8 November 2018

Hucksters, Spammers & Scammers, Wow!

Kevin Marvel

Kevin Marvel American Astronomical Society (AAS)

SpamAs various deadlines for our meetings have approached this past year, many concerned members have forwarded us emails they have received offering contact lists of attendees or Society members or offering discounted lodging arrangements to meeting attendees. Sometimes these emails appear to imply alignment with or cooperation with the AAS itself, while others only reference the Society by name. These kinds of emails tend to get through spam and junk filters, and when they land in your inbox, they can create confusion and concern.

Isn’t the internet wonderful?!

We take these unauthorized approaches to our meeting attendees and members very seriously and have attempted various ways of stopping or blocking the organizations or individuals sending out these spam emails. It has proven to be impossible to do so for multiple reasons. Cease-and-desist orders are hard to deliver if no actual business address is provided, or if the address provided is false, or if the organization just doesn’t care. Sometimes the activities they are undertaking are legal (such as selling lists built by aggregating publicly available data), while other times the entity involved is actually located offshore in jurisdictions far from the reach of US law. We continue to try to put a stop to these appeals, but we also need our members and conference attendees to be aware of and share with their colleagues that such communications are not legitimate and are not sourced from or connected to the Society.

In the case of organizations offering to sell contact lists, we have found that these are not lists of contact details stolen or lifted from AAS servers or databases. They are also not hand-entered data from one of our directories, but instead appear to be assembled from web-based searches that look for keywords and then grab personal information and details, even PDF files like CVs or résumés, from which the organizations build "contact lists" of people relevant (they think) to our meeting or organization. We acquired a partial list from one of the organizations in question, and they had only a small number of AAS members included, but many people who were connected to "space" in one way or another. Clearly, lists of this type are output from keyword crawlers and would likely not be very useful to anyone if they bought one hoping to contact our members or conference attendees.

Even worse from our perspective and that of our conference attendees are hotel scams. Emails folks forward to us seem to provide a way for attendees to get lower-cost rooms through their services, which in some cases appear to be official partnerships with the AAS itself. They are not. Any lodging appeal you get that does not come from an aas.org email address should be considered fraudulent. Some unscrupulous organizations make reservations at local hotels at low rates and then sell those rooms to attendees at a premium, pocketing the difference. Others take your money and leave you with no hotel reservation at all.

For example, we had an attendee at the IAU General Assembly that we hosted in Hawaii in 2015 who paid for a room at a lodging location based on an email offer. They showed up at the address and found nothing but an empty lot, having been victimized by a completely fraudulent room booker. Thankfully our meeting staff was able to get them into an official conference hotel, after which we helped them file a fraud claim with the authorities.

For the Society, the damage comes from not fulfilling our commitment to the meeting hotel. The rise of online tools to arrange alternate lodging have significantly threatened our ability to secure discounted hotel rooms for attendees. Before the rise of these tools, we would sign a contract for a certain number of hotel rooms and then be able to ensure that our attendees would have lodging at the meeting hotel at an attractive rate. With many individuals now opting to not stay at our official meeting hotels, we have had challenges meeting our room commitments, which leads directly to financial penalties. Our only recourse going forward is to significantly reduce the size of our room block, which means that when the block is full, we will not be able to ensure a room at the meeting hotel for attendees at any price. It usually also means we'll pay more for room rentals and catering.

We thank everyone who has forwarded us suspicious-looking emails or asked us if a message they received was legitimate. Getting this information helps us inform others and be aware of what the latest scam happens to be. We pledge to always keep your personal contact data secure; we do not distribute email addresses of members to anyone. If you get some communication that seems suspicious, treat it with caution, let us know about it, and tell your colleagues to take care. Working together, we can hope to keep everyone aware of the hucksters, spammers, and scammers even if we can't stop their fraudulent appeals from hitting your inbox.