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Explained: The one-man phishing scam that targeted publishing giants, top authors

A 29-year-old has been arrested in the US and charged with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. Who is Filippo Bernardini, and what is the case against him? How did reputed authors and editors fall prey to his scam?

Written by Deeptesh Sen , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata |
Updated: January 7, 2022 1:54:19 pm
Phishing scam, publishing giants, Phishing top authors, Filippo Bernardini, who is Filippo Bernardini, Bernardini’s arrest, FBI, explained global, express explainedFrom left -- Authors Margaret Atwood, Sally Rooney and Dylan Farrow. (File)

The FBI has arrested a 29-year-old man at John F Kennedy airport in New York for allegedly impersonating publishers and agents to steal book manuscripts from famous authors and editors. Filippo Bernardini has been charged with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, with FBI stating that he had “impersonated, defrauded, and attempted to defraud, hundreds of individuals”.

Bernardini’s arrest may well be the culmination of an international phishing scam that turned into a huge literary mystery spanning five years.

During this time, countless literary and publishing giants have fallen prey to the scam, and have been tricked into sharing their unpublished book manuscripts. The prosecutors said in a news release that among those targeted was a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Moreover, similar phishing scams have targeted numerous other famous authors, like Margaret Atwood and Sally Rooney, as well as editors, literary agents and even judges for the Booker Prize.

How did reputed authors and editors fall prey to the scam?

Most authors and editors who have been targeted said they had received emails from the fraudster impersonating publishing personalities.

Bernardini, an Italian citizen who worked at the UK publishing firm Simon & Schuster, allegedly kept an eye on book deals announced online on social media or used his own contacts within the publishing industry to choose his potential targets.

According to the indictment, he used to send out emails impersonating real people working in the publishing industry in order to persuade authors, editors and agents to send him their unpublished manuscripts. He used common industry lingo, such as “ms” for manuscripts and displayed a familiarity with publishing processes.

For his phishing targets, he reportedly tweaked email addresses—the changes were so minor that people on most occasions overlooked them. For instance, “t” would be replaced with “f”, “q” with “g”, and “r” and “n” in place of “m”, as in @penguinrandornhouse.com. He introduced “minor typographical errors that would be difficult for the average recipient to identify during a cursory review,” the prosecutors said in the news release.

The indictment states that Bernardini had registered more than 160 fraudulent internet domains that impersonated publishing companies or individuals.

Which famous authors were targeted?

Among those who have been phishing targets are some of the biggest names like Margaret Atwood, Sally Rooney and Kiley Reid as well as authors making their debut.

Atwood, in an interview with author Erica Wagner at the British Library in London a couple of years ago, had said that her book “The Testaments” was targeted by a fraudster. “…there were concerted efforts to steal the manuscript which would have been used, I’m told, for phishing expeditions in which ‘download The Testaments’ and then you do the fatal ‘click on the link’ and get malware on your computer and all your information is in the hands of the people who can steal your identity,” she had said, adding how “there were lots of phoney emails”. 

Other books targeted include “Such a Fun Age” by Reid, “The Sign For Home” by Blair Fell, “A Bright Ray of Darkness” by Ethan Hawke and “Hush” by Dylan Farrow.

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, the author of the debut novel “The Nest,” had said that she was targeted in 2018 by someone posing as her agent, Henry Dunow, The New York Times reported.

According to the report, the email addressed to her read: “Hi Cynthia, I loved the partial and I can’t wait to know what happens next to Flora, Julian and Margot. You told me you would have a draft around this time. Can you share it?

A New York City-based literary scouting company was also targeted. As part of the phishing attack, impostor login pages were set up. Whenever people keyed in their usernames or passwords on the pages, the details were reportedly shared with Bernardini.

Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster had earlier sent out warnings about the scam.

What was the motive behind the theft of manuscripts?

Pirated books and films usually make their way into the website on the dark web. Cybercriminals routinely share stolen screenplays, films and books on these sites, with many of them being put up for sale with the intention of making profit.

But what was unique about these phishing attacks was that none of the stolen manuscripts made their way into the dark web.

According to the press release, US Assistant Director-in-Charge Driscoll said, “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.”

Referring to the thefts, Daniel Sandström, literary director of a Swedish publisher, told Vulture last year, “If you try to find financial and economic gain, it’s of course hard to see. But if the game is psychological, a kind of mastery or feeling of superiority, it’s easier to visualise. This is a business full of resentment as well, and in that sense, it becomes a good story.”

How did the fraudster/s pull off these heists for such a long time?

Bernardini reportedly covered his tracks well.

On Twitter and LinkedIn, where he described his “obsession for the written word and languages”, Bernardini omitted his last name. His modus operandi was also reportedly replete with cautious pre-planning.

The email, in which author Joe Nesbo was asked to share the manuscript of “Knife”, was sent out from Salornonsson.com, which mimicked the Swedish literary agency Salomonsson. The domain was registered with GoDaddy from an IP address which had never been used before any phishing scam.

Bernardini’s LinkedIn profile states that he had obtained his bachelor’s degree in Chinese language from Università Cattolica in Milan and a master’s in publishing from University College London. He had also translated into Italian the Chinese comic book author Rao Pingru’s memoir, “Our Story”.

However, because of the scale on which the phishing attacks were mounted—authors, agents and publishers in the United States, Sweden, Taiwan, Israel and Italy were among those targeted—it is difficult to imagine that more people were not involved.

What is the charge against Bernardini?

Bernardini has been charged with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York.

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

A spokesperson of Simon & Schuster told the BBC that they were “shocked and horrified” by the allegations and Bernardini has been suspended 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,” she added.

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