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‘The Computer Ate My Homework’: How to Detect Fake Techno-Excuses

Forget about making up stories about sick relatives. There’s a new way to get around homework deadlines by sending professors corrupted documents, buying a student extra time because the professor will likely blame computer errors and take hours or days to ask for a new version. There are, however, ways to identify the frauds.

Corrupted-Files.com, a Web site developed in December as a joke, its owner says, offers unreadable Word, Excel, or PowerPoint files that appear, at first glance, to be legitimate. Students can submit them via e-mail to professors in place of real papers to get a deadline extension without late penalties. For $3.95, the site promises a “completed” assignment file will be sent to the buyer within 12 hours, to be renamed and submitted by the new owner. By the time a professor gives up on the bogus file, in theory, a student will have been able to complete the actual assignment.

“I made CF in 3 hours while watching old episodes of Seinfeld, so if any inspiration, it was George Costanza, the sad king of excuses,” the site’s owner, who didn’t want his name used, said in an e-mail message. “The site was really all just one big goof.”

He added that he didn’t believe his Web site promoted cheating, since its users are not plagiarizing others or using an essay mill, but just buying some extra time.

The corrupted-file idea could work, said T. Mills Kelly, an associate dean at George Mason University, because faculty members are often busy with work and grading, and used to getting an occasional corrupted file. But Mr. Kelly says it would not work with him.

“Every time a student e-mails me a paper, I open the file to make sure that it will open so I know that the paper is turned in, and if it doesn’t work, I write them on the spot: ‘You have to send me a new copy,’” he said. “If they don’t send it right away, my brain starts ticking over.”

Mr. Kelly said that by checking a document’s properties, anyone can see what computer the file was created on and on what date, as well as how many times the file has been edited.

“What are the odds that you wrote a 10-page paper 10 minutes before you e-mailed it to me, without an edit?” he asked, adding that circumventing the system by intentionally using a corrupted file was cheating. “I always recommend failure for the course.”

It seems a corrupted file purchased by The Chronicle — which had a glitch and arrived several hours late — would pass some of Mr. Kelly’s tests, but not all of them: The file’s original author was hidden, but the creation and edit dates and times were marked for the time the document was downloaded from the Web site.

After the owner of the Web site was contacted by reporters, it changed slightly. Now the comments section reads: “If you need an extension, just be honest and ask your professor before you use a corrupted file.” —Marc Beja

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