Why Fake Conference Scams Continue to be So Effective

Good scams work because they don’t look like scams. It’s that simple. Many professional scammers have been around for a long time. Like all good professionals, they’ve learned from their mistakes. That’s why scams continue to claim victims. Scammers know their own weak points and, over the years, have shored them up. They have learned to manipulate greed, fear, and emotional attachments to get what they ultimately seek… money. As these scams get more polished, they claim victims who once believed they could never fall for a scam.

Conference scams are a variation on business email compromise (BEC) scams. However, unlike true BECs, they don’t need to take over an email account to work their evil. They are spear phishing scams, which means the scammers need to construct an email that looks legitimate to the victim. They do this by targeting individuals who they have researched in advance. As the graph below, based on F.B.I, data, shows, these scams are on the increase and are costing companies billions of dollars.

spear phishing victims

These scams can begin in several ways. One way is to leverage a specific conference. They may try to find lists of past attendees at the conference which would, effectively, give them a list of potential victims. Although such lists aren’t usually publicly available, many conference sites will agree to send this information if you fill out a form. Anyone can find out what conferences are coming up by going to a site such as Allconferences.com. If the scammers can’t get a list of attendees, they may find people who may be interested in a particular conference by looking for them on sites like LinkedIn. As such, LinkedIn serves as a searchable database.

Once the scammers find people who might be interested in a particular conference (a.k.a potential victims), they will send them emails or contact them through social media sites. They may pretend to be the person who organizes the conference and use a name that the victim would be familiar with.

The email will be an invitation, normally to speak at the event or chair a discussion of some sort. The scammers will promise to pay all fees, including all transportation, meals, and hotel costs. It is a tempting offer. The email will then state that you must pay for a reservation at a hotel. They explain this as a sort of insurance policy. They don’t want people to promise to go and then not show up. They don’t want people to take advantage of the transportation provided and not attend the conference. The hotel costs, they say, will be reimbursed at the end of the stay.

Here is an example of a scam email.

“You are invited to an international global combined conference against Child abuse/Racism and human trafficking. It is the 13th annual Human Traficking and Justice Conference. The conference is been organized by the human rights and social welfare organization, the (H.R.W.O) also known as human rights world organization in collaboration with the United Nations UN & the American electric power AEP.

These events will take place from 22nd- 23th of September 2018 at the (University of Toledo Student Union, Toledo Ohio United States of America) and the second phase will take place from 23rd – 27th of November 2018 in the (Dubai Banquet Hall. Dubai, United Arab Emirates.)

 If you are interested in participating and you want to represent your country to be in UNITED STATES OF AMERICA & UNITED ARAB EMIRATES for this events, Kindly write us an email to our organizing committee email below for details and information as our conference organizing committee and donor sponsor’s will take full responsibility of all registered participants VISA arrangements for the United states  and that includes your round trip AIR TICKETS to both events.

Write us directly to our Organizing Committee Contact Email in the bracket :{  hrwodesk@usa.com  } 

Do inform them that you were invited by Michael Thomas,The secretary of this Organization { H.R.W.O}.

Tell them that you will need visa to the USA so that they can be responsible for your visa and air ticket arrangements.”

 Alas, as is common in most such scam emails that originate in foreign countries, the scammers’ inept use of grammar subverts their goals. Besides, why would the “American electric power” be sponsoring a conference on child abuse and racism?  Something should seem fishy, or phishy. The above letter seems to be setting the victim up to register for the conference, which, if done on a compromised site, would give the criminals control over the victim’s personal data, including credit card information. Sometimes they will also ask for a registration fee.

Often, the victim is told to go to a specific hotel website to make a reservation. The website looks legitimate but is actually fake, like the one shown below.

conference fake hotel

Any personal information that a victim puts in the reservation form will be the property of the scammers. The website may, on the surface, look legitimate because it either uses a clone of a legitimate website or portions of several actual hotel websites. Check the URL to see if it looks at all legitimate. Do a search on the hotel name to see if another site, the real site, shows up with a more legitimate URL.

It should be noted that the recent increase in the success rate for these scams can be tied to the fact that the scammers are now making elaborate brochures about the fake conference which even include detailed schedules and lists of speakers. Here is a schedule from a fake conference whose title alone should give one pause.

fake conference announce

fake conference schedule

Recently, a new wrinkle has appeared in these scams. The perpetrators have found actual articles published by the potential victims and have referenced them in their conference invitations. Here is an example.

“Hope you are doing well.

We respect your commitment towards time& work but I am writing this email since our scientific committee had a glance on one of your research publication titled “Selective identification and quantification of saccharin by liquid chromatography and fluorescence detection.” which is very impressive. Your work is a perfect fit for our summit,”

 Some scammers are happy to get your personal information or money and slip away. However, others hide behind fake organizations that offer what are called, “predatory conferences”. They will even agree to publish your scholarly article… all for a price. The reason these are not outright scams is that these organizations sometimes actually hold conferences, though they are nothing close to a professional conference organized around a core discipline. If you were to turn up at such a conference, you would find speakers on anything from quantum mechanics to nursing.  The venue, if it exists, would be of low quality. Nothing is what the attendees were led to expect. False advertising abounds. As one victim wrote, “I recently found an advert for a conference which actually advertised a talk by myself. I had no idea of this, not sure if they had a look-a-like to give the talk – as it certainly was not me!” Others have submitted proposals to give presentations on flying pigs and birds that spend there entire life at the bottom of the sea. Both were accepted. Still, others have found themselves listed as conference organizers when they knew absolutely nothing about the conferences.

The fake conference organizers will even send a receipt upon payment of the abnormally high registration fee (around $1,000). If the university is picking up the tab, this receipt seems to validate the conference and the scammers get paid. Canceling attendance will not lead to a return of the registration fee.

Once again, scammers are appealing to basic human emotions to get their payoff. Publish or perish is real. Academics need to be published to get or keep a good job. Being a speaker at an international conference also looks good on a resume. Under this pressure to perform, the victim can overlook warning signs and opt to attend these shady conferences.  The names of these predatory conference organizers change on a daily basis so it is sometimes difficult to tell if they are valid or not. If you are a nonnative English speaker, you may overlook grammar mistakes. Even if you are a native speaker, you may forgive such mistakes in the assumption that the invitation is coming from a foreign country. Thus, the scams continue to work and intelligent, professional people continue to be scammed out of vast amounts of money.

Be suspicious of any unsolicited conference invitations, even if the conference appears valid and even if you know the names of people mentioned in these invitations. Check here if you have any doubts about a conference and check here if you have doubts about a publisher. Discussions in forums on these fake conferences indicate the scammers’ success rates are rising. The scams continue to be upgraded to appear more realistic, and, if they ever learn to write in decent English, we’re all in trouble.


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