Conference kerfuffle hits scientists

Confusion over an upcoming cardiology conference in Shanghai has forced registered scientists and clinicians to fight for reimbursements, including one who faced more than $2000 in spurious credit card charges he suspects are related to the conference. Image: Wikimedia Commons"This is the strangest thing that I've ever been involved in -- it's very weird," said linkurl:C. Richard Conti,;http://www.medicine.ufl.edu/cardio/cr_conti.asp a professor of cardiology at the University of Florida and ed

Aug 19, 2009
Alla Katsnelson
Confusion over an upcoming cardiology conference in Shanghai has forced registered scientists and clinicians to fight for reimbursements, including one who faced more than $2000 in spurious credit card charges he suspects are related to the conference.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
"This is the strangest thing that I've ever been involved in -- it's very weird," said linkurl:C. Richard Conti,;http://www.medicine.ufl.edu/cardio/cr_conti.asp a professor of cardiology at the University of Florida and editor-in-chief of Clinical Cardiology, who was listed as one the meeting's four plenary speakers and as such, paid no registration fees but has already purchased his airline ticket to Shanghai. A month or two ago, David Iovannisci, a geneticist studying heart disease at linkurl:Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute;http://www.chori.org in California, received an email invitation to speak at the "1st International Cardiology Conngress" in Shanghai, to be held on 5-7 December of this year. The email, signed by Alex Li, provided a (now defunct) link to the conference program at linkurl:www.internationalcardiologycongress.com,;http://www.internationalcardiologycongress.com which listed several speakers from well-known institutions, both in the US and abroad. "It looked pretty legit," Iovannisci told The Scientist. He receives email invitations to conferences every once in a while, he said, which he has occasionally attended. He had never traveled to China, and decided to go. Two weeks or so after registering online -- and paying a $600 registration fee as well as about $1200 for a tour of the country arranged by the conference organizers -- he checked his credit card account and saw more than $2000 in false charges -- three charges of more than $700 each to "Great America," the California amusement park, and a single small charge for access to a wireless internet hotspot, both of which Iovannisci said he never visited. (His credit card company has since reimbursed him for all of the charges.) Just days later, on July 30, he received an email from a man named Andy Liu, who identified himself as a lawyer for linkurl:BIT Life Sciences,;http://bitlifesciences.com/ a company based in Dalian, China, which, according to its Web site, claims as its mission "to create a global life science intelligent exchange channel," in part by organizing conferences on biomedical topics. The email, which Iovannisci forwarded to The Scientist, informed recipients that the conference "has been officially banned by the court according to Chinese Law." "The court has found out that the organizers have transferred the money to their personal accounts from the offical [sic] bank account which has been listed on their website," the email continued. "Whoever has paid the fees, please withdraw your payment as soon as possible." (Bold in original text.) An attached document, translated from Chinese for The Scientist by a fluent native speaker, asked victims affected by the fraud to contact the police at two Shanghai precincts, with the phone numbers listed in red. The email also informed recipients of a lawsuit "against the infringe of BIT's Intellectual Properties." Several researchers and clinicians who had been listed on a version of the program downloaded by Iovannisci from www.internationalcardiologycongress.com on July 30 (which he forwarded to The Scientist) said they had received the same email along with a flurry of other emails related to the conference. One of the listed speakers, linkurl:Celine Fiset;http://www.pharm.umontreal.ca/propos_faculte/fichesProfs/c_fiset.html at the University of Montreal, said that after informally agreeing to a proposed talk title, she had decided not to go. She hadn't paid the registration fee, she said, because the organizers told her that her fees and expenses would be covered. They never confirmed that, though, and neither did she confirm her participation, she said. "I was not aware that my name was on their program," she wrote in an email. "You don't put the name of someone before they confirm their participation." Fiset's invitation to the conference had come from Tom Lee, who said he was the program coordinator of the International Cardiology Congress. But on July 23, Fiset too received an email from Andy