There are a lot of positive things about going to university – destroying your sense of reality with ketamine, bonding over STDs, that sort of thing – but there's unfortunately also one terrible thing: the actual work.
Most students prefer drinking and partying to writing papers, which is probably why an estimated 115,000 of them cheat each year by paying other people to do their work. This cheating mostly entails using essay ghost-writing companies, one of which I actually used to work for. However, there are also those who offer to do statistical analyses for students whose work contains a scientific or mathematical component.
The problem is: if you attempt to scam your university by paying someone else to do your work, you're likely to end up getting scammed yourself. In the case of essay writing, a lot of the companies provide sub-par papers that might not even guarantee a pass. When it comes to statistics, the outcome might be even worse; the so-called statisticians often have no statistical background whatsoever, and deliver a set of meaningless figures designed to be so complicated that the customers have no idea whether or not they're accurate until it's too late.
I first became aware of the thriving trade in nonsense-statistics after taking on a finance paper during my time as an essay ghost-writer and realising I'd bitten off more than I could chew. I hadn't read the instructions properly before committing, and it involved a complex statistical analysis aimed at predicting hypothetical outcomes on the stock market. I figured the only solution was to subcontract the analytical component out to a statistics expert.
Upon receiving the stats, I noticed some tell-tale signs that I'd been given gibberish. The so-called expert had indicated that the chances of some of the different outcomes occurring were exactly the same as one another, to six decimal places, which even a statistical illiterate like me could tell was bullshit. I refused to pay and tried a couple of other budget stats-experts, but got similar results. One tried to tell me there was a 100 percent likelihood of certain, seemingly-unlikely outcomes happening. Absurdly, another claimed the probabilities for some outcomes were over 100 percent.
I eventually ended up paying a reputable statistician, who confirmed what I already knew: the stats I'd been given weren't just incorrect, they'd been plucked from thin air. The graphs and complicated-looking diagrams were completely meaningless, and the description of the methods was just a stream of statistical jargon that had been haphazardly jigsawed together. The scammers had basically written down any old bollocks and tried to sell it to me for £100.
I was curious to find out exactly how this scam works, given that a substantial proportion of the customers must end up being disgruntled and withholding payment, so I got back in touch with Bilal*, the first fake-stats expert I'd used.
Bilal told me that, although a substantial number of his clients refused to pay, he still managed to fool enough people into handing over the cash to make a good living. "Customers who are uneducated about statistics have no idea what they're looking at," he explained. "The fact I'm fabricating the statistics rather than actually doing the analysis makes it more profitable because it takes less time."
He also claimed that there are actually more fake statisticians advertising their services on freelancing websites than genuine ones. "The ratio of fabricated statistics is almost 80 percent out of 100 percent," he told me. As if it needs to be said, the fact he needed to point out that the 80 percent was out of 100 suggested he didn't know a huge amount about statistics.
The profitability of this scam is boosted by those essay ghost-writers who are given a budget to outsource stats-work but don't actually care if what they get back is accurate. They'll often purchase fake statistics in full knowledge that they're wrong because they're the cheapest available option, and then keep the rest of the budget for themselves. Crucially, students typically pay essay writing companies upon completion of the work – not when they receive their grades – and there's a clause in the contract that payment is not dependent upon a pass. By the time they find out they've been given shoddy stats, it's already too late.
During my time as an essay writer, I worked for a while as part of a team. I kept in contact with some of the other members, and while writing this story asked if they'd had any experiences with fake statisticians. Chris*, a veteran essay-cheat based in Latin America, told me he regularly used their services and that they made his job massively more profitable. "I'm given $500 (£385) for some analyses, but can pay a scammer $75 (£58)," he explained. "I know I'll be getting shit, but make it clear to the essay agency before taking on the order that I don't know about stats and can't be held responsible for anything the stats guy does. If the client complains, the agency can't blame me."
Essay-writing agencies generally couldn't care less what happens after they've been paid, as they rely on a high volume of new customers rather than repeat custom. This leaves the student with few options for recourse, which online-fraud expert Professor Michael Levi says is the reason the perpetrators of fake-stats scams get away with it. "Who do you complain to? You've done an illicit thing," he says. "It's a classic case of 'put your victims in a position that makes it difficult for them to complain'."
So, if you find yourself getting palmed off with some dodgy stats, the best thing to do is suck it up and be more careful next time. According to Levi, very little can be done to stop this scam; the police aren't likely to prioritise it because students shouldn't be cheating in the first place, and attempts to warn people that it exists would have to be repeated each year as new students enter the university system.
Here's a suggestion: how about doing your own work? That way, your statistics might be shit, but at least they won't be unconvincingly fabricated by someone who says things like "80 percent out of 100 percent".