NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When I arrived at the Manhattan office building listed as the venue for a conference on domestic violence, the lobby was unattended, the doors were locked and my suspicions were confirmed.
I had registered for a fake conference.
The bogus event apparently was one of many in an online fraud trend that targets professional and other special interest groups, including academics and NGOs. A variation on the infamous Nigerian email schemes, called 419 spams after the section of the Nigerian penal code addressing advance fee frauds, this one sought to snag registration and accommodation fees or access to financial and personal information, according to watchdog sites such as http://www.419scam.org and http://www.fraudwatchers.org.
It never got to the point where money was involved in my situation, just passport information, which did not raise undue concern since is not uncommon to be used for registration at international conferences.
In this case, Sunday, August 11, supposedly was the opening day of a five-day conference in New York sponsored by a group purporting to be the Global Coalition Against Domestic Violence. A second phase of the conference allegedly was to take place in Dakar, Senegal, from August 18 to 21, according to the email announcement that arrived in my inbox.
The failure of the organisers to respond to a request for the agenda as the conference date approached and the lack of a conference website gave me pause. The discovery by one of my colleagues of a Facebook post by a skeptical journalist describing an invitation to an identical conference in July 2013 raised suspicions in the days before the event. They were heightened by the finding of this announcement of yet another identical conference on the same days of the month but in April 2013.
In New York, the conference was to have taken place on the 11th floor of 33 West 60th St., a narrow, 11-storey office building that houses, among other tenants, an annex of Fordham University.
But no conference currently could have taken place on the 11th floor of that building, according to Bob Howe, senior director of communications and media relations at Fordham, which does not occupy the 11th floor. Due to construction on the 10th and 11th floors, he said, there is simply no possible access.
There is no way to know how many people registered for the fake conference. But according to scam-monitoring web sites, there are many ways to spot a fraudulent conference.
In retrospect, the emailed cover letter announcing the fake conference held a number of clues to its dubious nature.
For example, the fake conference invitation email was signed by: “Mr. Wayne Clark, Secretary-Organizing committee, Center for (GCA-DV) Reproductive Rights, 120 Wall St., 14th Floor, New York, NY 10005.” His email address was: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The street and floor address he gave is indeed that of the Center for Reproductive Rights. However, Kate Bernyk, a press officer for the centre said that her organisation had not afforded Clark any office space and was not affiliated in any way with the conference. The office building at 120 Wall St. said it has no tenant with the name Global Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Embedding the centre’s name with the GCA-DV initials reflects a common ploy by scammers to use names or titles nearly identical to those of real events or organisations.
There apparently is an entity called the Global Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which is based in Thailand and is affiliated with Eduarda Foundation, according to its web site. On its site it uses the GCA-DV initials as its shorthand and the language on the site is markedly similar to that used in the email invitation to the fake conference.
The organisation’s site indicates it will hold a conference on domestic violence among indigenous peoples in Australia and New Zealand on Dec. 11-13, at the Rydges Parramatta Hotel in Sydney. A call to the hotel confirmed a conference is booked there for those dates by Global Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
The use of the usa.com domain name in Clark’s email is another indication of a scam, according to fraud monitors. Associated with an anonymous free email service from mail.com, it is among the top choices of scammers, according to a list on the Fraudwatchers site.
The materials emailed concerning the fake domestic violence conference also had some other characteristics of a scam, according to a checklist from Fraudwatchers. They included poor English grammar; a request for personal information; a request to register at a different email account, which also used an anonymous free domain (activist.com); and the involvement of a West African country.
A further clue, according to the 419scam.org site, was that the conference was to be held in two countries, in this case the U.S. and Senegal. Fake conferences typically “are supposed to take place in two countries, the USA and another country (in Canada, Europe, Africa or the Middle East.),” the site said.
“People who sign up for the conference will be told to contact hotels, which almost always use Yahoo.com addresses. They will be told they can’t get a visitor’s visa for the U.S. or another conference location without the hotel reservation. When they want to make a reservation they will be told to send cash as a down payment via Western Union, the classic 419 scam payment modality,” according to 419scam.org.