Liu, the lawyer of BIT Life Sciences, describing "an unpleasant confusion" between "two Cardiology conferences." Lee and his colleagues, Liu said in the email, are "non-professional" and had usurped BIT "using our internal planned programs proposed last year." A document attached to the email from Liu laid out the conference plans of the two groups, from the speakers to the sponsorship. Another researcher, linkurl:Rex Wright;http://www.psy.uab.edu/wright.htm from the University of Alabama, received an invitation from the International Cardiology Congress via "Alex Li," and also agreed to go but paid no fees. Shortly thereafter, he received an almost identical invitation from BIT, whose Web site now lists a linkurl:conference program.;http://www.bitlifesciences.com/icc2009/Program.asp When he asked Alex Li for an explanation, he was told that the BIT conference was not legitimate. After several conflicting emails from both parties, "I saw too many flags waiving," Wright wrote in an email, so he withdrew on July 23. linkurl:Hector Mobine;http://www.hectormobine.com/resume.pdf of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said he received the emails and was listed on the program sent by Tom Lee and Alex Li, though he told The Scientist in an email that he had never expressed interest or otherwise replied to the invitation. "I actually paid for that airline ticket thinking that the first people who invited me were legit, and I would get reimbursed," said Conti, who was listed as one of the plenary speakers on both conference programs. After the emails he has received from both groups, "I have no idea who's doing what here," he said. The Web site www.internationalcardiologycongress.com is no longer functional; emails sent by The Scientist to the return address in emails sent to several researchers (tom@internationalcardiologycongress.com, presumably conference organizer Tom Lee) bounced, and there was no answer at a telephone number listed in a description of the conference posted on an online bulletin board. When contacted by The Scientist, Liu said in an email that his client would "prefer not to release any process of the case to the media at the moment." A representative of BIT, reached by phone via an interpreter, declined to give details about the case but said that the conference is going forward. The conference program listed on BIT's Web site, which had been blank between August 4 and August 11, now lists speakers filling some of the slots, though many of them differ from those in the original program. (Fiset, Wright, Mobine, and Iovannisci, for example, are not listed.) Several speakers on the program posted on BIT's Web site told The Scientist they had agreed to participate but had not paid their registration fee or booked their flight. linkurl:Dan Fintel;http://www.medicine.northwestern.edu/scripts/bio.pl?pid=224 a cardiologist at the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute at Northwestern University in Chicago, is listed as one of the plenary speakers on both the defunct program and the current program, and already booked a flight for himself, his wife and his son. But he said that BIT has now told him he must pay a $700 registration fee, unless he recruits four other cardiologists to participate in the meeting. In that case, in addition to waiving the fee, "they will give me $500 and pay my hotel," Fintel said. "I've never in my life been invited to speak at a symposium, and run a symposium, and pay an entrance fee," he said, adding that he is still interested in going, but doesn't plan to "waste a lot of my time" searching for cardiologists who might also attend. linkurl:Plamen Ivanov,;http://physics.bu.edu/people/show/plamen a physicist and linkurl:sleep medicine researcher;http://sleep.med.harvard.edu/ext/medical_chronobiology/Plamen_Ch_Ivanov,_PhD.htm affiliated with both Boston University and Harvard Medical School, also paid approximately $600 to register for the conference via Tom Lee. After he began the process of canceling the charge, however, he received an email on August 11 from someone calling himself "Tom" and writing from the email address "icc_2009@126.com" -- presumably Tom Lee -- saying that the group's Web site and email "have been hacked continually." (Iovannisci, too, received a similar email from "Alex" at alex_cardiology@hotmail.com".) The email, which Ivanov forwarded to The Scientist, went on to say that the organization would refund Ivanov's money and "will hold the speech opportunity" and "offer the re-registration" for him. Indeed, he learned from his credit card company on August 18 that the money had been refunded. Neither "Tom" nor "Alex" replied to an email request for explanation sent by The Scientist to the addresses from which they wrote. Kerry Huang provided translating services for this article.
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