Millions of college students use Chegg, which professors say enables cheating – and possibly blackmail

Professors say misuse of Chegg, an online learning platform, can enable cheating or blackmail.
Professors say misuse of Chegg, an online learning platform, can enable cheating or blackmail.

An apparent good Samaritan had bad news for math professor Juan Gutiérrez: One of his students cheated on an exam.

The person, who identified himself as an incoming graduate student in the USA, said he helped an undergraduate on a test after the two connected online. The emailer said he worked for Chegg, a website that sells itself as a one-stop shop for collegians who need help with their studies.

Some academics and students know Chegg for another reason: claims it enables cheating in the classroom.

“It pains me to see students taking undue advantage of the pandemic situation to boost their GPA without putting any effort,” the emailer told Gutiérrez.

Gutiérrez snapped into action and got in touch with his student, who complicated the narrative. Days earlier, the Texas student said, he had received an email threatening to disclose he had used Chegg to fraudulently complete his coursework unless he paid off the person via PayPal.

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“I have sources everywhere and understand you have an exam coming up," the threatening email read. "It will be a shame if something happened regarding the score."

Gutiérrez was angry, but his ire probably surprised the would-be whistleblower.

“Extorting anyone is a crime,” he wrote back.

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Vulnerable to blackmail?

For years, professors have lamented the use of college-help websites such as Chegg in academic dishonesty. Students who use the sites, especially with their real names, make themselves vulnerable to possible attempts of blackmail, experts said.

To Gutiérrez, chair of the mathematics department at the University of Texas, San Antonio, the possible blackmail was a far more serious issue. He told the sender, whom he suspected was an Indian national, that he had alerted the State Department. The emailer went dark, but Gutiérrez posted screenshots of the incident on Twitter with a warning to students.

Kshitij Karan, whose name was on both the threat and the note to the professor, told USA TODAY he had not sent the threatening message to the student, but he had reached out to Gutierrez. He suggested the email containing the threat had been doctored.

The Texas undergraduate did not respond to requests for comment.

A professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio, warned students about the risk of online academic aid.
A professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio, warned students about the risk of online academic aid.

Chegg denied the student and the alleged blackmailer had met on its platform. Despite a screenshot showing a Chegg question that was referenced in emails between the two, Chegg said it could not find a record of the question being sent.

"We immediately conducted our own internal investigation and can categorically say that we have found no evidence that this exchange took place on the Chegg platform," the company said in a statement to USA TODAY. "It is technically impossible for there to be no record of the question if it was in fact posted on our platform."

Misuse of online platforms for cheating is not unique to Chegg. The company is one of many that operate alongside the country’s higher education system without the same rules or responsibilities colleges bear. The business started as a purveyor of textbook rentals in 2005 – a service it still offers – but added services such as writing help, test prep and other homework help.

It had 6.6 million subscribers across 190 countries in the 2020 fiscal year, making it one of the largest education technology companies in the world. The company's market capitalization was as high as $14 billion this year but is now about $4.5 billion.

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Chegg's test prep and homework help come either through live experts or a cache of questions from textbooks and exams. If students need help with a math problem, they can upload a photo of it to Chegg. An answer, complete with how to solve it, can come back within minutes.

Professors said students have used the service in exams, snapping pictures surreptitiously with their phones and peeking when the answers come in.

Cheating in college is nothing new, but some feared the increased online learning spurred by the pandemic would lead to even more academic dishonesty, enabled by websites such as Chegg.

Chegg denies that characterization and said its users agree in its terms of service not to use the platform to cheat. It cooperates with schools looking to find cheaters.

A new product, Chegg said, even allows professors to upload their tests before the scheduled exam dates. The tool prevents students from accessing the material in the given time range.

“We constantly work to prevent misuse of our site,” the company's statement said, “including reminding subscribers about our Honor Code before they submit questions, and providing tips and information to students and faculty on how to properly use and not use Chegg services.”

What is Chegg?

Chegg, like other education technology websites, saw major growth during the pandemic as universities were forced to pivot instruction online. A company spokesman said Chegg grew by 67% in 2020 from the previous year.

Students can pay $15 to $20 a month to access the site. Along with receiving help with questions from their course material, they can get help with essays, view flashcards or take practice exams.

Company officials said they're aware some students use its services to cheat but that Chegg works with universities to try to address the behavior. David Rettinger, a professor at the University of Mary Washington who studies academic dishonesty, said Chegg is notable for its transparency and willingness to work with academic institutions compared with other sites offering similar services.

Cheating may be on the company’s radar, but officials said it has never dealt with an accusation of extortion.

The Texas incident, according to Gutiérrez’s account and screenshots of the alleged exchange, started on Chegg. The student told Gutiérrez he posted a question about his calculus homework involving tangent lines. The company specifically denied the existence of the post.

Two days later, the email threatening the student arrived. It read, “I posted a solution on your Chegg post a few days ago regarding tangent lines.” The sender, according to the return email, was named Kshitij Karan.

Gutiérrez’s class had an exam that month. The email accusing the student of cheating arrived the next day, again bearing Karan's name.

To Gutiérrez, it seems clear his student posted a question to Chegg and was blackmailed. He was further convinced when the student was able to produce Karan’s name before Gutiérrez shared it with him.

“By chance, is this regarding a person by the name of Kshitij?” the student wrote to Gutierrez on Sept. 29. “I have been getting harassed by him, but I just thought he was trying to get money out of me.”

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Karan disagrees with that account. He said he works for Chegg and other learning platforms to supplement his income.

