One of the adjuncts that I work with found that one of their students had posted their assignment on a freelancer website asking for the solution. We joked that he should place a bid and fail them afterwards and had a lengthy discussion about sting operations and entrapment. In the end we came to the conclusion we were not the police and to let the chair know, but ultimately take no action.

I was wondering about the ethics of anonymously giving this student a marked solution with the goal of identifying the student and removing them from the class. In particular, I'm imagining we could write a correct solution with some additional embedded information that will be recognizable when the student turns in their answer (for example, extraneous steps that don't break the solution but don't add any value).

Some additional clarifications:

  • Assume that the student clearly only wants the solutions for a grade and is not asking for assistance in understanding the material
  • This would be done as a private transfer of documents (like email), not a public posting (like a Stack Overflow answer), to avoid issues of other students stumbling upon the personalized solution.
  • We would provide the correct solution, but with some additional embedded data that identifies the source; for example, metadata, comments, and, in the case of code, extraneous steps that don't break the solution, but don't add any value.

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11 Answers 11


[We] had a lengthy discussion about sting operations and entrapment

The distinction between the two is important here. A sting catches someone doing something they were already going to do. Entrapment is where you trick them into doing it in the first place. If you posted an advertisement offering to solve the assignment for them, and some students took you up on that, that would be entrapment, and would definitely be unethical: they might not have cheated if you hadn't posted the advertisement.

But in this case, they have already chosen to cheat. The only thing you can change is whether the assignment that they cheated on is easily recognizable as such. In some cases, it's hard to distinguish between a sting and entrapment. That isn't the case here; there's a (presumably) timestamped job posting the proves they were planning to do this before you got involved.

You should still definitely run this by the department chair or someone first if you decide to do it, though. It looks similar to entrapment even though it isn't, and it's better to justify your actions before you do them, instead of letting it be an unpleasant surprise when the student complains later.

The fact that you'd be getting paid to do the assignment is an issue, as well. Returning the fee to the cheater after catching them probably addresses this issue. (And maybe turn it over to the department in the meantime, to avoid the appearance of potential impropriety.)

Edit: A comment requested an unambiguous conclusion, so: My view is that it is ethical, but it's very close to the border, and either encouraging cheating that would not have otherwise happened or profiting from the actions you take would push it over to the unethical side. And because it's so close, it's important to have some amount of transparency (e.g. by telling the department chair in advance) so as to avoid both the potential for and appearance of impropriety.

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    On top of that - the establishment might not want to know who the cheater is; as they might suspect that it's someone who made a substantial donation to the body and intentionally want to close their eyes to it. (sad but true) As such, ensuring that you've got the go ahead will prevent any anger getting directed at you when their donation is retracted. – UKMonkey Jan 31 at 10:57
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    > "If you posted an advertisement offering to solve the assignment for them, and some students took you up on that, that would be entrapment, and would definitely be unethical: they might not have cheated if you hadn't posted the advertisement." Maybe colloquially, but I believe legally the definition is much more strict. I don't buy that it's "unethical" either - if they're so willing to cheat all it takes is an advertisement of cheating services, there isn't much moral difference between putting out an advert and responding to one put out by them. See lawcomic.net/guide/?p=633 – Muzer Jan 31 at 14:10
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    Entrapment isn't when someone "might not have done" something without your involvement, it's when someone didn't have the inclination without your pressuring them. Answering an ad is just going undercover. Putting out an ad is a sting operation. Entrapment would be something like getting a student drunk and then offering to sell a solution. – Acccumulation Jan 31 at 16:05
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    In this case, they have already chosen to cheat.” No they haven’t, or at least if they’ve “chosen” they haven’t actually followed up on that choice, and might still change their mind. Conspiring to do something wrong (and even doing things that take you part of the way there, like posting an ad online) isn’t the same as actually doing the wrong thing. For example if I post an ad online trying to hire a hit man to kill someone, of course I’d be guilty of a conspiracy crime, which is bad, but only if someone actually ends up being killed will I be charged with a much worse murder offense. – Dan Romik Jan 31 at 17:13
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    @DanRomik Attempting to commit a crime is also a crime in many cases (attempted murder being the most well known example.) They are attempting to cheat. Whether they fail to do so may have practical consequences, but ethically speaking, the choice has already been made. (I like the distinction you made in your answer about punishing them for soliciting solutions rather than for submitting them. I personally believe that you'd be justified in punishing them for both, but doing it your way does avoid some moral ambiguity.) – Ray Jan 31 at 19:43

