ORLANDO, Fla. – A Local 6 investigation has uncovered a Central Florida man making his living by helping students cheat through school -- and he's not alone.
"This is a widespread phenomenon. I'm a little guy. I'm honestly just a little fish in the ocean," said the man targeting UCF and Valencia college students with online ads, offering to do their coursework for cash.
The man would not give his real name but said he goes by "Walter Writes" when helping students cheat.
Local 6 met Walter by setting up a sting with the help of Jake Rakoci, a UCF student journalist, who responded to Walter's Craigslist ad and pretended he was buying a paper for class.
"I texted him saying, 'Hey, I have a huge paper coming up. It's finals week, I'm busy with work and other school assignments, do you think you could help me out here?'" Rakoci said.
The two talked via text, phone and email, discussing details of an argumentative writing assignment. They agreed on a price of $95 for a seven-page paper and within a matter of days Walter was ready to meet Rakoci at a restaurant near UCF to do the exchange. Walter had no idea Local 6's hidden cameras were setup and rolling.
[WEB EXTRA: Cheater Paper]
"He sat down. I shook his hand and said, 'Thanks for doing this,'" Rakoci said. "He whipped out his laptop. He asked me how finals week was going. I asked him how is the business going and he said he's been slammed because of finals week."
After the small talk was over, Walter showed Rakoci an electronic version of the paper on his laptop. Walter came up with the topic of increasing Alzheimers funding for the argumentative paper. Once Rakoci approved, Walter emailed a copy to Rakoci and accepted the $95 cash payment. That's when Rakoci left and Local 6's Mike DeForest confronted Walter.
"We're aware of what went on here, we were all in on it," DeForest told Walter.
"Damn!" was all Walter could say at first. He eventually agreed to be interviewed and share his knowledge of the underground cheating industry, as long as Local 6 concealed his identity.
"Most of the time the majors that they are working on will have nothing to do with actual writing," Walter said. "For example, most of the students that I help are nursing majors or some kind of health care students, that's actually the vast majority. So they don't usually do things concerned with writing."
He estimates earning about $1,000 a month from the business that keeps him extremely busy writing papers.
"I would say in about a month maybe like 40, 50 papers. So, quite a bit," Walter said.
And it's not just college kids hiring him either -- parents have, too.
"I had a parent of a high school student," Walter said. "He was having trouble in one of his classes, and she came up to me and wanted me to do his paper. The kid had no idea what he was doing -- he barely could read in all honesty."
According to one study, 40 percent of undergraduate students admit to cheating on written assignments, with 3 percent saying they've bought term papers from a professional writing service.
"I would love to tell you we catch all of them. We don't. I think we do a really, really good job. I think we catch them more often than we don't," said Dr. Linda Herlocker, the dean of students at Valencia College's west campus.
Valencia and Seminole State colleges use special software to identify plagiarism, but Walter's paper wasn't flagged when it was run through a program called Turnitin.com for Local 6. That means Walter didn't plagiarize from a source contained in the company's massive database.
The University of Central Florida also uses Turnitin.com to detect plagiarism, as well as testing centers with security cameras on the lookout for signs of cheating.
"The vast majority of our students conduct themselves with integrity," UCF said in a statement. "We have several systems in place to prevent academic dishonesty and to hold students accountable when they violate our standards."
Many colleges also require drafts to be turned in prior to the final paper in an English class, making it harder and less worth it to hire someone to write the paper.
Herlocker said that teachers get to know their students and their writing styles. So just because the paper is original, doesn't mean it won't raise red flags.
"We would look at the history of the student, the level of language they were using, the sentence structure, the complexity of it and so on," Herlocker said. "And with all those things in consideration, (Valencia's communications dean) thought that we would have flagged it as something worth questioning."
Herlocker said academic fraud can lead to expulsion from the college, although first-time violators are usually lectured on how their cheating only hurts themselves and get assigned educational sanctions.
"We'll explain to them it's not just about producing a written paper," Herlocker said. "It's about learning how to research, how to identify scholarly versus non-scholarly sources."
As far as the quality of the paper Walter wrote, Herlocker said a Valencia staff member who reviewed it would give it an A.
She even joked that he should work as a tutor for students, instead of making money by writing the paper for them.
A retired UCF professor who taught upper-level public relations classes also reviewed the paper for Local 6.
"First, the paper is adequately researched and presented," Frank Stansberry said. "Its organization is acceptable -- orderly and building to a conclusion."
He had concerns about how the paper was written in "isolation" as if funding could be increased without cutting something else or raising taxes.
"If I were a member of the target audience, I'd want to know whose money should I reduce to fund this, or whom should I tax to raise additional resources," Stansberry said.
Stansberry was critical of how the paper was written, pointing out how long paragraphs that stretched nearly a page made it "hard to read." He also thought the citations were not specific enough if a reader wanted to check them or find additional material.
The best he would give it is a B- if he were grading it.