11 Jun 2018

Couple made $4.6m selling assignments to students

From Checkpoint, 5:24 pm on 11 June 2018

A couple made more than $4.6 million from a website which sold completed assignments to students, Police Commissioner Mike Bush says.

The police commissioner is asking the High Court in Auckland to order Assignments4U website bosses Steven Quan Li and his wife Fan Yang to forfeit more than $4.6 million it said were proceeds of crime.

The website was shut down after media attention and the Qualifications Authority sought an injunction against Ateama Limited, which runs the website, to stop it operating in 2013.

The company was accused of selling essays to students for university and polytechnic courses.

The commissioner's lawyer Mark Harborow said documents and computer hard drives were seized by police from Assignments4U offices, situated around the corner from Radio New Zealand's studios in Auckland's CBD.

Mr Harborow said the hard drives included an operating document that showed students would either get in touch by email or go to the office of Assignments4U on Cook St.

They would supply the essay or assignment question and would also, on occasion, hand over their university computer logon details.

Assignments4U would then pass this on to one of its network of ghost writers who would research and write assignments.

They would sometimes use the student's login details to contact tutors directly.

The assignment would then be completed using text books and sometimes the student's notes before being sent back to Assignments4U and then on to the student who would submit it as their own work.

Mr Harborow said the documents also showed how much Assignments4U charged for its services.

There could also be refunds, depending on the result of the mark. 

Assignments4U aimed to achieve an A or a B grade on assignments.

Sometimes the company also provided a guaranteed mark and there was a sliding scale of refunds if that was not achieved.

However, even if Assignments4U returned a failed paper, the full price was not returned, rather, the student would be given a credit.

For bachelor degrees, Assignments4U would charge up to $185 per 1000 words.

But prices were not fixed and frequent users were given discounts.

Assignments4U would normally pass on 70 percent of the price to the ghost writer. The business would keep 30 percent.

The company drew the line at exams. It would not sit exams on behalf of a students but would provide answers to questions if students could get hold of them in advance.

Mr Harborow said there were 492 jobs and the commissioner estimated that the average price of each job was $406.

Mr Harborow said that calculation was likely to be challenged by Mr Li and Ms Yang's lawyers.

The allegation is that Assigments4U was involved in fraud by enabling students to pass off work as their own when it clearly was not.

The couple's lawyer, David Jones, pointed out that the company also provided proof reading and face-to-face help with assignments.

It also provided an online platform for buying and selling second-hand textbooks.

He questioned the officer in charge of the case, Detective Craig Smith.

Mr Smith agreed that the students who used the website were the principal offenders, but said the website operators knew the assignments were going to be turned in as the student's own work.

He also said he did not know of any students who used the website having been prosecuted by the police.

Mr Jones also questioned him about an early complainant in the case who claimed to have acted as a ghost writer.

He pointed out the complainant opened his letter "I come in peace" and "I am a peaceful inhabiter". The complainant made a number of allegations - implicating a wide range of tertiary institutions - and signed the letter in red ink with a finger print.

Mr Jones asked Mr Smith if he had any concerns about the complainant's mental health.

Mr Smith confirmed that the letter was sensationalised and that the writer was "having a rant". 

However, Mr Smith said the complainant's concerns were borne out when searches of Assignments4U hard drives turned up four assignments that the complainant claimed to have written for students.

The case, before Justice Woolford, has been set down for four weeks.