It is unethical if you plan to punish them for the offense you are “stinging” them to commit (submitting under their own name an assignment done by someone else). But I think it’s ethical, though potentially still problematic, if you plan to only punish them for the offense they have already committed (soliciting solutions for a homework assignment on a freelancer website), and are only engaging in the “sting” to solve the practical problem of identifying the student who has committed that offense.

The point is that there are two dishonest, punishable acts beings discussed here, one that was already committed and the other that is at this point only (presumably) contemplated. The student has already done something that violates most universities’ code of conduct by posting online the solicitation for someone else to do their homework assignment. It would be completely reasonable for you to punish them if you knew who they were. So I don’t see an ethical issue with a sting operation carried out exclusively for the purpose of finding the identity of the offending student, which effectively can be regarded as doing detective work to catch a cheater. You should also plan (and document the plan in writing and/or by telling about it to a trusted party) to give back to the student any money they pay you for the freelance work, to avoid any accusations of acting out of an ulterior motive or having a conflict of interests.

As for punishing the student for the (more egregious) future offense, which at this point is still hypothetical, you should keep in mind that without your “sting” the student might well end up failing to find a freelancer to help them cheat, or simply have a change of heart at the last minute. I think it would be pretty obviously unethical to actively assist them in cheating, which actually increases the chance that they will engage in this behavior, and then punish them for that cheating. The student would be very likely to argue that they would not have gone through with the cheating if it weren’t for your “help”, and, while this may or may not be true, since you can’t say with confidence whether it’s true or not I think it’s actually a pretty compelling argument.

Finally, I mentioned that even the ethical approach is potentially problematic. What I mean is, first of all, the argument that it is ethical is a bit tricky and I’m not 100% sure everyone will agree with it. Moreover, the sting might violate some policy or be disapproved of by the administration for reasons of public relations or other things not directly related to ethics. And second of all, from an educational point of view your role as an educator is not to set traps but to educate, while still maintaining a minimum level of integrity. Since the student has not yet actually copied the homework, if there is any way you can prevent the copying from happening without a sting, I think that would be vastly preferable. (For example, you could email the class and make it clear you are aware of the illicit use of the freelancer website, and warn about severe consequences for anyone caught using it, and maybe even announce a change in the assignment due to this violation, or something along those lines that could deter the cheater.)


  1. People are saying OP’s proposed sting does not qualify as “entrapment” as it is usually defined. Fine, I edited that word out, but stand behind the rest of what I wrote.

  2. People are saying the student has already cheated (or “already chosen to cheat”) and some don’t seem to buy into my distinction between the offense already committed and the one that lies in the future. To drive home this distinction, consider this hypothetical scenario: OP doesn’t do the sting but lets affairs run their course. The student who advertised the freelancer job doesn’t end up hiring a freelancer (let’s say OP can see this on the website). A week later he walks into OP’s office and confessed that it he tried to hire a freelancer and asks for forgiveness. He swears he ended up actually doing the assignment, and even has evidence to prove this - dated emails exchanged with his older brother asking him some technical questions, log files on Dropbox with earlier drafts, etc.

    My question is: should we punish the student in this situation with the same severity as in the scenario where he did submit the copied assignment, and later still confessed without any prompting? It seems to me that those who think he “already chose to cheat”, effectively branding himself forever as a cheater, should think that the exact same punishment is called for (except maybe that he should also get 0 on the assignment since he never did it, but otherwise the same). And if you don’t think the same punishment is appropriate, why doesn’t that then have implications about the ethics in OP’s question?

