$40,000 swindle puts spotlight on literary prize scams

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$40,000 swindle puts spotlight on literary prize scams
Valeria Luiselli, author of “Lost Children Archive,” which won the Rathbones Folio Prize, in New York, Jan. 9, 2019. The literary award’s organizers transferred the prize money to a fraudster who posed as her in an email. Devin Yalkin/The New York Times.

by Alex Marshall

LONDON (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The organizers of the Baillie Gifford Prize, a respected British award for nonfiction writing, woke up Nov. 25 to an excited email signed by author Craig Brown.

“Words cannot even begin to describe how over the moon I am,” the email gushed.

The night before, Brown had won the 2020 prize for “150 Glimpses of the Beatles” (titled “One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time” in Britain), a witty retelling of the Liverpool band’s story.

There was just one problem, the email said: “I’m currently experiencing a few hiccups with my bank and also with the pandemic.” Could the organizers transfer the 50,000 pounds prize money — about $69,000 — to a PayPal account? “If that’s OK?” the email added.

The message was written with “tremendous confidence,” Toby Mundy, the prize’s executive director, said in a telephone interview. “There was a bit of ‘zhoosh’ about the sentences,” he added. But he smelled a rat, called Brown and discovered that the email was a scam.

Mundy’s experience was not a one-off. Over the past year, at least five British book prizes have been targeted by the same swindle — and one has even paid out. In March 2020, the Rathbones Folio Prize paid 30,000 pounds, about $41,000, to a scammer posing as author Valeria Luiselli, who had just won the award for her novel “Lost Children Archive.” The fraud was reported earlier this week by The Bookseller, a trade journal.

The prize’s organizers had to find another 30,000 pounds to pay Luiselli, and the “lost funds were absorbed by cost savings elsewhere,” Minna Fry, the prize’s executive director, said in a statement. Luiselli did not respond to a request for comment.

The scammer does not appear to have targeted prizes outside Britain. The National Book Awards and five other American literary prizes all said they had not been contacted. The Stockholm-based Nobel Institute, which oversees the Nobel Prize in literature, had not been approached, either, a spokesperson said.

Susan Swan, a novelist who helped found the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction, a North American award, said in an email that “literary phishing is a diabolical cybercrime, because most of us expect fraudsters to be working elsewhere, not reading about books.” She added, “We’ll solve the problem by issuing checks to our winners, and avoid online payments.”

And it’s not just literary prizes that have been targets for con artists. Over the past few years, agents, editors and authors have received fraudulent emails asking them to hand over unpublished manuscripts, ranging from blockbuster novels by the likes of Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan to short story collections. The motive for these rackets is unclear, as the manuscripts that were successfully acquired do not appear to have ended up on the black market, and no ransoms were demanded.

The literary prize scammers seem more obviously motivated by money. The fraudster targeting the British awards appears to use the same approach each time, emailing administrators late at night after the winners’ announcement, using addresses featuring the author’s full name followed by the word “writes.” (Emails from The New York Times to those addresses went unanswered.)

As well as the Rathbones Folio and Baillie Gifford prizes, scammers also wrote to the organizers of the Encore Award last June; the Forward Prizes for Poetry, in October; and the Society of Authors Translation Prizes, in February, the organizers of those awards said. Britain’s most prestigious literary award, the Booker Prize, had not been contacted, its director, Gaby Wood, said in an email. “Oddly enough, no attempt has been made,” she added.

Caroline Bird, a winner in last year’s Forward Prizes, said in a telephone interview that Britain’s literary scene was trusting and cozy and that the scammer was “clever” to exploit that. “It’s not the place you’d ever come across someone on the rob,” Bird said.

But several of the organizers who received the phishing emails said they suspected the fraudster was involved in British publishing, given the person knew whom to contact and when to send the messages. Mundy, of the Baillie Gifford Prize, said he wondered whether the scammer might be a disgruntled author “who’d never won a prize and was furious about it, trying to claim what’s rightfully theirs, by fair means or foul.”

Did any authors come to mind? “There’s plenty,” Mundy said with a laugh. “But I’m not naming names.”

Few share that idea, though, for one simple reason: The emails lack a certain literary flair. “The prose was a bit dead, and there was no warmth,” said Patrick McGuinness, winner of last year’s Encore Award, who had been passed the scammer’s email. “As a literary critic, I would say there was all the right words but none of the fire.”

Brown, the Baillie Gifford winner, agreed. “I’m not thinking, ‘My God, it’s Salman Rushdie,’” he said. A published author would have put more effort into the grammar, for starters, he added.

Mundy said he reported the matter to the police, but no one responded. Before that, he tried catching the fraudster himself, he added, asking for a phone number so he could confirm some details for a PayPal transfer. The scammer never wrote back.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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