Ten Signs of a Bogus/Fake Conference
Dr. Miguel Moital
Senior Lecturer in Events Management
School of Tourism
Machine generated papers, predatory journals and bogus/fake conferences are some of the scams that the scientific community has had to deal with in recent times. The proliferation of bogus/fake conferences in particular has grown substantially to a point that every week, scientists receive a number of unsolicited emails announcing conferences on topics high on the agenda of scientists, politicians and social and economic agents. In order to cash in on hot topics, these conferences focus on very broad (societal) issues such as health (e.g. AIDs/HIV), labour (e.g. child labour), human rights (e.g. discrimination, racism, child abuse, prostitution, war), the environment (e.g. sustainable development, climate change) and economics & finance (e.g. Global financial and economic crisis). These events can take many forms, including more common forms (‘Conference’, ‘Training workshops’, ‘International Convention’, ‘World Congress’ and ‘World Summit’) or more creative names such as ‘World-Vision International Conference’ and ‘International Conference meeting’. Many of these conferences are either outright scams as they never intended to take place, or if they do take place, offer little of value to participants. While experienced scientists are likely to be able to spot the signs of a low quality/fraudulent conference, younger scientists and non-scientists who attend such conferences (such as NGO and Government representatives) are particularly vulnerable to this predatory practice. Organisers of this type of conference mutate their strategies frequently in the hope of convincing the unwary scientist of the merits of the conference, yet there are many signs that indicate a possible fraudulent initiative. This list compiles the 10 most common signs of a bogus/fake conference.
1. Use of free email accounts
Fake conference promoters use email accounts that do not use the organiser’s email address. Instead they tend to use email accounts (gmail, hotmail, aol or similar). This includes the email account from which the spam email was sent, as well as the contact emails (e.g. secretariat). More recently, fraudsters have started to use email accounts associated to the organiser, but this is just a front window as no associated website usually exists (e.g. unitednationsummit.com; un-globalcrisis.org)
2. The text often comes with spelling mistakes
Emails announcing fake conferences often feature numerous spelling mistakes and/or poor writing style. Many times an ‘s’ is missing (e.g. Child Right Organization; ‘The Workshop welcomes paper presentation from any…’) or sentences are clearly poorly written (e.g. ‘What is evidence is there of climate change?’). Weird language is not uncommon as some of these fraudsters, many of which do not appear to be English speaking natives, use online translators and correctors when preparing the conference announcement. Any trustworthy conference will make an effort to avoid this type of spelling mistake as any formal communication would have been reviewed by several individuals (belonging to the conference organising committee).
3. The unsolicited email implies previous communication
While some emails simply ‘cordially invite’ the recipient, more often than not the email refers to a (non-existent) previous communication exchange so as to attract his/her attention. For example, one email stated “The following invitation letter was sent to you since [date], we haven't heard your response since then” while two other emails started by writing “We thank you for your interest to” and “Thanks for indicating your interest to be part of the [event]”. One email was even more creative by suggesting a special treatment; the email started with a “Congratulations on your selection to [conference]” and another with “By recommendation, we accept you to participate in the [conference]”.
4. The event appears to be organised by, or under the auspices of, a foundation or a (supra-) national organisation/body
A major sign that the conference may be fake is the overt connection to NGOs or International organisations or bodies, most of which no one has ever heard of. The objective is to ‘impress’ and give an aura of seriousness, stature and importance to the conference. Examples of NGOs include the potentially legitimate (but non-existent) ‘Care California Foundation’ and the “International Youth & Women Foundation” and the more inconsistently named “Global California Youth Care Foundation”. Many of the fake conferences however are purported to be organised by international organisations (explicitly or implicitly) linked to organisations such as the United Nations. Examples include the “International Child Welfare Organization” and the “The Global Organization for Humanitarian Rights”. In other instances, more ‘obscure’ initiatives are behind the event in the form of a “Global coalition” or a “Global Association”.
5. “There are free lunches”
A major warning sign should be triggered when looking at the cost of participating. Some fake conferences say that the participant will only pay part of the cost. One common feature involves promoting a package of two conferences but then stating that participants will only be paying for the second one. A typical text states that “All registered participants are entitled to meals and accommodation during the [one of the conferences]”. This expenses-paid conference is usually the first of the two conferences, and is organised by a reputable organisation (e.g. United Nations) to suggest that this organisation is paying for all the first conference’s expenses. A similar approach is to state that “Free air round trip tickets to attend [one of the conferences] will be provided to all participants.” A similar yet slightly different scam involves stating that attendance is free, but then requiring participants to book the hotel (or other services) through the organiser. In one case they asked participants to contact the hotel directly, but the email they gave was a bogus email (e.g. [name of hotel]@africamail.com). The overall objective is to wave a low cost carrot, but at the same time collect money for some of the services.