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    Sorry, but if taking their money in a scheme is wrong, then planning to give it back isn't going to save you. – Buffy Jan 31 at 1:07
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    Well, it’s better if the plan to return the money is documented, to avoid people getting the wrong idea. Maybe that’s what you meant. – Dan Romik Jan 31 at 2:47
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    There seems to be a lot of people in this thread working off an erroneous definition of entrapment. An illustrated guide is here: thecriminallawyer.tumblr.com/post/19810672629/… , for it to be entrapment one of the elements that has to be present is overcoming resistance. ... ["Will you buy me drugs", "yes!" -> not entrapment. ] ... ["Will you buy me drugs", "No.", "but pleeeeease, you gotta or bad things will happen!", "..... OK" -> entrapment. ] It's only entrapment if OP first convinced the student to buy the answers online. – Murphy Jan 31 at 12:34
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    Maybe you should talk to university lawyers first. If such a scheme results in a lawsuit, the university will certainly be named as a defendant. – Buffy Jan 31 at 12:34
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    @Acccumulation the distinction is perfectly logical. If you conspire to commit a crime, say by posting an ad trying to hire a hitman to kill someone, you would be guilty of (IANAL) something like conspiracy to commit murder. Only if a murder is committed will you be guilty of actually being an accessory to murder, which is a separate (and much worse) offense. The law wants people to change their mind at the last minute before doing bad things. (So should OP.) So it makes sense to have two separate concepts of wrongdoing, one for planning to do something bad and one for actually doing it. – Dan Romik Jan 31 at 17:17

What about a constructive approach? Since you are already familiar with the website the student is using, why not show him the way to the solution instead of handing it to him in full?

I do not know about the specifics of your situation, but in my opinion you should try to positively influence the student rather than playing a prank.

(I'd still find it pretty funny, though.)

Sending him a modified solution can create new problems: what are you going to do if half of the class has a marked solution?

In my opinion, this approach would be ethically questionable at best, because you are actively helping the student to fail.

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    Not sure I agree; while "positively influencing the student" sounds nice, this is a student who is trying to buy answers, which is unfair to everyone else in the class. In any case, the question asks about legal/ethical implications of giving flagged solutions to identify cheaters, not for brainstorming possible alternative approaches. – cag51 Jan 30 at 21:36
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    +1 University is neither a competition, nor are academic teachers judges who have to hand out punishment at any attempted wrongdoing. Catch and caution him before he has actually cheated, and then teach him how to do it correctly, which is what you're payed for anyway. – Karl Jan 30 at 21:56
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    "what are you going to do if half of the class has a marked solution?" Then half the class fails. – Acccumulation Jan 31 at 16:27
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    @Acccumulation More to the point, the teacher KNOWS THE EXTENT OF CHEATING in their class. That's an excellent reason to do it! – Shawn V. Wilson Feb 1 at 6:49
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    +1: I think discussing in private how one could catch the student and what one then do to them may be a good way for frustrated academic staff to blow off steam. But if you want the students to be open and honest towards you, you should also be open and honest. This seems to me calls rather for an educational part about freelancing websites in the next lecture/seminar and to a private professional talk to the student. – cbeleites Feb 1 at 19:05

No, it is not unethical. It's the student's fault for using your marked solution when he or she shouldn't have. If the student is honest, nothing will happen; only dishonest students will have problems.

Here's something comparable: in 2013, journalist John Bohannon submitted intentionally fake papers to several open access journals. He did this as a test to see which are predatory (i.e. they don't perform peer review and just publish anything for money). You can read more about this at its Wikipedia article, as well as the results of the sting as published in Science. Note that although this operation generated loads of comments and criticisms, nobody faulted John Bohannon for acting unethically, including victims that failed the test. They know that if they were acting honestly, they would not have failed. Some of the "victims" who passed were even flattered:

Other publishers are glad to have dodged the bullet. "It is a relief to know that our system is working," says Paul Peters, chief strategy officer of Hindawi, an open-access publisher in Cairo. Hindawi is an enormous operation: a 1000-strong editorial staff handling more than 25,000 articles per year from 559 journals. When Hindawi began expanding into open-access publishing in 2004, Peters admits, "we looked amateurish." But since then, he says, "publication ethics" has been their mantra. Peer reviewers at one Hindawi journal, Chemotherapy Research and Practice, rejected my paper after identifying its glaring faults. An editor recommended I try another Hindawi journal, ISRN Oncology; it, too, rejected my submission.

Here is something else that's comparable: the Sokal affair, where a physicist submitted a nonsense paper to a postmodern journal and tricked it into publishing nonsense. This time, the journal's editors were aggrieved. But if you read that article, you'll see why:

... Later, after Sokal's self-exposure of his pseudoscientific hoax article in the journal Lingua Franca, the Social Text editors said in a published essay that they had requested editorial changes that Sokal refused to make, and had had concerns about the quality of the writing, stating "We requested him (a) to excise a good deal of the philosophical speculation and (b) to excise most of his footnotes". Nonetheless, despite subsequently designating the physicist as having been a "difficult, uncooperative author", and noting that such writers were "well known to journal editors", Social Text published the article in acknowledgment of the author's credentials in the May 1996 Spring/Summer "Science Wars" issue.

In essence, the editors of the journal were acting honestly in compliance with their stated purpose. If they wound up publishing nonsense anyway, it was because they didn't understand quantum physics. Since they're social scientists, nobody can fault them for that either.

Bottom line: as long as you set this up in such a way that only dishonest students will fail, you're not acting unethically.

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    @DanRomik I'd say that honesty is doing the right thing even when tempted - for the same reason, "she tempted me with her provocative dressing" isn't an excuse for rape. – Allure Jan 31 at 21:58
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    @Buffy that's a good point. You might be interested: telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/11100041/… Fifi was definitely paid to do what she did. Was it justified? My personal answer is yes, but I'll grant that some people will not approve of what happened. – Allure Jan 31 at 22:40
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    @J.ChrisCompton of course it’s wrong, I never said it wouldn’t be wrong. My point was that it may (or may not, depending on other complicated factors) be wrong for me to deliberately engineer a situation that would cause someone else to act dishonestly when they might not do so otherwise. – Dan Romik Feb 1 at 18:08
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    @DanRomik I see what you're saying now... thought you were headed someplace different - my fault. Thank you for clarifying! – J. Chris Compton Feb 1 at 19:25
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    @aidanh010 thanks for the link, it's the first time I've heard of this case. Still, I think it proves the point: if well-meaning people acting honestly (as in the case of the duped editors) can fail the test, it can lead to controversy. In the case of the OP's question, no honest student is going to fail, so it probably won't lead to controversy. – Allure Feb 4 at 14:52

On a practical level, I think you should aim to prevent rather than punish as that works better in theory and in reality.

In this situation I would publicly show the sollicitation (anonymized) as well as put in a really too-low-priced bit (=no hint of profiteering) under your own name&affiliation so they know they're definitely caught. This way you only show one way you're being alert (and your other students may be posting requests on/in another forum/language you're not familiar with). [I would actually hint you check other language requests, if possible using the second not first most frequent further language amongst your students; for example the anonymized screenshot shows browser tabs of other-language forums being open (very natural/accidental looking, they're between URL and post!).]

Because I actually caught a student trying to consult during an exam notes hidden in the toilet cistern: After lots of blah (read, unpaid hours of work for a whole committee) the student got no punishment at all (I'm convinced because an overseas student in the UK is a well-paying client). Beyond showing the whole class there's nothing to lose in attempting to cheat (further increasing your guard-dog duties you never wanted), even if eventually punished the delay between crime and punishment makes it ineffective as a deterrent; at best warns them to be more clever. The assertion in other answers that the student has already broken the rules doesn't really hold: The dean ruled that even though the student demonstrably hid the notes before and re-opened the cistern during the exam, since I'd taken away the notes the student hadn't benefitted so no actual unfair benefit occurred and the exam results stand; if anything, they were disadvantaged the second exam due to the stress of knowing they're discovered.

This is the reality in academia: The student has spent 5min posting a request online, maybe wanting to go through with it maybe not (maybe testing you're aware or not?); now a whole bunch of academics with better things to do are spending many hours on this useless non-academic (policing?) task, with a very small probability of effective punishment/deterrent at the end.

