Academic conference organisers are being warned that they risk being targeted by international gangs who traffic in illegal immigrants.
David Bustard, head of Ulster University's School of Information and Software Engineering, discovered a flood of unusual applications, mostly from Nigeria, for an international software conference he is organising in Belfast next month.
A letter from one supposed "computer and software firm with branches in Africa and Asia" asked if the university would arrange an invitation letter to enable its staff to obtain the necessary travel documentation. "We will send their name and passport number as soon as we get your reply," it said.
Several applications for conference places, submitted by untraceable emails, were followed by telephone calls asking for formal invitations. When the organisers asked for payment, they received a credit card transfer but when they checked with the credit card company they found the transaction was fraudulent.
Professor Bustard said: "I would like to believe that (the applicants) are so impressed with the conference that they are prepared to engage in criminal activity to get to it, but I'm sure the truth is much more sinister. The people making contact may be (illegal immigrant) dealers."
Professor Bustard contacted colleagues throughout the United Kingdom and found evidence of bogus applications over the past year from Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana and Pakistan.
One conference had 100 bogus applications from Nigeria. In all cases, the "applicants" demanded formal invitations so that they could get travel documents processed. When organisers asked for payment for delegates, the correspondence ceased.
Professor Bustard said: "It appears that universities who post notices of forthcoming conferences on the web are bombarded with bogus applications. The best advice seems to be to insist on payment before releasing any paperwork."