Suspect in elaborate plot to scam famous authors arrested in New York

Federal agents arrested an Italian citizen Wednesday and accused of him running a yearslong scam in which he is believed to have stolen valuable unpublished literary manuscripts, officials said.

The man, Filippo Bernardini, 29, was picked up at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City and charged with identity theft and wire fraud in a scheme to "fraudulently obtain hundreds of prepublication manuscripts of novels and other forthcoming books," according to an indictment secured by federal prosecutors.

Bernardini, of London, registered more than 160 websites and email addresses "to impersonate individuals involved in the publishing industry to gain surreptitious access to these materials," the indictment says.

In building the fraudulent domains to look like those of literary talent agencies, publishing houses and scouting outfits, Bernardini would come close to using well-known names but deploy strategic typos that wouldn't be easily spotted — such as using lowercase "r" and "n" where the letter "m" would be in an entity's name, according to the indictment.

While the court document doesn't name any victims, it said Bernardini fooled a Pulitzer Prize-winning author in September 2020 and scored the writer's unpublished work by "impersonating a well-known editor and publisher."

Bernardini is an Italian citizen who works as a rights coordinator for "a major, international, U.S.-based publishing house," according to the indictment.

A representative for Simon & Schuster confirmed that Bernardini is an employee.

"We were shocked and horrified to learn of the allegations of fraud and identity theft by an employee of Simon & Schuster UK. The employee has been suspended pending further information on the case," Senior Vice President Adam Rothberg said in a statement Thursday.

"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," Rothberg said.

While the leak of unpublished material could derail projects and cost writers and publishers millions of dollars, the indictment didn’t detail what, if anything, Bernardini is believed to have done with the stolen material or shine any light on a motive.

“Unpublished manuscripts are works of art to the writers who spend the time and energy creating them.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," Michael Driscoll, the FBI’s assistant director-in-charge in New York, said in a statement.

"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,” he said.

The fraud was known within the publishing word, The New York Times reported, with such high-profile and celebrity writers like Margaret Atwood and Ethan Hawke having been targeted. But there is no evidence that the stolen works ever ended up on the black market or were offered for ransom, the newspaper said.

Margaret Atwood (Leonardo Cendamo / Getty Images file)
Margaret Atwood (Leonardo Cendamo / Getty Images file)

It wasn't immediately known Thursday whether Bernardini had an attorney.

“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," U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in the statement with Driscoll.

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