A publishing company employee has been arrested in a new twist on an old crime - manuscript theft. It is a scheme that fits with the reality of how manuscripts of books are written today. They are not created on reams of paper, handwritten with a pen or typed upon by a typewriter. They are created on computers, digital impulses rather than tangible substances such as paper.
Filippo Bernardini, a 29-year-old Italian citizen working in London, was arrested at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on January 5 after arriving on an overseas flight. Bernardini worked for the London office of book publisher Simon & Schuster as a Rights Coordinator. His actions were unknown to his employer and were not conducted as part of his responsibilities though he clearly made use of information he gained through his publishing connections to perpetrate his enormous fraud. He has been stealing hundreds of prepublication manuscripts from authors or others as far back has 2016.
According to the U. S. Department of Justice, Bernardini pulled off his scheme by misrepresenting his identity and whom he represented. The D.O.J. alleged, Bernardini “created fake email accounts that were designed to impersonate real people employed in the publishing industry, including literary talent agencies, publishing houses, literary scouts, and others. Bernardini created these accounts by registering more than 160 internet domains that were crafted to be confusingly similar to the real entities that they were impersonating, including only minor typographical errors that would be difficult for the average recipient to identity during a cursory review.” For example, they alleged he would replace the letter “m” with an “r” and an “n”. Put together – rn – can easily be mistake for “m.” An author could easily be led to believe he or she was responding to someone from a well-known site, not a fake.
The D.O.J. then provided a specific example of what was done (slightly edited for clarity): “In September 2020, Bernardini “utilized a fraudulent email address impersonating a well-known editor and publisher who worked for an imprint of a U.S. publishing house. Impersonating the Editor, Bernardini emailed a Pulitzer Prize winning author and requested a copy of a word version of the Author’s forthcoming manuscript, which the Author sent to Bernardini, believing him to be the Editor. Over the course of this scheme, Bernardini impersonated hundreds of distinct people and engaged in hundreds of unique efforts to fraudulently obtain electronic copies of manuscripts that he was not entitled to.”
In another instance, the D.O.J. said Bernardini used a “phishing” scheme to gain access to a New York scouting company's database, then created a web page impersonating that company's website. Next, impersonating a scouting company employee, he emailed two clients, sending them to the fake website, and got them to use their usernames and passwords. The site was designed so it would send the usernames and passwords to Bernardini's private email address.
It has been well-known in the trade that someone has been engaging in these phishing expeditions for several years, so voluminous have they been. It has also been known that the person or persons were insiders in the business based on evident knowledge of the trade. What has not been known is who and why. Even if the FBI has the right suspect, the why remains a mystery. The immediate guess is that such an individual hoped to get credit for a great book before published under the true author's name, but there has been no evidence of any such attempt. In fact, there has been no evidence of any use of the information, such as blackmail or demands for ransom. Perhaps the knowledge would have somehow benefited the perpetrator's standing in the trade or with his employer, but it is not clear how. The FBI had no answer either. It recognized the value of prepublication manuscripts, how authors and publishers could be damaged by their prerelease, and harm a writer's reputation by releasing an unedited draft. However, that does not explain what the thief hoped to gain through the theft.
Bernardini was charged with wire fraud, which carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison, and aggravated identity theft which adds a mandatory two additional years to the preceding charge. He pleaded not guilty. Bail was set at $300,000 plus the wearing of an electronic monitor because of the flight risk of a foreign citizen. Simon and Schuster suspended Bernardini pending further developments and issued a statement saying, “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.”