Students are already wise to the fact that you just take known-good essays, run it 2--3 turns of GoogleTranslate, and edit it to be grammatical again (with the original for meaning) and all TurnItIn/fraud-checking software will at best suggest it's suspect.


I wouldn't do it.

  1. You're putting that answer out there and it may get used or transmitted to others. So you are spreading both the right answer (to cheaters, perhaps not limited to one student) and spreading a flaw (even if the flaw is just fluff in the middle...it is still flawed thinking).

  2. Don't think the risk/reward is worth it. It's not that I'm sympathetic to cheaters or endorse liberal student's rights (the opposite). But don't stick your hand into a bee's nest. You don't know how this little drama will progress...

An alternate approach: Just tell the class that you found the posting. Inform the class that you thought about stinging and have decided not to do it (for now). And that use of such resources is cheating and if ever discovered will result in course failure and school punishment (which can include expulsion).

P.s. I know I will get mucho grief for this, but I strongly urge you to consider using in class exams versus projects or turned in homework. Obviously there are some design courses where this is not feasible. But I think exams are falsely deprecated. Students learn a lot in preparing for exams, taking them, and then seeing the corrections. Project work tends to be loved by college teachers since it allows more complex material to be dealt with and because it mimics research they do (or did when grad students). But it is not necessarily as pedagogically helpful in building basic toolkits. (Consider R. Feynman spoke glowingly dedades later of the benefits of speed algebra!) Also, it is definitely more prone to outright or borderline cheating.


As long as it is completely unambiguous that the student intends to cheat, I do not think it would be unethical to "entrap" them. The important principle is that, in your capacity as the "freelancer" providing the "flagged solution", you do not at any point encourage or incite the student to cheat.

When the student is caught, he/she will probably claim that he/she only wanted some guidance, not the solution, and that the "freelancer" misinterpreted his/her wishes. To ensure that you cannot be accused of inciting misconduct, it is important that the written evidence (electronic-mail correspondence is admissible as evidence in a court of law) demonstrates beyond doubt that, after having made a good faith effort to assist the student to an extent that would not constitute cheating, the student insisted, on his/her own initiative, upon having the complete solution.

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    What would OP gain from failing the student, other than the right to brag in future classes? For the student on the other hand, failing or being removed from the class could have way more severe negative consequences. – Jonas Schwarz Jan 30 at 21:58
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    And you take their money. Don't neglect that part. – Buffy Jan 30 at 22:29
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    @JonasSchwarz, surely the question is what the entire university loses from not failing the student. If the consequences of being caught cheating are not worse than the consequences of not doing the work at all, the "rational" thing to do is to cheat when you fear not being able to submit the work. – Peter Taylor Jan 31 at 8:41

The usual ethics-is-complex caveat aside: I can't see how this is could be completely free of unethical behaviour. At a very simple level, you are potentially harming this student. By giving them an answer they are more likely to use it, which is bad for everyone. You could argue this is not much more likely but you'd have to be pretty certain and I don't see how you could be.

On the 'would they follow through' side, while legal and moral are not the same thing, the universality of the general principle of: 'testing the water is not the same as taking the plunge' in law is there for a reason. As is the less discussed (and maybe less universal): 'if you make it easy/tempting for someone it is less of a crime'. (I expect push back on this but its quite common and I think reasonable.)

There's more nuanced things to consider too. Like:

Is it ethical for you to be hunting down this sort of behaviour? Is a separate question to: Is the hunting itself ok? You are close to the student and have a position of power. Questions of fairness etc are hard to remove.


One issue I see here, that I haven't seen addressed in the other answers, is that even if you were to inform the proper channels, answer the bid and deliver a "rigged" solution, the student might a) still not use it, or b) modify it before submitting. I would imagine a) as a simple case of cold feet, the developer would still get paid, but the student might have a change of heart in the last minute. b) is more interesting, as the student might use just the general idea, a part of the solution, or even feel that it is too advanced and attempt to strip it down by introducing deliberate flaws in order to avoid suspicion that it is not their own work (assuming still that there is no reason for the student to believe that there is anything wrong with the guy who did the work).

The first point is, there is a plausible scenario in which you can't identify the student, but have done their job for them and even gotten paid (I assume that the money wouldn't be kept, but it is the transaction that matters).

