Nov. 19, 2004 — -- The old saying that "winners never cheat and cheaters never win" doesn't carry much weight on college campuses. Surveys of high school and college students show that most of them, when asked anonymously, admit they have cheated at least once. Why? And how do they get away with it?
Go to a campus, and many students will tell you cheating's a bad thing. But others admit to it openly without a hint of remorse.
We posted a notice on ABCNEWS.com, saying we were investigating cheating. One student e-mailed us that he'd paid someone to write a paper for him and would be happy to talk about it. He wasn't at all ashamed of it.
The student said, "Is it worth my time to go research and find information on a topic that I'm not interested in? It's not worth my time. So I paid somebody else to do it."
The student attended a university we agreed not to name. He gave us the name of the paper-writing company he went to, the amount of money he paid and a copy of the paper itself. But after I gave him a hard time about what he'd done, he asked us to disguise him and claimed that some of what he told us was not true. I don't know what to believe, but plenty of students say what he said: that cheating is common, and many students don't view it as a big deal.
"People are pretty low-key about cheating" at his school, he said. Nobody's upset about it. "It's more like 'Damn, I should have done it myself. Gotten the A,' " he said.
Jennifer, an intern at ABC, admitted to plagiarizing part of a paper when she learned 20/20 was working on this story. Jennifer was among 10 students at her school who were caught plagiarizing that semester.
Her professor thought phrases in her paper sounded familiar, so he did a search on Google and found they came verbatim from sources on the Internet. He gave Jennifer an "F."
If she's caught again, she'll be expelled, but Jennifer doesn't see why it's such a big deal.
"I see it as basically survival and what you need to do to get by," she said.
She said taking someone else's work and pretending it's yours is acceptable "if it's the same thing that you wanted to say."
Students told us they cheat in many ways.
Some write on a rubber band, which become legible when they stretch it. Others put test answers on water bottle labels. (The water magnifies the tiny print.)
And now that we have all kinds of little computers, teachers often let students use them as calculators during tests. One new trick is to store probable answers in the computer. If the teacher walks by, a cheating student taps the screen to bring the calculator back.
At the University of Maryland, 12 students were caught using text messages on cell phones to cheat. At some schools they'd be expelled, but at Maryland they were given another chance.
What may be the most common and easiest way to cheat today is to go to the Internet, where students have access to countless articles they can try to pass off as their own.
Internet plagiarism often works, but some schools now subscribe to a computerized service called Turnitin.com that compares papers instantly to billions of pages on the Internet. Any plagiarized text is highlighted. Turnitin founder John Barrie says schools submit about 20,000-30,000 papers per day, and his company finds plagiarism in about 30 percent of those cases.
Buying a "custom" paper is a way students get around programs like Turnitin. On the Internet there are hundreds of places, like SchoolSucks.com, that offer term papers written by others, for a price -- maybe $15 per page -- written just for you.
Anna Popielarz owns a paper mill Web site called CustomPapers.com. She says the papers she sells will not be caught by plagiarism software. Like the students who cheat, Popielarz doesn't show any shame.
We sent an anonymous request to her Web site to write a paper for us. The five-page paper we bought for $99 was riddled with typos and misspellings. But Popielarz says her customers are satisfied.
"We get customers thanking us. And they usually give us good feedback on their grades," she said.
She said her company is providing a service for students, not helping them cheat. "They don't have to turn the paper in as their own. They can just use it as the model paper. ... You can't really blame me for students cheating," she said.
Yes, I can.
If you are a student with money, you may be able to get someone else todo work for you.
At the prestigious University of Southern California, where tuition is nearly $30,000 per year, commencement speaker Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., congratulated students for their achievements. "This is day to bask in praise and you've earned it," he told them.
In that crowd were students who earned their degrees through their own hard work, but according to former USC student Elena Martinez, there was one student who did not.
20/20 talked with Martinez who'd worked hard for the chance to go to USC. To raise the money for tuition she joined the Army Reserve, worked summers and took out student loans.
Martinez wasn't accustomed to being among peers who came from rich families. She was stunned to learn that the young woman who was her roommate her freshman year came from one of America's wealthiest families.
In fact, Martinez's roommate, Paige Laurie, recently had a sports stadium at a major university named in her honor. Laurie's parents donated money to the school and wanted it named for their daughter. Paige Laurie is a granddaughter of one of the founders of Wal-Mart. Her mother has more than $2 billion. Her father owns the St. Louis Blues hockey team.
Laurie's parents said they wanted the stadium named after her because they were proud of her.
But I don't think they knew that Martinez says she did much of Paige's schoolwork for her -- for money.
"She's always had everything done for her, I think. I mean, when she first came I taught her how to do her laundry. I did some of it for her sometimes," Martinez said.
Martinez says Laurie had more time to party and meet celebrities, because she was paid to do Laurie's work for her.
Martinez says it began freshman year, when the heiress asked her to write a paper for her.
"I just sort of thought, I'm trying to get to know her and I'll help her out. I'll help her out this time," Martinez said.
Martinez admits it wasn't a good thing to do, but says it turned out great for her because she earned spending money for the week.
What started as a favor became kind of a job.
Martinez dropped out of USC, because she couldn't afford it. She moved back home, but her computer files show she continued cheating for Laurie.
And she says Laurie became fairly demanding about the work she paid Martinez to do for her, yelling at her because she had failed tocapitalize and italicize two words on a paper she wrote for her.
Martinez says that over three-and-a half-years she earned about $20,000 doing Laurie's assignments. At least one of her teachers appeared to notice that Laurie's homework was better than her in-class work.
"Very well written," wrote the professor. "Much better than your exam."
Though she didn't go to Laurie's classes or take her in-class exams, Martinez wrote dozens of papers for her.
Elena's mother, Mary Martinez, didn't approve. But she didn't stop Elena either.
When I confronted her about that, she said, "I have always encouraged Elena to make her own decisions." Eventually she said she even helped her daughter cheat for Laurie. She figured it exposed her daughter to educational opportunities she couldn't afford.
Martinez said Laurie gave her personal information to make it easier for her to correspond with Laurie's professors. "She gave me her e-mail account, her password and everything and actually most of her teachers' e-mail addresses so that any time I had a question or I needed to submit something I'd just do it for her, as her," she said.
"I learned a lot in her classes," Martinez said.
At least someone got an education.
Paige Laurie would not talk to 20/20. A spokesperson for the family released this statement: "Paige Laurie's college record is a private matter and we will have no other comment."
Martinez said she's telling her story because she knows what she did was wrong. "I'm not going to keep this hidden because maybe people will see what's going on in our schools. Maybe there will be some change," she said.
Martinez has been taking classes at a community college but she'd like to return to USC to get a degree.
Martinez sent 20/20 the last e-mails she says she got from Laurie, just this fall. Martinez says this time Laurie asked her to cheat for a friend.
Martinez says she declined.