They were perplexing thefts, lacking a clear motive or payoff, and they happened in the genteel, not particularly lucrative world of publishing: Someone was stealing unpublished book manuscripts.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 Federal Bureau of Investigation 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defrauded, and attempted to defraud, hundreds of individuals” over five or more years, obtaining hundreds of unpublished manuscripts in the process.
Mr. Bernardini, who was arrested after landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport, was charged with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. A spokesman for the Southern District said Mr. Bernardini did not yet have a lawyer.
A Simon & Schuster spokesman, in a statement, said the publisher was “shocked and horrified” by the allegations Mr. 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, Mr. 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.
Mr. 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.
Mr. Bernardini left few digital crumbs online, omitting his last name on his social media accounts, like Twitter and LinkedIn, where 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 the 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.
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 materialized. Indeed, the indictment details how Mr. 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, U.S. 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.”