He said he sometimes takes practice tests for students and charges them a fee for his services. In this case, Karan said, the student contacted him through Discord, a messaging app.

Karan said he completed the test as requested by the student, then realized it was a real exam. He reached out to Gutiérrez, and that’s when he said he learned of the threatening email sent to the student. He suggested the student could have doctored the sender's information.

Karan's Discord tag calls into question his account. The same username appears in multiple posts on Reddit forums where students seek others to do their assignments for pay. In one post with Karan's Discord tag, the writer identifies himself as a "verified" Chegg tutor and says he can offer help with homework, for pay. In other posts, Karan's Discord tag appears in forums with names such as "Paid homework" or "hwforcash." The latter forum bears a simple description: "Pay reddit to do your homework for you."

Karan said he was trying to reach people who might need a tutor, not trying to complete their coursework for cash.

Gutiérrez doesn’t buy Karan’s story.

“Everything follows a perfect timeline,” Gutiérrez said. “And everything fits perfectly.”

Gutiérrez has been communicating with Chegg, and he described its answers as a smokescreen. He said he never claimed the incident occurred on the company’s platform. Instead, he said, the student used Chegg, then made an error by including his personal information on the website. That made him vulnerable to harassment outside the platform, Gutiérrez said.

Chegg denied Karan has worked for its site. The company said it can't find an account tied to the student. Students often share Chegg accounts, so it can be difficult to track individual users.

Joe Izbrand, a spokesman for the University of Texas, San Antonio, confirmed the university was aware of the incident and addressing it, but it would not provide more details in compliance with federal laws regarding students' privacy. The university released a statement saying it had "previously addressed alleged academic dishonesty incidents involving students and Chegg."

'Chegg will narc'

In October 2020, months after the pandemic forced many classes online, Redditors on a forum for Ohio State University students had a problem. They had heard some of their peers were busted using Chegg on an organic chemistry test in April, and they weren't sure they could trust Chegg to protect their identities.

At Ohio State University, a student used a public records request to find out Chegg had worked with a professor to share information about students suspected of cheating on an exam.
At Ohio State University, a student used a public records request to find out Chegg had worked with a professor to share information about students suspected of cheating on an exam.

Jake Conway, then a student at OSU, had an idea to get to the bottom of what happened. He’d use a public records request to ask for the emails between the professor in question, Andrea Baldwin, and Chegg.

His plan worked. He shared the documents in a post.

The emails show Baldwin coordinated with the university’s Office of Academic Affairs to ask Chegg for the names of students who would have accessed relevant material at the time of her test. Chegg handed over the email addresses and other non-financial information tied to the student profiles.

Conway said he expected to learn the company shared the names and emails. He questioned how Chegg could have been sure the people listed had actually been the ones using the account since students commonly share accounts.

Conway's takeaway was clear. He warned his classmates: “Chegg will narc you out upon request.”

To the Redditors, the solution was simple: Don’t cheat, or if you do, use a different name and email address.

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Benjamin Johnson, an Ohio State University spokesman, confirmed that in 2020, several professors raised concerns about students using Chegg during exams and quizzes. He said the university coordinated with the company to learn which students visited the site during tests.

Johnson stopped short of saying whether students were punished for using the site, but he did say, "Students can be charged with violating the Student Code of Conduct."

Though the university and Chegg streamlined the process for reporting academic misconduct cases, Baldwin said cheating hasn't stopped.

Can laws stop cheating?

To deter cheating, it helps to understand its motive. Many students who cheat feel as though they can’t ask their professors for help. They may have fallen behind in their coursework and see an outsider as their only option, said Rettinger, who oversees the University of Mary Washington's academic integrity programs.

“The bulk of students make a bad choice on a bad day,” he said. “We have a responsibility to educate them.”

It’s likely students cheated more during pandemic shutdowns, Rettinger said. Students cheat, he said, when they're not engaged in their classes or suspect their professors are indifferent about them.

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Cheating knows no nationality, and some countries have taken aggressive steps to curb the behavior. Among them is Australia, which in 2014 saw a massive cheating scandal in which students paid ghostwriters to craft their essays.

The Australian government passed a law in 2018 aiming to stop this type of academic fraud. Its law is directed at “those who provide and advertise cheating services and not at students,” according to Australia's Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

In Australia, cheating probably increased during pandemic shutdowns, but that's hard to quantify, said Cath Ellis, an associate dean and professor studying academic cheating at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Ellis said blackmail is a known issue in the industry, but it remains difficult to document. Even web forums focused on helping students cheat on their coursework tell potential customers to be wary of people who might extort them. 

Arc – UNSW Student Life at Ellis' institution offers guidance for those who may find themselves the target of blackmail. It stresses the university will help the victims navigate the situation but only if they're willing to admit their academic dishonesty.

Despite the support for curbing online cheating, it's difficult to craft legislation that does so, Ellis said. Often, tutors are in different countries than the students they help. Cheating on a test isn’t a crime, so it doesn’t make sense for laws to target students.

Instead, these types of laws have focused on intermediaries. Law prevents some essay-writing services from operating in Australia; they are legal in the USA.

Part of the challenge, Ellis said, is navigating the distinction between how companies advertise themselves and how students actually use the product.

On the front end, an essay-writing company may promise original content that students can use as their own. Yet in the fine print, they say their product is supposed to be used only as a model for learning.

“The story they tell in the shop window," Ellis said, "is very different to the story they’re telling in the terms and conditions."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Is using Chegg cheating? Professors say students risk grades