Italian man pleads guilty to book fraud scheme in US court

Filippo Bernardini allegedly targetted top authors like Margaret Atwood, as well as up-and-coming talent in publishing.

Margaret Atwood holds up a copy of "The Testaments" while an event attendee wears a costume of the handmaids – a red robe and white bonnet that covers the woman's peripheral vision
Author Margaret Atwood was among the writers targeted in a phishing scheme [Dylan Martinez/Reuters]

An Italian man accused of fraudulently obtaining more than 1,000 book manuscripts before publication pleaded guilty before a United States court on Friday.

Filippo Bernardini, a 30-year-old publishing industry worker formerly living in London, faces one charge of wire fraud for engineering a multi-year scheme to target up-and-coming writers as well as big names like Canada’s Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale.

He faces up to 20 years in prison for the scheme. At Friday’s hearing, Bernardini also agreed to pay $88,000 in restitution.

“Unpublished manuscripts are works of art to the writers who spend the time and energy creating them,” said Michael Driscoll, assistant director-in-charge of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s New York office.

“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.”

Bernardini was arrested at New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport in January 2022. US Justice Department officials have accused him of impersonating editors, talent agents and other individuals to gain advance copies of unpublished books.

The scheme began around August 2016, investigators said. Drawing on his knowledge of the industry, Bernardini began to register upwards of 160 internet domains that had names similar to existing publishing houses and literary scouts.

These domains, however, showed slight variations from the originals, prosecutors said. Where a real name might include the letter “m”, Bernardini would place a lowercase “r” and “n” close together to mimic the letter’s shape.

In one case, the Justice Department said he used one of his ersatz email addresses to approach a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Believing Bernardini to be their editor, the author forwarded him a copy of a forthcoming manuscript.

Another tactic Bernardini allegedly deployed was a phishing scheme, where he created a real-looking website that prompted users to provide their emails and passwords. Posing as a member of a talent-scouting company, he emailed links to this website to two publishing-industry insiders.

The webpage, prosecutors said, was designed to send the confidential information to Bernardini’s email account.

Bernardini has not offered any motive for his alleged actions and has not attempted to sell any of the book manuscripts. Among the authors caught up in the scheme were US actor Ethan Hawke and British Booker Prize-winner Ian McEwan.

His sentencing hearing is set for April 5 in the courtroom of US District Judge Colleen McMahon.

In a statement on Friday, US District Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams praised law enforcement and prosecutors for writing “the final chapter to Bernardini’s manuscript theft scheme”.

“This real-life storyline now reads as a cautionary tale,” Williams had said previously, “with the plot twist of Bernardini facing federal criminal charges for his misdeeds”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies