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I am organising an upcoming conference and some of our participants were approached by Expo Housing Services, a company claiming - falsely - to be charged with arranging accommodation for our guests. The details of their operation, specifically targeting scientific conferences are explained here, in a warning on an Elsevier's bio-science event website (in short: under some pretense credit card details are requested, loss of funds ensues) which I was able to find quickly googling "EHS scam". However, to do that I needed to know the fraudster's name, which changes often.

Frankly I am amazed that scientific conferences are a big enough market for the scam to persist (google search returns hits from as far as 2014), but it concerns me that I have never heard of such a scam tailored towards academics. So suppose I would like to raise awareness of this scheme. How to communicate such scams to a wider academic community?

Obviously, I figured that writing on academia.stackexchange is a good first step (also, to the best of my search skills, this topic was not raised here yet). I can of course warn colleagues in my field, but EHS does not discriminate and targets various disciplines (and operates in various countries).

There is one more question here. What reasonable measures can I take to prevent scammers from reaching my participants? EHS called two invited speakers of my conference (obtaining their numbers from their institutions' websites, I presume), so I could simply not publish the invited speakers list. To clarify, this is a mathematics conference where we announce in advance several top-tier experts to be present and then expect members of community to register based on their interest in specific topics that these invited speakers are known to work on - you see why I don't consider anonymity a reasonable mesure. I am very curious if in any parts of academia there are protocols in place to prevent third parties from pretending to be associated with a conference. I'm considering adding appropriate disclaimers to websites of any future events I will organise, although I am aware that a significant portion of visitors only read participant lists.

I know that I am not responsible for the unsolicited contact from EHS (to be clear, there was no leak on my end - the scammers used only public information), but at the same time I can't shake the feeling that the very situation (or especially potential loss of money) reflects badly on me.


EDIT: 15.07.2018. Thank you all for the input. I am now after the conference and I figure an update of the story would not go amiss.

First of all, I accepted @KareemElashmawy answer, since I came to agree that it is on the relevant authority for the community to warn about and fight such scams: not on the particular organizer, and not on the particular university. I contacted my national maths society and they were very interested. I feel they will try to deal with the problem.

However, I also contacted several people at my faculty that I know were organizing conferences this summer. The mathematicians were grateful for the warning (not one mathematician whom I asked - and I did, home and abroad - ever encountered such scam), but the computer scientists dismissed me, because "they know the problem very well and it's no news to them". I was frankly astonished that this knowledge did not pass to me (or other mathematicians) from people working in the same building. Unfortunately I don't know any reasonable way to exchange such tacit knowledge between fields - to find one was a part of my motivation for asking this question here, but since no answer weighed in on this topic I guess I did a poor job of conveying that. Of course the issue of inter-fields communication is not easy (as witnessed in this case by my CS colleagues) and I greatly appreciate the comments from astronomers, chemists and statisticians that appeared here. It would be very interesting to understand why some groups were targeted by (and thus warn about) such scams, and why some were not (yet).

I also followed @Kareem's advice to contact the law enforcement, which wasn't my first instinct and here is why: I was only able to testify that maybe someone from an unspecified country tried to impersonate me (or just falsely presented themselves as an affiliate of my university, maybe) in order to maybe steal money from a third party, also maybe in a different country. I was utterly unsurprised that the policeman told me that since neither me or the university lost any money, short of the university claiming image losses we have no legal action. I left it at that, since I know my university would not have any interest in pursuing this route. There is of course also an issue of jurisdiction, since the chances the local law enforcement could reach the foreign scammers are pretty slim. I need however to stress that this paragraph is very country-, university-, or even perhaps the-policeman-talking-with-you-specific.

The links to Comic Con and Yankees 2016 that @Kareem has provided helped me to stop worrying too much about my participants - if a Comic Con attendee wants to buy the ticket from a shady source, it is on them if the ticket will turn out useless, and quite the same with my participants. Needless to say, the moment I heard about the attempt of this scam I did email all my participants, reiterating who are the only people that should be contacting them on our behalf (and with what - collecting abstracts is okay, asking for credit card details is not). It was too late to give any warning on the registration form (since by that time it was almost closed), but I will of course do that the next time I organize anything - and I will probably do it in @einpoklum's style:) However I now feel that such a warning is all that should be expected of the organizers in such situations.

Last but not least, I think that the conned participant got his money back, via Chargeback (I give a link, since I am illiterate at banking and did not know about it until this scam). It certainly didn't mar his stay, he seemed very happy to visit us despite the unfortunate start.

Again, thanks to everyone for sharing their thoughts.

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    I'd be curious to know how notifications of such scams vary between fields. For conferences I've attended from the American Astronomical Society, for example, communications have clearly spelled out which is the official conference hotel and have provided warnings about making personal arrangements and the possibilities of scams. – NeutronStar Jun 11 '18 at 1:06
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    Have people already registered? Could you send an email to the participants? – Konrad Rudolph Jun 11 '18 at 9:27
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    Isn't this something that should be handled by the police? I'm guessing this is in US, right? I'm always surprised how much law enforcement private organisations (like campuses) do over there. – Davor Jun 11 '18 at 10:47
  • @KonradRudolph, yes they did, and yes we did. That's how I learned that more than one person was targeted. But I am wondering about more of a preemptive approach. – lemon314 Jun 11 '18 at 12:20
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    Insofar as your amazement that the market is big enough for the scam to persist, it's simple: high payoff for little effort/risk. Trawl for announcements about conferences, harvest names from it, search the names to procure contact info, send out pregenerated email. Most of that can be automated, so you just spend a couple of bucks a month to run a server doing that work, and keep switching up payment/contact info to avoid getting caught. 99% of people won't bite, but the payoff from that 1% more than covers expenses. – Doktor J Jun 11 '18 at 14:56
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How to communicate such scams to a wider academic community?

