Cal U human trafficking conference called a hoax

But a real function on topic will be held at University of Toledo

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It's not a plea from a Nigerian prince inviting individuals to share in his inheritance for a small upfront fee. But an announcement floating around on the Internet with details about a conference on human trafficking to be held at California University of Pennsylvania next month is pretty close.

The email is addressed to "Dear Friends and Colleagues," and it invites them to the "2013 10th Annual International Human Trafficking, Prostitution and Sex Work Conference" which it said will be held at California University of Pennsylvania's Steele Hall in July and a few days later at a location in Senegal.

The problem is there is no conference taking place at Cal U next month.

There is, however, a legitimate 10th annual conference on the topic being held at the University of Toledo in September, where professor Celia Williamson has a long history of performing extensive research on the sex trafficking of domestic minors and adult prostitution.

The legitimate conference is called the "10th Annual International Conference on Human Trafficking, Prostitution and Sex Work" and it will be held at the Student Union of the University of Toledo on Sept. 26-27.

Its purpose is to bring together practitioners and researchers to talk about their work and foster collaboration and to educate social service, health care and criminal justice professionals on human trafficking and its victims. The Toledo area has been designated by the FBI as "a hub for this type of activity," said Meghan Cunningham, a University of Toledo spokeswoman.

In addition to her research, Ms. Williamson founded a nonprofit called Second Chance, which has posted on its website the details of the conference. Details from that website are presented nearly verbatim in the scam email sent by "Ms. Hannah Paul," who uses a globomail.com email address. But the email places the conference at Cal U next month.

Cal U spokeswoman Christine Kindl said the scam email, dated June 7, which was brought to the university's attention by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, marks the third year the university has been the target of such a scam. Similar emails went out claiming the annual conference would be held at Cal U in November 2011 and 2012. In both instances the conference invitations also mentioned a follow-up conference in Senegal several days later.

This particular scam appears to be a "phishing" attack -- an attempt to trick people into giving out money or confidential information -- according to Timur Snoke, a member of the technical staff for the CERT program at the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

But unlike the classic Nigerian prince attempt to get people to hand over financial information with the promise of reaping millions from a too-good-to-be-true investment, phishing attacks have become more sophisticated by targeting specific groups and mimicking legitimate organizations.

In this case, the invitation to attend a conference about human trafficking could be sent to a wide range of people who might actually be interested in a real version of the same event.

"You have a group of people that is very sensitive to an underrepresented population that is in dire straits. Then you reference a second conference in an area where this might actively be a problem ... you're playing on their heartstrings," Mr. Snoke said.

Inquiries sent to the email addresses in the fake conference announcement were not returned. The email addresses are likely free to set up and require little registration information, making them difficult to trace. The phone number listed in the email is not functional.

Mr. Snoke said spending extra time tailoring the phishing attack to mimic conferences that actually exist takes more effort but might pay off in the long run. "If only two people bite on it and you get 2,000 bucks for half an hour of your time, it's worth it," Mr. Snoke said.

Asked how people can avoid being caught up in the scams, Mr. Snoke said people should always verify requests for information by independently contacting the requesting organization instead of following links or phone numbers embedded in the original request.

Ms. Kindl said a few people have called the university in recent years to inquire about the conference, and Cal U officials have explained to them it is a hoax and warned them not to send any money for registration fees or hotel reservations to any links provided in the emails.

"It's definitely distressing that it goes to the credibility of the legitimate work that we do," Ms. Kindl said.

Cal U has hosted a conference on human trafficking for the past two years called the "Shatter the Silence" summit.

Students from Cal U's Department of Social Work have conducted extensive community outreach to bring the National Association of Missing and Exploited Children's "Campaign Against Sexual Exploitation" to southwestern Pennsylvania, according to a news release on the summit. The summit is an opportunity for students to report on their progress and hear from experts in human trafficking and sexual exploitation. The second summit was held in April at the Natali Student Center.

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Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590. Alex Zimmerman: azimmerman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @AGZimmerman.


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