The FBI had long followed a lead that left everyone puzzled. There were no motives, no stellar earnings, no certainty of a culprit to catch: someone was stealing unpublished manuscripts.
The alleged thefts were carried out mainly through e-mail, by an unknown who pretended to be a publishing professional and targeted authors, publishers, agents and literary talent scouts who kept drafts of their works in their computers.
The mystery may now have been unraveled. The Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Italian citizen Filippo Bernardini on charges of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft carried out over a span of more than five years, having obtained a large number of manuscripts that had not yet seen the light of day. Bernardini was apprehended after landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and is due to appear before the judge of the United States Court for the Southern District of New York.
A spokesman for Simon&Schuster, one of the largest publishing companies in the United States and Bernardini’s employer, said they were “shocked and appalled” by the allegations against their employee, who has been suspended until more information about the case can be made available.
Simon&Schuster, while not involved in any of the charges, was keen to clarify how “the safekeeping of our authors’ intellectual property is of milestone importance to us and to the publishing industry as a whole. We are grateful to the FBI for investigating this incident and reporting the alleged offender.”
According to the Feds, Bernardini would act according to a pattern: having found his victim, he contacted them with e-mail messages through false addresses, in which he pretended to be a prominent figure in the publishing industry. For instance, he would pose as a literary agent at Penguin Random House, another prestigious publishing house, using the domain “penguinrandornhouse.com” instead of “penguinrandomhouse.com”, thus putting “rn” in place of “m”. Something quite hard to notice for the “lucky” ones who received his proposals.
Bernardini made his move with more than 160 Internet domains, targeting, among others, a New York-based literary scouting company. He created fake login pages that prompted victims to enter their usernames and passwords, which provided him with broad access to the company’s database.
Finding him online is nearly impossible. Bernardini’s social media accounts usually lack his last name but hint at a penchant with writing and languages. From his LinkedIn profile, he says he holds a bachelor’s degree in the Chinese language from Milan’s Cattolica University and worked as an Italian translator for Chinese comic book author Rao Pingru’s memoir. He also holds a master’s degree in publishing from University College London and has made it his mission to ensure that books “can be read and enjoyed around the world and in multiple languages.”
Many of the editors who received his proposals noticed right away that whoever wrote them had to be thoroughly familiar with the industry. Bernardini used terms and abbreviations typical of insiders. He would write “ms” to indicate a manuscript and fully understood all the steps required before a book could be published. The scams were carried out across different countries including the United States, Sweden and Taiwan.
It wasn’t just small fish in his net. Works by high-profile writers and celebrities such as Margaret Atwood and Ethan Hawke were targeted as well.
One unresolved issue remains, however: the stolen manuscripts never ended up on the dark web. Apparently, no one ever demanded a ransom. The prosecution describes in detail how Bernardini managed to steal hundreds of works, but cannot explain why.
Perhaps he just wished to know beforehand information about novels not yet in circulation and thus prove their value. The only certainty is that, in spite of the charges brought against him, Bernardini is now out on bail, having posted 300 thousand dollars, and is staying at a friend’s house in Manhattan’s West Village.
Translated by Gennaro Mansi