They were confusing thefts, lacked a clear motive or dividend, and they happened in the upscale, not very lucrative world of publishing: Someone stole unpublished book manuscripts.
The thefts and attempted thefts happened primarily via email, by a scammer who imitated publishing professionals and was aimed at writers, editors, agents and literary scouts who could have draft novels and other books.
The mystery can now be solved. On Wednesday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Filippo Bernardini, a 29-year-old publishing professional, saying he “imitated, deceived and tried to deceive hundreds of individuals” over five or more years and obtained hundreds of unpublished manuscripts in the process.
Mr. Bernardini, who was arrested this afternoon after landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport, was charged with fraud and aggravated identity theft in the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York. A Southern District spokesman said Mr Bernardini did not yet have a lawyer.
Although the indictment does not mention Mr Bernardini’s employer, he describes himself as a rights coordinator for Simon & Schuster UK on his Twitter and LinkedIn profiles.
Simon & Schuster did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It was not charged with wrongdoing in the indictment.
According to the indictment, to get his hands on the manuscripts, Mr Bernardini would send emails that mimicked real people working in the publishing industry – a specific editor, for example – by using fake email addresses. He would use slightly tweaked domain names like penguinrandornhouse.com instead of penguinrandomhouse.com – by putting an “rn” instead of an “m.” The indictment said he had registered more than 160 fraudulent Internet domains that mimicked publishers and businesses.
Mr. Bernardini was also targeted at a New York-based literary scout company. He created fraudulent login pages that caused his victims to enter their usernames and passwords, giving him broad access to the scout company’s database.
Sir. Bernardini left few digital crumbs online and left out his last name on his social media accounts, such as Twitter and LinkedIn, where he described an “obsession with the written word and language.” According to his LinkedIn profile, he took his bachelor’s degree in Chinese language from the Università Cattolica in Milan and later worked as an Italian translator for Chinese cartoonist Rao Pingru’s memoir, “Our History.” He also earned a master’s degree in publishing from University College London and described his passion as ensuring that “books can be read and enjoyed worldwide and in multiple languages.”
Many in publishers who received phishing emails noticed that the person who wrote them was clearly familiar with the industry. The thief sometimes used ordinary shorthand, as “ms” for manuscript, and understood how a book came from one point to the next on the way to publication. The phishing attacks have been so extensive and far-reaching that they have affected publishers in the United States, Sweden and Taiwan, among others, and some have said that it could not possibly be the work of just one person.
For years, the scheme has confused people in the book world. Works by high-profile writers and celebrities such as Margaret Atwood and Ethan Hawke have been targeted, but so have history collections and works by first-time writers. When manuscripts were successfully stolen, none of them appeared on the black market or the dark web. Ransom demands never came to fruition. In fact, the indictment describes how Mr Bernardini approached the scheme, but not why.
Early knowledge in a rights department can 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 buys what and how much they pay, can give companies an advantage.
“What he has stolen,” said Kelly Farber, a literary scout, “is basically an enormous amount of information that any publisher anywhere would be able to use to their advantage.”
In a press release announcing the arrest, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said, “This real-life story can now be read as a warning story, with the plot dispute over Bernardini facing federal criminal charges for his misdeeds.”