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Man Who Tricked Authors Into Handing Over Unpublished Manuscripts Arrested by FBI in New York
Filippo Bernardini, an employee of a well known publication house, has been arrested for stealing hundreds of unpublished manuscripts. / BY Andrew Wright / January 7th, 2022
A cunning cyber bandit who tricked authors into handing over their unpublished manuscripts for nearly five years has finally been apprehended.
Filippo Bernardini, 29, an Italian citizen who worked at the London-based publisher Simon & Schuster, was arrested by the FBI at JFK airport on Wednesday. The FBI says that Bernardini impersonated members of the publishing industry to obtain unpublished manuscripts and draft works. The indictment, which includes charges of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, claims that Bernardini had registered more than 160 fake internet domains designed to imitate websites for publishing houses, scouting companies and other entities within the publishing world.
Investigators believe that the scheme began in 2016.
With knowledge of the publication process and industry jargon, he collected hundreds of prepublication manuscripts.
A spokeperson for Simon & Schuster told the BBC that the publisher — not named in the indictment — was “shocked and horrified” by the allegations against their employee and said they had suspended him pending further information.
“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,” said the spokesperson.
The arrest could bring an end to a phishing scheme that has targeted both releases from lesser-known authors and also highly anticipated novels by Margaret Atwood, Sally Rooney and actor Ethan Hawke.
Atwood herself confirmed that there had been “concerted efforts to steal the manuscript” of her book The Testaments, the long-awaited sequel to her 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale.
“There were lots of phoney emails from people trying to winkle even just three pages, even just anything,” she told The Bookseller.
According to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Bernardini created fake email accounts that “were crafted to be confusingly similar” to editors and others at well-known publishing houses. For example, he would often replace a lower case “m” with “rn,” which recipients would often overlook.
The statement says that in September 2020, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author was coaxed into handing over an unpublished manuscript to Berardini, who posed as an editor for a well-known publisher.
“Unpublished manuscripts are works of art to the writers who spend the time and energy creating them. Publishers do all they can to protect those unpublished pieces because of their value,” Michael Driscoll, the assistant director-in-charge of the FBI’s New York office, said in the statement.
“Mr. Bernardini was allegedly trying to steal other people’s literary ideas for himself, but in the end he wasn’t creative enough to get away with it,” he said.
That motive could explain why the stolen works were never leaked online, or why a ransom was never demanded for a manuscript’s return. According to The Guardian, some had suspected the culprit was a literary scout attempting to get a jump on securing film and television deals for upcoming books.
Still, more cynical motives have been posited as well.
“If you try to find financial and economic gain, it’s of course hard to see,” Daniel Sandström, literary director of a Swedish publisher that was targeted multiple times, told Vulture last year.
“But if the game is psychological, a kind of mastery or feeling of superiority, it’s easier to visualize. This is a business full of resentment as well, and in that sense, it becomes a good story.”
Whatever the motives of the literary looter, the bizarre case may set a precedent for other cyber criminals hoping to cash in on an authors intellectual property.
“This real-life storyline now reads as a cautionary tale, with the plot twist of Barnardini facing federal criminal charges for his misdeeds,” said Driscoll.