Report the scam to the relevant authority for your academic community (ACS for Chemistry for instance). They have the audience and impetus to disseminate such information. If they do not, then (IMO) said members ought to push for the society to take proactive measures.

What reasonable measures can I take to prevent scammers from reaching my participants?

Warn your attendees in all marketing materials.

Specify in clear transparent terms the existence of these scammers, how they predate upon attendees, and how attendees may detect them in all marketing materials that is received by attendees, speakers, or partners. This may include: Registration forms, Flyers, Emails, Invitations, the conference website, etc...

The exact wording of this is up to you; but, it must explicitly specify that scammers may try to contact attendees and claim a fraudulent relationship with your conference. As Bob Brown suggested, you may provide a list of all officially partnered entities that attendees may compare to or use. You do not need to push for attendees to register through your partners (as Bob suggested), but you do need to provide the base warning them to take care when registering with non-partners and to perform their due diligence!

Note: Similar proactive precautions taken by other conventions (Comic Con) and Sports Events (Yankees 2016) may also be taken.

Finally, don't forget to report this to law enforcement authorities as well.

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    This. This should be the top answer. – Ilmari Karonen Jun 13 '18 at 10:00
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On the registration form put, "Housing should be arranged only through [conference's official housing bureau] or directly with your hotel. Use of other services may result in unauthorized charges to your credit card." (Re-word as needed to reflect official housing arrangements.)

Include the same warning, in bold, when you invite speakers. Also, consider asking invited speakers to let you know if they are contacted by third parties.

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    Personally I would find that wording somewhat odd and confusing. I'd be thinking "But I use Expedia.. why would that result in unauthorized charges?". I think an extra sentence at the start of your paragraph explaining the existence of the scam would make it clearer. – JBentley Jun 11 '18 at 8:12
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    Expanding @JBentley’s comment, yours sounds less like a legitimate warning against scams, and more like advertising/a cash grab to prevent participants from using other (cheaper) services, such as Airbnb. in fact, if worded like this I’d ignore the “warning” entirely. – Konrad Rudolph Jun 11 '18 at 9:29
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    Perhaps a better way to phrase it: "Be wary of third parties who approach you to offer other housing arrangements, they are not authorized and may be fraudulent." That makes it clear that people should be suspicious of unsolicited offers. (Disclaimer: I've never travelled to an academic conference, this is general advice from years of working in anti-spam and decades online.) – arp Jun 11 '18 at 11:00
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    @lemon314 If there are no accomodations arranged by the conference then be explicit and tell people that, particularly with a strong warning about unsolicited offers of the same nature. If there is a body taking charge of these things then a pretty standard strategy is to make it abundantly clear that the attendees should initiate contact - that way they can be sure that they are speaking with the correct party. When they receive an incoming contact it is much more difficult for them to know whether the other party is fraudulent or not. – J... Jun 11 '18 at 12:49
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    This advice is not very useful IMHO. 1. It doesn't explicitly talk about a potential scam. 2. It doesn't mention the specific events OP mentioned. @arp's suggestion is better. And then of course there's my way of doing it... – einpoklum Jun 11 '18 at 19:00
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Warn them like a boss! Warn them like Admiral Akbar:

enter image description here

Actually, I'm at least half serious. Using humor + animation attracts attention, even if it's somewhat garish. Consider making such an image visible people interested in the conference (e.g. on some page of the website).

If this is a bit too much for you, maybe just a still image of the same thing...

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    How & when & where do they use this image though, and how do they bring this to the attention of participants? From what I'm reading the advice in this post boils down to "Put this gif somewhere on your website," but that sounds like only one step of a process, and only one fraction of the advice. – doppelgreener Jun 11 '18 at 11:02
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    @doppelgreener: I didn't give OP a full end-to-end solution. I'm sure OP is resourceful enough to, assuming he agrees with my approach, decide how to inetgrate a funny image or gif to catch visitor's eyes. – einpoklum Jun 11 '18 at 11:12
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    I actually like the approach, since it may come across less like an endorsement of a particular hotel (as mentioned in comments to the other answer) and could effectively raise the awareness of a possible problem. I would however fear that my colleagues may not share my sense of humour (needless to say, I refuse to believe anyone would not recognise the reference;) – lemon314 Jun 11 '18 at 12:53
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    @lemon314: The neat thing here is, that even if somehow you've lived under a rock and haven't watched Star Wars, you'll still see a weird alien, in space, with things that look like fighter planes, and with an alarm-light glow. So it still basically works. – einpoklum Jun 11 '18 at 13:40
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    @Criggie: Satire/parody is allowed IIANM. Plus, you copy that in good faith from sites purporting to offer publicly-usable memes. – einpoklum Jun 12 '18 at 20:26
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I have recently seen a conference webpage that highlighted that there was similar scam going around. Later, I have seen it on their Twitter page as well. You could also use participant's email address to warn them.

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