Published on: January 11, 2022
The FBI has arrested an Italian man who is suspected of running a years-long email phishing scam that targeted hundreds of authors.
Fillipo Bernardini was arrested on Jan. 5 after landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport, according to a press release by the agency. The Italian national is charged with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, according to an indictment. Bernardini is expected to appear in court before US District Judge Colleen McMahon on Jan. 13.
According to multiple reports, several high-profile authors like Margaret Atwood and Ethan Hawke have been targeted by the phishing scheme over the past few years. In 2019, Atwood told the BBC that she and her publisher were sent “fake emails” from “cybercriminals” as methods to steal the manuscript for “The Handmaid’s Tale” sequel.
“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,” US Attorney Damian Williams said in the FBI release. “This real-life storyline now reads as a cautionary tale, with the plot twist of Barnardini facing federal criminal charges for his misdeeds.”
Additionally, the indictment alleges that Bernardini created fraudulent emails for real people who worked at different “publishing houses, at literary talent agencies, literary scouts, and others,” by using slightly different letters as far back as 2016. Bernardini works as a rights coordinator for Simon & Schuster UK, according to multiple reports.
Bernardini is accused of sending emails from hundreds of fake accounts that all received responses at a common address. The indictment alleges that Bernadini asked a Pulitzer Prize-winning author for a copy of their latest manuscript via a fake email. Police said that this message was forwarded to the common address.
Separate Phishing Scam
Bernardini is also accused of setting up a separate phishing scam that targeted a New York-based literary scouting agency. The indictment alleges that Bernardini created “at least two malicious webpages” that look similar to the homepage for the scouting company’s database. This homepage contains synopses and other information on upcoming books.
Bernardini emailed 2 employees at the scouting company from a fraudulent email address, the indictment alleges. Then, he directed the employees to use a fake landing page, which prompted them to enter their usernames and passwords. Bernadini’s fake webpage was designed to forward all of the information to an email account held by Bernadini, according to the indictment.
However, none of the stolen manuscripts appeared on the black market and never resurfaced, according to reports. The indictment doesn’t provide any information as to what Bernardini did with the stolen manuscripts.
“Unpublished manuscripts are works of art to the writers who spend the time and energy creating them,” Michael Driscoll, the Assistant Director-in-Charge of the FBI’s New York office, said in a statement. “Publishers do all they can to protect those unpublished pieces because of their value.”