ECA and Other Entities Vie for FTC Passage of Anti-Fraud Rule Impacting the Events Industry

July 7, 2023

A government crackdown on impersonation fraud targeting the business events industry may soon become a reality thanks to efforts spearheaded by the Exhibitions and Conferences Alliance (ECA) and its 10 professional and trade associations, in addition to numerous other industry entities that make up the face-to-face business events industry.

“For far too long, the industry has been preyed upon by the hotel reservation scams and the attendee list scams that not only harm our events but are also a form of identity theft for all the people who get targeted by these scammers,” said Tommy Goodwin, vice president of government affairs for ECA.

One of ECA’s main priorities has been getting the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to make the issue a priority, according to Goodwin.

“At long last, they finally have,” he said. “Last fall, they put forward a draft rule that would give the FTC serious new enforcement authority when it comes to going after these scammers, and we've been front and center — really ECA and the entire industry — in encouraging the FTC to adopt this rule.”

To that end, last December, ECA filed regulatory comments with the FTC advocating in support of the proposed rule. The document was signed by all of the major business events industry associations, according to Goodwin. Additionally, in March, ECA joined 235 trade associations and professional organizations in calling on the FTC to finalize its proposed “Rule on Impersonation of Government and Business.”

Most recently, ECA delivered the same message to Congress on ECA Legislative Action Day in June, while in May, ECA, along with the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE), the American Society of Association Executives, the Consumer Technology Association and many other industry entities testified at a hearing encouraging the FTC to adopt the rule as soon as possible.

“Given the widespread impersonation fraud efforts targeted at the business events industry, the FTC’s proposed rule is both necessary and urgent,” Goodwin said. “ECA strongly believes that the rule would provide the FTC with another important enforcement tool to target the fraudsters who attempt to prey on exhibitions, conferences and trade shows.”

The hearing went well, according to Goodwin, who said the significant majority of those testifying support the proposed FTC rule, which would allow the FTC to recover money from, or seek civil penalties against, scammers who harm consumers in violation of the rule.

“Our hope is that something crosses the finish line by the end of the year,” Goodwin said.

Nicole Bowman, vice president, marketing and communications for IAEE and executive director for the Meetings Mean Business coalition, testified at the hearing and told TSNN why she believes it is so important for the FTC to finalize the anti-fraud rule as soon as possible.

“Since 2017, the FTC has received more than 2.5 million business impersonation fraud reports,” Bowman said. “Anyone who has spent any time in the past 20 years producing events knows this has been a pervasive problem in our industry for that much time and longer.”

According to Bowman, she has yet to hear from an event organizer that has never experienced this type of fraud.

“We are talking about a pervasive crime here that takes personal and private information from attendees, exhibitors and really any event stakeholder and gains access to their financial information along with personal information,” Bowman said. “Show organizers and event producers waste time and money sending cease and desist letters to no avail. And those that do win judgements have no recourse for receiving payments.”

Advocating for the Industry

At the hearing, Goodwin’s testimony highlighted the unique nature of the exhibitions and trade shows, which he said at its core is America’s small businesses helping America’s small businesses.

“More than 99% of all business events organizations are small businesses, and more than 80% of exhibitors at our exhibitions, conferences and trade shows are also small businesses themselves,” Goodwin said. “It’s these small businesses that are frequent targets of business impersonation fraud.”

Goodwin also said that each of ECA’s member associations are targets of business impersonation fraud, including hotel reservation scams and attendee list scams, as are their members, attendees and exhibitors, most of whom are small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Goodwin outlined each type of impersonation fraud targeting the business events industry.

Hotel Reservation Scams

  • Third-party hotel room brokers use deceptive practices to market overpriced or nonexistent hotels room to exhibitors and attendees at business events.
  • Instead of providing the hotel room promised, the fraudulent brokers often make off with the victim’s credit card information or provide victims with low-quality rooms in remote locations away from the event itself, usually with high booking fees and cancelation penalties attached.

Attendee List Scams

  • Event exhibitors are contacted by rogue list brokers, often daily, fraudulently claiming to have and sell the event’s attendee list before the event itself takes place.
  • The scammers use the event name, logo and/or organizer’s name in their email signatures to create the illusion that their efforts are conducted with the approval of the event organizer.
  • The scam does not include the actual attendee lists. Rather, the scammers crawl event-related websites to harvest usable email addresses, which they subsequently target with phishing scams designed to illegally obtain an exhibitor’s business and financial information that can be used for fraudulent practices.

Goodwin called attention to three examples of events that have fallen victim to impersonation scams, including the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), the International Sign Association (ISA) and Fast Forward Events.

RSNA brings together more than 50,000 attendees and 700 exhibitors from more than 120 countries for its annual conference.

“In advance of its 2022 event in Chicago, RSNA was alerted to 36 fraudulent sites that were illegally advertising housing, registration or attendee list selling services,” Goodwin said. “For its 2023 annual meeting, RSNA has already identified hotel scam websites that are using its trademarked logo without its permission.”

ISA brought its community of nearly 20,000 attendees and more than 500 exhibitors together in Las Vegas in April.

“In the lead up to the ISA International Sign Expo, the association sent nearly 300 cease-and-desist letters to hotel reservation scam and attendee list sale scam artists preying on its event,” Goodwin testified. “Its exhibitors and attendees contacted ISA daily voicing their confusion and concern about the emails they were receiving, many of which used the event name and ISA’s logo in their disingenuous attempts to sell their fraudulent services.”

Meanwhile, a Fast Forward Events’ conference and expo in San Diego was targeted by a hotel room booking scam.

“These scammers harvested contact information for registered exhibitors and called them in an effort to book their hotel rooms outside of the official process, almost certainly in an effort to obtain their financial information for fraudulent purposes,” Goodwin said.

Given the breadth of business impersonation fraud perpetrated against stakeholders across the face-to-face business events sector, ECA and its members support the FTC’s proposed rule and feel it is both necessary and urgent, according to Goodwin.

“Let's give the FTC some more enforcement authority to go after the scammers and make sure that our industry isn't continually targeted when it comes to these types of scams.” Goodwin said.

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