John Scalzi reported on this scam earlier this week, and his post was widely disseminated on Twitter--but since not everyone reads the same blogs, and the scam is a recurring one that isn't limited to science fiction and fantasy writers, I thought it was worth covering here.
Writers should watch out for this spam that's currently actively doing the rounds:
From: Arthur peterson [firstname.lastname@example.org]This is a long-running scam (I got reports of it last year, with a different university, "professor", and address harvesting) that has been around at least since 2009 (Googling "British speaker scam" brings up a number of articles and posts, several with extensive comments from others who've been solicited). The institution isn't always a university; sometimes it's a church, sometimes it's a conference, sometimes it's a fake organization of some kind, as in this recent solicitation aimed at female business speakers. Otherwise, the details are the same.
To: [email address redacted]
Date: January 5, 2013 at 7:23 PM
Subject: BEXLEY COLLEGE HALF TERM BREAK SEMINAR.
Greetings [name redacted],
I am Prof. Arthur Peterson from Bexley College (Holly Hill Campus) here in London UK. We are officially writing to invite you and confirm your booking as our guest Speaker at this Year Bexley college Seminar which will take place here at the campus ground.
Bexley College (Holly Hill Campus).
The Venue as follows:
VENUE: Upper Holly Hill Road Belvedere, Kent
London, United Kingdom
POST CODE: DA17 6HF
Expected audience: 450 people(mainly students & invited guest). Duration of speech per speaker: 1 Hour
Name of Organization: Bexley College Campus.
Topic: ”Mystery of Life and Death”
Date: 18th February 2013
We reached your profile at http:// www.aboutsf.com// and we say it’s up to standard. The College will be so glad to have such an outstanding personality as you in our midst for these overwhelming gathering. Arrangements to welcome you here will be discussed as soon as you honor our invitation. If you have any more publicity material you wish to share with us, please do not hesitate to contact me.
An Official Formal Letter of invitation and Contract agreement would be sent to you from the College as soon as you honor our Invitation. The College have also promised to be taking care of all your travel and Hotel Accommodation expenses including your Speaking Fee.
If you are available for this date, include your speaking fees in your reply for it to be included in the DOCUMENTATIONS.
Prof. Arthur Peterson
Bexley College (Holly Hill Campus).
Tel: + 44 702 407 0611
How exactly do the scammers rip you off? Various theories have been floated: a phone scam that overcharges you for an overseas call, getting hold of your banking information, overpaying your speaker's fee (with a fake check) and asking you to send back the balance right away. My own guess was travel fees.
In reality, it's fake work permit fees.
This article by Patrick Schwerdtfeger, from May 2012, details how the process works. The mark is told s/he must pay a "Government (United Kingdom) Main Application Fee for a UK work permit" of several hundred pounds. Once that money is sent, the scammers ask for more:
Non-Briton Immigrants coming into the United Kingdom and taking up a legally paid job will need to secure their stay with a bond otherwise referred to as a repatriation fee...The Home office has required that such applicants pay a refundable sum of 2,500GBP as a ‘Bond’ to enact their stay. As soon as they get back to their respective countries, the fee will be paid back to them in full.There you have it.
Looking closely at the solicitation I've reproduced above, there are plenty of scam "tells." Still, for someone who does regular speaking engagements, and for whom an out-of-the-blue invitation is not unusual, there's least some degree of surface plausibility. Mr. Schwerdtfeger confesses that he was taken in by the first phase of the scam, and one of the writers I've heard from was very nearly taken in as well.
Good reason to treat any unsolicited invitation with caution.