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FBI arrests man accused of stealing unpublished book manuscripts

The thefts and
attempted thefts occurred primarily over email, by a fraudster impersonating
publishing professionals and targeting authors, editors, agents and literary
scouts who might have drafts of novels and other books.

The mystery may now
be solved. On Wednesday, the FBI arrested Filippo Bernardini, a 29-year-old
rights coordinator for Simon & Schuster UK, saying that he “impersonated,
defrauded, and attempted to defraud, hundreds of individuals” over five or more
years, obtaining hundreds of unpublished manuscripts in the process.

Bernardini, who was
arrested after landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport, was charged
with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft in the US District Court for the
Southern District of New York. A spokesperson for the Southern District said
Bernardini did not yet have a lawyer.

A Simon &
Schuster spokesman, in a statement, said the publisher was “shocked and
horrified” by the allegations Bernardini faces and that he has been suspended
until there is further information on the case.

“The safekeeping of
our authors’ intellectual property is of primary importance to Simon &
Schuster, and for all in the publishing industry, and we are grateful to the
FBI for investigating these incidents and bringing charges against the alleged
perpetrator,” he added. Simon & Schuster was not accused of wrongdoing in
the indictment.

According to the
indictment, to get his hands on the manuscripts, Bernardini would send out
emails impersonating real people working in the publishing industry — a
specific editor, for example — by using fake email addresses. He would employ
slightly tweaked domain names like penguinrandornhouse.com instead of
penguinrandomhouse.com, — putting an “rn” in place of an “m.” The indictment
said he had registered more than 160 fraudulent internet domains that
impersonated publishing professionals and companies.

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Bernardini also
targeted a New York City-based literary scouting company. He set up impostor
login pages that prompted his victims to enter their usernames and passwords,
which gave him broad access to the scouting company’s database.

The author Margaret Atwood in Toronto, Aug 20, 2019. On Wednesday, Jan 5, 2022, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Filippo Bernardini, a 29-year-old publishing professional, saying that he “impersonated, defrauded, and attempted to defraud, hundreds of individuals” over five or more years, obtaining hundreds of unpublished manuscripts in the process. Arden Wray/The New York Times

The author Margaret Atwood in Toronto, Aug 20, 2019. On Wednesday, Jan 5, 2022, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Filippo Bernardini, a 29-year-old publishing professional, saying that he “impersonated, defrauded, and attempted to defraud, hundreds of individuals” over five or more years, obtaining hundreds of unpublished manuscripts in the process. Arden Wray/The New York Times

Bernardini left few
digital crumbs online, omitting his last name on his social media accounts,
like Twitter and LinkedIn, on which he described an “obsession for the written
word and languages.” According to his LinkedIn profile, he obtained his
bachelor’s in Chinese language from Università Cattolica in Milan and later
served as the Italian translator for Chinese comic book author Rao Pingru’s
memoir, “Our Story.” He also obtained a master’s degree in publishing from
University College London and described his passion as ensuring “books can be
read and enjoyed all over the world and in multiple languages.”

Many in publishing
who received the phishing emails noted that whoever wrote them was clearly
familiar with the industry. The thief would sometimes use common shorthand,
like “ms” for manuscript, and understood how a book got from one point to the
next on its way to publication. The phishing attacks have been so voluminous
and far-reaching, hitting publishing professionals in the United States, Sweden
and Taiwan, among other countries, that some have said it could not possibly be
the work of just one person.

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For years, the scheme
has baffled people in the book world. Works by high-profile writers and
celebrities like Margaret Atwood and Ethan Hawke have been targeted, but so
have story collections and works by first-time authors. When manuscripts were
successfully stolen, none of them seemed to show up on the black market or the
dark web. Ransom demands never materialised. Indeed, the indictment details how
Bernardini went about the scheme but not why.

Early knowledge in a
rights department could be an advantage for an employee trying to prove his
worth. Publishers compete and bid to publish work abroad, for example, and
knowing what’s coming, who is buying what and how much they’re paying could
give companies an edge.

“What he’s been
stealing,” said Kelly Farber, a literary scout, “is basically a huge amount of
information that any publisher anywhere would be able to use to their
advantage.”

In a news release
announcing the arrest, US Attorney Damian Williams said: “This real-life
storyline now reads as a cautionary tale, with the plot twist of Bernardini
facing federal criminal charges for his misdeeds.”

©2022 The New York
Times Company

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