A scammer, likely based in Poland, is trying to extort significant sums of money from scientists tricked into participating in a Covid-19 “webinar” in early 2020. This was after lockdowns had begun, and the scientists in question (doctors, epidemiologists, mathematicians, etc.) jumped at the chance to participate, thinking their work could help deal with the pandemic.
What they innocently signed were not standard releases or contracts. These contained “clauses” demanding payment for pariticipation, payment for editing of the video which was never released. And now the fraudster is attempting to extort payments.
Researchers are fighting back against a mysterious conference organizer and an arbitration court that may not exist
When Björn Johansson received an email in July 2020 inviting him to speak at an online debate on COVID-19 modeling, he didn’t think twice. “I was interested in the topic and I agreed to participate,” says Johansson, a medical doctor and researcher at the Karolinska Institute. “I thought it was going to be an ordinary academic seminar. It was an easy decision for me.”
Three years later, Johansson has come to regret that decision. The Polish company behind the conference, Villa Europa, claims he still owes them fees for taking part, and is seeking payment through a Swedish court. After adding legal costs and interest to the bill, the company is demanding a whopping €80,000.
Johansson isn’t alone. Dozens of researchers participated in the same series of online conferences on COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021 and many have received demands for payment from Villa Europa. At least five are being pursued through courts in their own countries for fees of tens of thousands of euros, although several researchers are fighting back.
But the case is peppered with puzzling circumstances. In court filings and interviews, the researchers say the demands are illegitimate and based on deceptive license agreements. Little is known about the individuals who organized the conferences. And many of the demands hinge on the ruling of a Polish arbitration court whose very existence has been questioned by experts in the country.
Science has talked with 10 of the speakers, all of whom tell similar stories. In early 2020, somebody calling himself Matteo Ferensby, whose email signature mentioned the University of Warsaw, invited them to speak at online webinars on the mathematical and computational modeling of COVID-19.
The University of Warsaw has no employee by that name, according to the institution’s press office. And there is no track record of scientific publications from a Matteo Ferensby.
The story goes on from there.
Steve Lehto is an attorney from Michigan, specializing in Lemon Law and Consumer Protection, who discusses news stories about the law that viewers submit. He is a bit obnoxious at times and (based on his words) I doubt he would be a progressive, especially his obsession with expensive and fast gas-guzzling cars. Having said that, you wouldn’t be able to gauge his politicial affiliation based on his videos, and keeps his personal opinions out of them.
Lehto delves thoroughly into this one, pointing out the flaws in the attempted scam (e.g. “arbitration” requires the involvement of all parties, not in absentia and without notice). The scammer is probably hoping the victims will just give in and pay, because good luck getting any court to uphold the fraudlent “arbitration ruling”.