Conference Scams

After being postponed or modified for the past two years, industries and organizations are starting to open up to the idea of in-person conferences again. 

Professionals are having their suits let out (or taken in depending on what which way the cookie crumbled during the pandemic), their Oxfords shined, and getting ready to make new connections. 

Scammers are getting ready too. In fact, we’ve already started hearing about conference-related shenanigans–old familiar tricks of the trade and a few new ones.

Before you accept that invite in your email, be on the lookout for these scams:

The Phony Conference: The easiest way to pull off a conference scam is to make one up. Scammers have been known to create convincing event websites, complete with speaker lineups, agendas and information about nearby hotels and accommodations. The next step is to compile lists of potential targets by scraping professional networks like LinkedIn. The lure of time-sensitive pre-sale tickets come next, etc.

Often the victim has already entered their credit card information to buy tickets before they realize the conference doesn’t actually exist. 

How to avoid it: Avoid the urge to act quickly, no matter how urgent the offer seems. Check with the conference venue to confirm the event is actually taking place. Look for professional or industry sponsors since scammers rarely include that detail on fake websites. Search online to see if the event has been held in years past. If the only mention of the event you’re seeing is on a single website, it’s probably a scam.

The Speaker Scam: A public figure or expert in their field is invited to speak at an event. Mixing equal parts flattery and the promise of a high speaker’s fee, an invitation is extended for an all-expense paid trip. Once the speaker has accepted the invite, they receive a message asking for them to pay a small upfront fee (which would of course be reimbursed), or they receive an overpayment for the original fee, and are asked to transfer money back to a new account. The speaker never hears from the “event organizer” again. 

Author and speaker Caitlin Brodnick was targeted by this scam, which she recounted on an episode of What the Hack with Adam Levin. One of the most striking elements is how the scammers were able to find specific details to make it more convincing, describing the message she received as being “100 percent tailor-made for me.”

How to avoid it: Look for telltale signs in communication including typos or awkward language. Confirm that email addresses match the domain of the organization extending the invitation; if a representative from a prestigious institution is contacting you from a Gmail address, be suspicious. Never provide payment information or sensitive personal information. If possible, conduct communications through a speaker’s agency.

The Attendee List Scam: For many vendors and attendees, connections and referrals made at professional conferences are an important, if not crucial, part of their business models. When they receive an email offering a full list of a conference’s attendees and their contact information for a small fee, it seems like a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t want that valuable data? Once the victim pays, they never hear from the person again, or worse, they receive a malware-infected file.

How to avoid it: Few, if any reputable, organizations release or sell lists of attendees, and most will have an official privacy policy on their event website indicating as much. Mark any offer for attendee lists as spam and report it to the conference organizers so they can warn others.

The WiFi Scam: Most venues provide WiFi to help attendees stay connected to their work and personal lives outside of the conference. It’s relatively easy for scammers to create fake WiFi hotspots with similar network names to intercept valuable data that can be leveraged to compromise organizations.

How to avoid it: Check with event organizers to see what the exact name is of the WiFi network provided to attendees, and use that to connect. Set up a VPN (virtual private network) before going to the conference. Avoid sending critically sensitive information if you can avoid it.