London publishing staffer arrested and accused by FBI of stealing manuscripts

London publishing staffer arrested and accused by FBI of stealing manuscripts

A London publishing staffer has been arrested and charged by the FBI with allegedly stealing hundreds of book manuscripts over several years.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on 5th January that 29-year-old Filippo Bernardini, an Italian citizen who works as a rights co-ordinator at S&S UK, was charged with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft "in connection with a multi-year scheme to impersonate individuals involved in the publishing industry in order to fraudulently obtain hundreds of pre-publication manuscripts of novels and other forthcoming books".

A spokesperson for Simon & Schuster 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,” the spokesperson said. Simon & Schuster is not accused of any wrongdoing in the indictment.

The DOJ said Bernardini was arrested after landing at John F Kennedy International Airport and will be presented today (6th January) before United States magistrate judge Robert W Lehrburger in Manhattan federal court. The case is assigned to US district judge Colleen McMahon.

US attorney Damian Williams said: “Filippo Bernardini allegedly impersonated publishing industry individuals in order to have authors, including a Pulitzer Prize-winner, send him pre-publication manuscripts for his own benefit. This real-life storyline now reads as a cautionary tale, with the plot twist of Bernardini facing federal criminal charges for his misdeeds.”  

Michael J Driscoll, the assistant director-in-charge of the New York Office of the FBI, added: “Unpublished manuscripts are works of art to the writers who spend the time and energy creating them. Publishers do all they can to protect those unpublished pieces because of their value. We allege Mr Bernardini used his insider knowledge of the industry to get authors to send him their unpublished books and texts by posing as agents, publishing houses and literary scouts. 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."

The indictment, unsealed in Manhattan federal court, alleged Bernardini began impersonating agents, editors and other individuals involved in publishing to fraudulently obtain pre-publication manuscripts around August 2016. 

The indictment claims Bernardini created fake email accounts that were designed to impersonate real people employed in the publishing industry, and registered 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". 

An example of this was often replacing the lower-case letter "m" with the lower-case letters "r" and "n", which, when placed together as "rn", resemble an "m". The indictment said "in or about September 2020" Bernardini used a fraudulent email address to impersonate a well-known editor and publisher to email a Pulitizer Prize-winning author to request a copy of their forthcoming manuscript, which the author emailed to Bernardini believing him to be the editor. 

The indictment also alleges Bernardini created a webpage that impersonated a New York City-based literary scouting company.

The Bookseller has previously reported on several instances of spear phishing scams, where people had been tricked into submitting manuscripts after receiving scam emails. Books by authors including Margaret Atwood and Sally Rooney are said to have been targeted.

Bernardini has yet to issue a public comment directly or through a spokesperson.