I shoulda known.
It all started about two weeks ago. On Twitter, I got a new follower: the International Conference on HIV/AIDS, @HIV/AIDS 2020. The blurb in their "About" section on Twitter said that they were the "official source for the news and updates related to #STD #HIV #AIDS -- International Conference on HIV/AIDS during #Feb 10-11, #2020 @Venice, #Italy." When I glanced at their Twitter feed, it was filled with red ribbon images and standard HIV messaging. I know that there are a couple of international conferences coming up in the next year: the International AIDS Conference being held in San Francisco in July 2020, and the HIV2020 Conference in Mexico City, also next July. But I don't know everything that's happening in the HIV landscape worldwide, so there very well might be another conference in Italy. I often follow HIV groups, so I followed back. I figured they might be a good source for a story down the road.
Then a few days ago, I got a private message on Twitter from them. They greeted me by saying, "I hope you are pink in health," and said that they'd very much like me to attend the conference. I replied that I'd love to, but that I couldn't afford such an extravagant trip, even for an HIV conference. Then they said that they'd like for me to be a speaker. A speaker! Oh! Now that's honey for this little Pooh bear. I'd adore speaking at a conference. And at an international conference in Venice, Italy? Sì, grazie! In my mind, I was already on a gondola eating cannoli. They asked for my email address, where they would send me information. They also asked me to submit an abstract for the conference, a sort of overview of what I would speak about.
Now, there was a part of me that thought, Why are they asking me? I mean, I'm not that well known -- I'm certainly on the D-List of HIV celebrities, if even that. But then I countered my own Negative Nancy-ness with the fact that I do write for the most comprehensive HIV site on the web (shout out to TheBody!), and my award-winning HIV web series, Merce, has had views around the world and is available in Europe on OUTtv. I've been on the cover of some prominent HIV magazines. Maybe this was the next big thing for me!
I received an email from Smita Clare, event manager for HIV/AIDS 2020 (the gmail account -- and not a proper company email address -- should have been another clue), asking me for an abstract and saying, "It would be a great pleasure for us to have your gracious presence at our conference as a speaker." The email included a long laundry list of topics that would be covered at the conference, everything from "Global Report on AIDS Statistics, Information and Facts about HIV AIDS" and "HIV in Women and Aging" to "Stigma, Discrimination and Lived Experience of HIV." Those are totally topics covered at HIV conferences! Never mind that the email was addressed to "Dr. Charles Sanchez." Um, I'm not a doctor. That's just an oversight, I thought. A typo. Blunder of a busy person on a busy team trying to put together an international conference. Or so I told myself.
My next challenge was the abstract. I really didn't know what should be included in it, so I reached out to people smarter than I: Kenyon Farrow, senior editor of TheBody, JD Davids, former senior editor, and Damon L. Jacobs, L.M.F.T., licensed marriage and family therapist, well-known pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) advocate, and frequent contributor to TheBody. First, Kenyon sent me a pdf of guidelines on how to submit an abstract for another conference. Then Damon sent me a note recommending that I contact his friend who is his go-to for all things Italy, Giulio Maria Corbelli, to find out more about the conference. Next, JD sent me a more skeptical note, saying that he hadn't heard of the conference, so I sent him the link.
JD replied by saying, "Sorry, sexy. It's a scam." My gondola started sinking.
He also sent me a link to an article on how to spot a fake conference. The list includes the conference having an overly ambitious title (check!), the technical program topics trying to cover everything but the kitchen sink (check!), and another conference with a similar name already existing (check! check!) Another clue is that the language on the site and in other communications is a bit … off. Well, they did wish me to be in "pink health" and called me "Dr." (check!).
After I posted about it on Facebook, I was contacted by Eliane Becks Nininahazwe, an HIV activist and stigma fighter from the Netherlands, saying that she'd been approached via Twitter to be a speaker at the conference, too. Then I reached out to Damon's friend, Giulio Maria Corbelli, who's an activist for the European AIDS Treatment Group, to see if he knew of the conference. He said that he'd been invited, but that it "looks like scam or similar. I know nobody involved in that conference. Suggest to ignore."
By now, my Italian conference castle in the sky was reduced to rubble. When I looked at the website for the International Conference on HIV/AIDS, it's terribly suspicious. It has several pages, and on the surface, it looks legit. However, there are no personnel listed on the site -- no director or manager or anyone to contact. There are no speakers or workshop leaders or anything like that listed, and no official venue other than the City of Venice.
Turns out, the company producing the site and the "conference," Gavin Conferences, hosts many different sites and events. When I did a little digging, I found that Gavin Publishers is included in a list of predatory publishers -- and the two companies having the same first name, to me, is no coincidence.
So why is this company doing this? And why are they reaching out to members of the HIV community? I really don't know; I'm not a criminal mastermind. I imagine they may be trying to get people's information for identity theft. Perhaps they're trying to get people like me to agree to be a part of the fake conference to add some legitimacy to the bogus event, making it easier to take fees from unsuspecting would-be conference-goers. Or maybe it's some other nefarious reason.
Let this be a warning to everyone in our community to keep an eye out for this scam. I lost nothing but an Italian dream -- but it's possible that something else could've happened if I didn't reach out to friends before I got too involved. And these sorts of scam conferences happen all the time.
In all fairness, I wrote back to Smita Clare, event manager for HIV/AIDS 2020, to express my concern that this International Conference on HIV/AIDS 2020 in Italy didn't seem legit. Funny, they never responded.
I shoulda known.