The second point is, that in this case, you miss the opportunity to educate. If the student isn't identified, they might try again. Will you do the new assignment again and hoping that this time it leads to student? Also, other students are not deterred from acting similarly, especially after the word gets out that someone put the homework assignment on some webpage and got it done by a freelancer. You can't come into class and tell that you found the ad and prepared a sting operation by doing someone's homework, but the offender eluded it somehow, can you?

So, for the question about ethics, while the initial motive to catch someone red handed is in my opinion ethical, the result in case of failure is unethical (or "more unethical"). If you fail, you did the homework on behalf of a student (which is worse than if someone else did it), you got money for it (whatever you do with it, the student still paid to get the work done, and it got done without consequences by none other than you, that angle matters in my mind), and you didn't deter similar behavior in the future, neither of the offending student nor of the rest of the class. Which side outweighs the other ethically can be debated, but I think it comes at a great risk, and would recommend against it.

Someone might ask: "Should I then do nothing and let them cheat???". If such a sting operation were the only resort, I would seriously consider myself outplayed and do nothing rather than risk being part of it. I would of course keep a lookout when the homework is handed in. I would also proactively tailor the homework so that it depends heavily on the coursework and hope that an outside expert would either have to invest a non-trivial amount of time to familiarize himself with the material (which might be infeasible in terms of cost, however the pay arrangement) or have his solution stand out among the other students'.

As a final thought, consider that if you don't answer their ad, no one else might.


Are you sure your proof will hold?

Assume they turn in this solution. Now you have to proof, they hired you as freelancer and they can claim, that they maybe collaborated with someone who had a really nice solution without knowing of the freelancer. In the worst case, they can insist on "I do not know, why others used zyjkbk as variable name as well and I do not care if you cannot proof anything but this variable name".

So if you want to proof this misconduct, you better catch them e.g. by using his real name on the website, not by using marked solutions.

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    This seems to be based on a misunderstanding of what sort of proof is necessary in cases of academic dishonesty. – Tobias Kildetoft Feb 1 at 11:54

I think that the legality of doing this would be in question in a lot of places. I doubt that the police could do a similar thing (in the US) without first obtaining a court order, for example.

I think the ethics of it might also be questionable, but I think a discussion with an ethicist might be in order. The reason for the requirement for a court order, by the way, is to get an independent, non interested, opinion as to the propriety, as well as the legality.

You made the right decision IMO to avoid doing this and to be cautious about it.

However, if students are informed specifically or generally that such sites are monitored it might at least cut down on the practice. Of course it would be more useful if such assignments could be marked on those sites when they appear.

Ultimately, of course, while we want to "catch a thief" it is better all around if we can prevent the theft in the first place.

Based on the comments here let me add that I haven't claimed that the activity is definitely illegal anywhere, only that it might be. Moreover, my suggestions to avoid this action is to save people from potential grief that they might suffer by taking an action that "seems fair, but is foul". I try not to recommend risky behavior and generally caution people against it. Your desires may differ, of course.

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    What would be illegal? – Azor Ahai Jan 30 at 17:03
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    Hard to see how this is fraud or at all questionably legal. One isn't getting money for the solution. And I'm not sure why you think that police would need a court order to do something similar. There are a lot of misconceptions about entrapment but the actual circumstances where it legally constitutes entrapment are extremely narrow en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entrapment#United_States . – JoshuaZ Jan 30 at 17:15
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    @Buffy I'm getting the sense you're speculating about fraud. I don't know much about what defines fraud, so I asked you. When you have an actual legal explanation of what would be illegal, please share it with us. – Azor Ahai Jan 30 at 17:58
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    Things are not legal or illegal by analogy. Speculating that the legality of an action "would be in question in a lot of places" without any justification or legal expertise is, in my opinion, unhelpful. – Pete L. Clark Jan 30 at 18:05
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    I'm not a lawyer, but agents of the government have to follow a stricter line then private citizens as to what is legal and what is illegal. If this is a state supported school, issues of dishonesty and entrapment may cross a line that the same behavior in a private school would not. – Charles E. Grant Jan 30 at 18:06

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