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ANALYSIS: About the money? How to spot a scam conference

Before the digital age, it would have been an uphill task to prepare, process and disseminate, say, 100 letters. But now thousands of emails can be sent out in less than a minute.

This has allowed scammers and imposters to infiltrate the virtual space. In August 2019, I received a poorly written email from one Sierra Adams inviting me to a sustainability summit. It was slated for the beginning of October in the US city of Chicago.

Conference attendees would be equipped with “strategies and policies for better development and sustainability consciousness” - whatever that means. And those who signed up would also learn, strangely enough, how to create social media adverts and invest in shares.

The email instructed me to contact a Maya Morrison for more details. It said “successful applicants” would be helped to get a  visa and receive a 50% discount on their plane ticket.

Several red flags

The poor grammar, generic names and vague details immediately made me suspicious.

Another red flag was that my Google search for the conference - World Summit, Sustainable Development and Environmental Education - didn’t return a credible result. Nor could I find a trace of the people involved on professional networking site LinkedIn.

I emailed to ask for more information. The reply came on a Saturday afternoon and this time round there was a website link. It led to the site Global Mission for Sustainable World, designed with the Zoho Sites website builder. A reverse image search of its logo showed it was a compilation of a stock image and the UN’s International Year of Sustainable Energy for All logo.

Also suspicious was that the physical address on the website - 210 Lee St East in  Charleston, West Virginia - does not exist. (I checked this on Google Maps.)

Visa dead ends

To fish for more information, I emailed the “organisers” fictitious biographical details. The reply was that I fill out a registration form and fork out money via Western Union, Moneygram or a wire transfer - US$569 as conference registration fee and another US$200 for a US visa.

It also said: “We have an agreement with the US department of state that guarantee successful visa procurement for the sustainability conference participants who has clean (sic) criminal record in their country.” 

I called the US Department of State’s national visa centre in New Hampshire. The person I spoke to said they didn’t have information on a Sustainable Development and Environmental Education summit to be held in October in Chicago. (Note: The man declined to be named, saying it was a security policy that employees not reveal their identities.)

The US embassy in Kenya also said it didn’t “have any information on the mentioned conference”, though Emily Fertik, an information officer at the embassy, told me they couldn’t comment on specific visa applications. 

‘Venue’ unaware

The final nail in the coffin was that the conference’s supposed venue knew nothing about it. When I asked where exactly in Chicago the summit would take place, the “conference coordinator” said it would be at the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile

But hotel receptionist Carla Galfi told me over the phone that “no organisation has made reservations for such an event, neither am I finding it on our system”.

‘An industrial-scale challenge’

The Union of International Associations lists a similar email from the same [email protected] address on its Fraud Monitor. The page warns that an increasing number of email scams are using meetings and international conferences, among other ways, to cheat unsuspecting people. (Note: The non-profit research institute, based in Belgium, declined to explain on the record to Africa Check the process used to compile this database.)

Another industry body - the International Congress and Convention Association in Spain - tries to identify as many scam meetings as possible, its director of research Marco van Itterzon told me. But their list of almost 100 “potential, possible, or probable ‘predatory’ conference organisers” is only available to members.

“Tens of thousands of terrible-quality and sometimes fraudulent conferences are today being promoted around the world, an industrial-scale challenge to bonafide associations and their quality,” Van Itterzon said.

My advice? Be careful when you receive an invitation and do due diligence before making any commitment.

Sniffing out a scam

Here is a summary of the steps I took to determine that the Sustainable Development and Environmental Education summit was fraudulent:

  1. Poor grammar should immediately alert your suspicion.

  2. Check that the details in the email and the information provided on the conference website match up.

  3. Search for the organisers on LinkedIn. Are they who they claim to be?

  4. If the address is given, check it on Google Maps.

  5. Confirm with the conference venue that it has been booked.


Find more tips in these articles on how to identify a predatory conference - where the conference that you paid for is “a horrible, worthless, CV-staining joke of an event”, in Van Itterzon’s words.

This analysis was produced as part of an Africa Check fellowship completed by Alex Ikambi  Mwangi, a project officer at the Community Media Hub of the Kenya Community Media Network.


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