With Elance, college cheaters got customized help.

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With Elance, college cheaters got customized help.

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But Gina Gerdes says she's able to distinguish college-style solicitations from legitimate business.

After being laid off from Sprint in April 2002, Gerdes founded an enterprise in Lexington, Missouri, developing business plans for rural companies. But her moneymaker is Proartek LLC, a provider for Elance Online. She generates more than 75 percent of her business selling planning and consulting services and technical writing to clients in New York, California, the United Kingdom and Botswana.

She says students post for papers, and college paper brokerages solicit, too.

"I personally have been approached by a couple of different organizations -- Internet services looking for college papers -- through Elance to write the papers for them," Gerdes says. "That's all they do. They employ a group of writers who sit and write college papers about different topics ... and pay you, like, fifty bucks a paper and then turn around and sell it to the student."

Hawking had his Elance purchases sent to a non-UMKC e-mail account. Behind a computer screen, he could pose as a historian looking for a synopsis of the Civil War or a trumpet player wanting a biography on Louis Armstrong.

Last month, he learned that the identity of a service provider could be equally uncertain.

Hawking's girlfriend, a junior at UMKC, needed a paper for an English class. The couple realized that a university employee was moonlighting on Elance when the project's acceptance came from a service provider with a UMKC e-mail address. "That hit a little close to home," Hawking says. "She was really freaking out."

With a deadline looming, Hawking's girlfriend turned in the paper anyway. A week later, she got it back with little comment and a passing grade.

Hawking estimates he had spent more than $600 on Elance-related projects by the end of May, closing out the school year's expenses with two $70 papers for separate classes in his major. The papers arrived late, so he simply skipped class and e-mailed them to his professors. Behind in credits, he wouldn't graduate for another year anyway.

Four days later, Hawking sat in familiar plastic chairs to take his final exams. In his morning class, the professor returned his first Elance paper without a word. The same thing happened in his afternoon class. He received a zero on both assignments. Both had "plagiarism" scrawled across the top.

Hawking won't challenge the accusations, which caused him to fail the courses. "They don't really have anything to incriminate me on," he says. "But it's one of those things that, if you fight it, it'll turn out worse."

A UMKC official says the college handles an average of fifty cases of academic dishonesty a year. Its 14,000 students are among the approximately 99,000 people enrolled in classes throughout the metro area and Lawrence.

This summer, Hawking will tromp past the arboretum at Linda Hall Library to another drab, air-conditioned auditorium. He's taking summer classes for more hours than he expected while he waits for a university audit to see if the two failed classes will affect his graduation date.

His friend Einstein sits on his back porch in the evenings, after working at the computer job he was offered before he graduated. A slow trail of smoke swirls though a blown-glass pipe pressed against his lips.

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