Monday, the Association of American Representatives (AAR) sent out a letter warning about a phishing scam that has been plaguing publishing for the past two years; Penguin Random House sent out a similar letter just prior to the Frankfurt Book Fair. As described by the AAR alert, the scam, which has taken on a variety of iterations, initially started in continental Europe and Asia, but has recently spread to the U.K. and United States. It typically involves a literary agent, scout or publisher being asked for a manuscript by what appears to be a trusted party — another agent, scout or publisher— via email.
On October 11, The Bookseller in the U.K. identified scouting agency Eccles Fischer as one agency that has been targeted. As of this week, PW heard from several other agencies who report they too have been targeted, including the Greyhawk Agency in Taipei, the Kalem Agency in Istanbul, and the Pontas Agency in Barcelona, among others.
Ziv Lewis, foreign rights and acquisitions manager at Kinneret Zmora Dvir Publishing House Ltd, in Israel, has also been a victim of the phishers. “They spoofed our website and used my actual email and signature,” said Lewis, who tracked the registration for the site back to a gay men’s health clinic on Dean Street in London, which also used a spoofed email address associated with The Sun Bookshop in Melbourne, Australia. Lewis theorized that someone in Australia was taking the manuscripts, converting them into e-books and selling them online. Contacted by PW, Deb Force, owner of The Sun Bookstore, pointed out that the store does not sell e-books and has only a modest online operation. She said this was the first she had heard of the scam, denied any knowledge of the phishing, and underscored that the store was "not involved."
Lewis was alerted to the scam after the phishers started sending out requests in Hebrew, a language he doesn't use for work. Lewis wrote back to the phishers at the email address that spoofed his own and threatened “some Mossad-style cyberwarfare.” Lewis said he hasn’t heard of them spoofing his site or email since, but acknowledged that he lost several manuscripts to the scammers.
"The books I lost to them are not particularly significant and included some rather obscure material, but it is clear these are people who know our business,” said Lewis. “They know the way scouts work and how transactions are made.”
Grey Tan of the Greyhawk Agency told PW he’s had requests from fake Greek and Israeli publishers and U.K. scouts asking for materials. “It was eerie as they obviously had inside knowledge,” said Tan. “They even asked for the story collection and an upcoming novel of a not-so-famous Chinese writer that I represent. And I did not even know about the upcoming collection/novel!”
Erin Edmison of Edmison/Harper Literary Scouting reported an uptick in activity throughout the Frankfurt Book Fair and shared a letter from the U.K. agency Rights People warning that Edmison’s email address had been spoofed and was being used to request manuscripts. “I keep thinking it’s stopped, but I just got two emails today from people who said they had heard from the fake me,” Edmison told PW by email yesterday.
Another scout that was targeted was Jana-Maria Hartmann of JMH Scouting, who said she started getting reports about someone using her name in the scam in July of last year. The scammers spoofed her email address and used her firm’s actual email signature, albeit one that was dated. “I’ve done some simple research that tracked the scammer back to the U.K, but that’s just one of the places I heard they could be,” she said. “I got a warning from Random House Australia the other day that said that the fake emails once referred to an actual meeting people had.” She added, “I know of at least four other scouting agencies that have been hit and countless foreign editors and co-agents in the rights world.”
While the scam has been a significant irritant and has unsettled many, several people noted it is not something new to the business. “We get lots of spam and trash and strange petitions from so-called interested publishers for a certain manuscript and many of these emails are deleted immediately,” said Anna Soler-Pont of the Pontas Agency.
A spokesperson for PRH said it is constantly on the lookout for internet scams. “Like other companies, Penguin Random House takes all reports of phishing activity and email scams seriously and, when appropriate, notifies its employees to recognize and prevent such attempts. Employee awareness and training, particularly with respect to phishing scams, is a critical component of our company's cybersecurity program,” the PRH statement read.
Nermin Mollaoglu of Istanbul’s Kalem Agency said, “We are very careful on this kind of things. It is one of the first things we teach to the newcomers in the office. And we use a super high-level security internet alert system. I pay a lot for it.”