Bells should be ringing very loud when certain payment methods are requested by the organiser. Payment methods where it is impossible to track who the recipient is, such as Western Union, are to be avoided at all times. Payment through bank transfers to personal accounts should also arouse suspicion. If these accounts are located in known hotspots of fraud activity, then it is almost certainly a fraud. Any reputable international conference will accept credit card payments and this should be used as much as possible. An associated pattern is an over-emphasis on the financial matters in the communication with the organiser. An organiser who frequently mentions the urgency of receiving the funds to secure a place in the conference should be viewed with suspicion.
7. Fancy locations & appealing venues
In their attempt to persuade potential participants of the quality of the conference, fake conferences usually take place in well known tourist destinations. The timing could also indicate a fake conference. If the conference is taking place at the height of the city’s tourist season, it should be viewed with scepticism. Most conference organisers plan their conferences around the middle or low season to benefit from lower prices and the necessary flight/hotel room capacity. The choice of specific venue tends to be a hotel run by a well known chain or a well known conference centre, but there are also cases of fake venues such as the ‘International Convention & Exhibition Centre (ICC), London’. A final sign of a fake conference is the unexplained change of venue as the conference date approaches.
8. Very quick acceptance of submissions
Scientific conferences are expected to put in place a reviewing process for submissions. This takes time as the papers are sent to reviewers (who tend to be busy people). A very short response time (sometimes hours) are a strong indication of low standards and of a possible fake conference. In the end, they just want you to pay the conference fee and they know that accepting a paper is a pre-condition for this to happen.
9. A ‘new, long-established’ conference
It is not uncommon for a conference to be advertised as the nth conference, but a search shows no records of previous ones. For example, the ‘6th International Climate Change Conference’ was advertised but no previous conferences could be identified. A more recent phenomenon involves copycat conferences. These conferences have the same (or very similar) name to the genuine one, but usually a different sequence number. The fake one can be identified by, among other things, tracking the previous one and checking which number will follow (e.g. last year it was the 15th, then this year it must be the 16th conference; the 22nd is the fake). Fake conference will try to imitate the genuine one as much as possible, including website design and web address.
10. Very incomplete, vague or misleading information
Different strategies can be identified with regards to the conference programme. Some fake conferences tend to overpromise by emphasising the number and quality of attendees and/or speakers confirmed, without providing too much detail. The programme of activities is usually vague. For example, it simply indicates ‘keynote speaker’, rather than the name of the speaker and the title of their presentation. In other cases there are simply no invited speakers, with the programme centred on presenting submitted papers. Any quality conference will include a number of keynote speakers who are well known in their areas of expertise. Fraudsters know this and some fake conferences have included well known speakers in the programme, but they are included without their knowledge and consent. Finally, because the purpose is to get as many people to register as possible, fake (or low quality) conferences tend to feature presentations covering a wide variety of topics (e.g. a conference on electronic commerce featuring papers on finance).
While the list is not definitive, a careful look at the 10 signs will provide a good basis with which to draw conclusions about the quality of the conference. The best way of dealing with this unethical (and many times outright illegal) practice is through not only alerting scientists to the existence of predatory conferences but also through helping potential participants to spot the signs of a bogus/fake conference. Some signs are a clear indication of a scam (e.g. payment method), while others do not necessarily indicate a scam (e.g. location in an attractive destination). The list should be used in its entirety and if many of the practices illustrated in this list are evident, the scientist should seriously question his/her interest in attending the conference. Scientists who fall prey of a bogus/fake conference (or a dubious quality conference) should consider sharing their experience with others (by posting on a personal/institutional blog or on the many websites dedicated to the topic). Not only will they help others avoid that same fate, but the information could be used to further our understanding of this practice.
· unitednationsummit.com [website inactive]
· un-globalcrisis.org [website inactive]
· Care California Foundation [known to be associated to fraud]
· International Youth & Women Foundation [known to be associated to fraud]
· Global California Youth Care Foundation [known to be associated to fraud]
· International Child Welfare Organization [known to be associated to fraud]
· The Global Organization for Humanitarian Rights [known to be associated to fraud]
· International Convention & Exhibition Centre (ICC), London’ [known to be associated to fraud]
· 6th International Climate Change Conference’ [known to be associated to fraud]
I have checked all these through Google and they don’t exist/ have been associated to fake conferences