E-mail fraudsters target academics

Spam messages calling for research papers could lead to loss of personal details, says Chloe Stothart

July 24, 2008

Most e-mail frauds are concerned with selling fake Viagra or persuading people to send their bank details to a beleaguered, fictional politician on the other side of the world.

But, in a new development, the fraudsters now want your research papers.

An e-mail sent to universities around the world asks academics to send abstracts describing unpublished research in "allfields of human Endeavour" (sic).

The e-mail, which purports to be from the publishing giant Elsevier, says the work will be printed in its journals and discussed at seminars organised by the company all over the world. It instructs academics to "maximize this opportunity to Showcase (sic) your research work to the world" and is signed by "Philip Mcgregor (Prof.)".

It makes no mention of money, although another version of the e-mail asks for money upfront.

An academic from the University of Manitoba in Canada who submitted a paper was later asked for a "$950 (£474) handling fee", according to a message on an internet bulletin board from the university's computer security coordinator, Ken De Cruyenaere.

Cafer Yavuz, a research associate in biochemistry at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said that a senior colleague had forwarded the spam e-mail to him and other colleagues, "thinking this is a good opportunity".

But, when considering what to submit, he quickly grew suspicious, noting that the e-mail was sent from a free e-mail account and that the offer was "too good to be true".

He believes the spammers are looking for academics' personal information and, of course, their money. "Many journals charge per colour figure if your paper is accepted," he said. "And if these spammers could play it all the way to that point, they might get your credit card details and vanish."

He said he was "scared" when he spotted that the e-mail was a fraud, as he realised, "my personal information would be all theirs. Not to mention the time you lose when waiting to get your manuscript published in fake journals."

He said the risk was higher for those academics who were less "computer savvy", and warned that such e-mails "will come in greater numbers" and with more sophistication.

A spokeswoman for Elsevier said the company had "reported the matter to the authorities" but could not comment further as the case was still under investigation. It has put a warning note on its website.

Microsoft, which had been providing a "live.com" e-mail account for the fraudsters, said that it had shut down the account after it "determined that the activities occurring with this account were in direct violation of our terms of service".

Richard Clayton, a researcher in the University of Cambridge's computer laboratory, said he had not heard of e-mails encouraging academics to send papers.

He said academics who received the spam e-mail should delete it and not visit any websites mentioned in it. He added that university spam filters would eventually discard them once they appeared in sufficient numbers.


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