, and how much I’m going to get paid to do it, and you click the right button, and it goes into your box and you are responsible for it. From there, have it done by the deadline.
Dave Tomar (16:19): Now, this one’s really important, and I have to pull attention to the fact that when I read the typos and the grammatical errors in there, I don’t do so to mock this student, I do so to point out that this is a master’s-level student, and this is how their written communication appears. You can’t help but look at that email and say, “This person really lacks the academic qualifications to write the assignment that they’re outsourcing.” It’s an important point that I like to make a lot, which is that this desperation. This is not to dismiss the ethical implications of this conversation, but from a practical standpoint, this guy could not write this assignment, and that’s just a fact.
Dave Tomar (18:58): The rule is this, and this is an important thing to note about these paper-writing companies as well, revisions are important, repeat business is important, satisfied customers are important.
Dave Tomar (20:09): I worked with students through a full course, a full semester, three years of a program, you name it. If you’re working with a student on a thesis, or a dissertation, I know professors always say, “Well, how is that even possible? We’re constantly meeting, and they have to defend this and there’s feedback.” Well, it’s good-paying money because you are basically the student’s just a liaison between you and the professor at that point. Professor gives some feedback, the student brings it to you, and I say, “Okay, well, I got to work on my thesis a little.” That was how that process worked, so repeat business was important. Writer requests were very common. Not only that, but once you start buying assignments and submitting them in somebody’s voice, a savvier student knows not to raise red flags, so sticking with the same writer is usually a good idea.
Dave Tomar (21:24): Yeah. Well, it helps for students that go to school like the one that I did because Rutgers University was so large, and in so many contexts, so impersonal that it was maybe nobody’s looking. I witnessed it enough with my customers at Rutgers that it was a very, very easy thing to get away with when you’re dealing with graders and TAs and the professors teaching the course, but you never have once interacted with this person. That’s a very commonplace thing in a larger school. Now, I’m not saying that is the scenario always, but just as an example of how easy that might actually be to get away with.
Kathryn Baron (22:08): Well, this is a huge business, and I have to say, I was flabbergasted at how many of these companies exist. You list in one of the books, I think The Complete Guide to Contract Cheating, at the end, you have a list of about 470 cheating companies. You make a note that this is just a partial list. They operate like any other business. I looked up one company on the list at random and it made no attempt to obscure what it’s selling.
Kathryn Baron (22:59): Yeah, and I thought, “How do these companies avoid detection when the way they’re just so obvious and blatant with their advertising?”
Dave Tomar (23:12): Well, first of all, you can’t avoid detection because that’s poor marketing. It’s really, visibility is actually extremely important.
…Number two, and most importantly, this is the thing I do my best to impress upon educators at every single turn. It is very, very common and understandable to think of this as this sort of black market for papers.
Dave Tomar (24:16): Sure, it’s a shady business, but it’s not like drug dealing where these people are lurking in the shadows. It is an out-in-the-open business. It operates like an out-in-the-open business.
Dave Tomar (25:20): These are real companies, and they operate real companies and if we think of them as these shady black market/drug-dealing type of companies, then we undermine their danger. I paid taxes when I did this job, they paid taxes. It was very normalized, workaday sort of life with customer service, and everything else. While there are certainly shady companies out there, I think that’s probably true of every industry, those are not the ones that are going to survive in the long run. The companies that I worked for 20 years ago are still there and there is a reason.
Kathryn Baron (35:30): Did you ever hear back on what grades you earned?
Dave Tomar (35:35): No, not really. It’s funny. I know I read an email where the customer requested that they needed to have a certain grade. However, it was our official policy that we didn’t guarantee grades. As a matter of fact, to get back to the legal language, we made it very clear that these were study guides and that they were by no means meant to be submitted in a classroom, and so if you did that, then the consequences were really on you, and if you told me you didn’t like the grade you got, then you have violated the conditions of our agreement.
Kathryn Baron (36:13): Oh, gosh. Well, yeah, that’s kind of like Chegg saying, “This is just to help you understand how to answer the question.”
Dave Tomar (36:19): A hundred percent like. That’s exactly what it is.
Dave Tomar (37:40): As we led with, anytime anybody would ask what I did, I’d say, “Well,” very frankly, “I help students cheat for a living.” And people were just filled with questions about that. It took me a while to connect the dots that “Wow, people don’t realize this goes on.” It is very much out in the open. I was always very much out in the open. The companies are very readily Googleable. It was news to me to find out that people in education specifically were just not aware.