Posts Tagged ‘James Michener’
Al Herzog, the United States Postal Inspector mainly responsible for busting book forger Forrest Smith, said that one of the things that made Smith stand out to him was the “boisterous” fake ID he used on eBay.
“When I was told about the two eBay user ID’s Smith was using, one of them was ‘bigdaddy_books,’” Herzog wrote to me in an email. “This user ID sounded a bit ‘boisterous’ to me and although the presence or lack of such a user ID, name, nickname, etc. does not determine my interest in an investigation, it certainly was in the back of my mind even as I worked on other cases and helped to pique my curiosity.”
His curiosity piqued, Herzog conducted an eleven- month investigation that eventually sent Smith to prison. As I reported last time, Smith, a married 48-year-old Pennsylvanian with children, is now serving a 33-month prison term and has been ordered to pay $120,000 in restitution to his victims.
Smith was arrested in late 2008 after forging the signatures of authors such as Truman Capote, James Michener and Anne Rice and selling first editions of their books on eBay as if the authors themselves had autographed them. I wrote an article about the case for Autograph in which I interviewed Herzog, and after the news broke about Smith’s sentencing I went back and reviewed my notes to see if there was anything more I could learn from the investigator.
As far as I know, nobody else in the media has interviewed Herzog. Here are a few new details I gleaned from my interviews with him:
• Besides Smith’s boisterous screen ID, another reason Herzog started investigating him was that it was “much different than the typical fraud case. I’m not an avid reader, but I could see it was unique in that people had a personal connection” with the authors whose signed works they were buying from Smith. Not only was Smith defrauding people, he was exploiting the emotional connection they felt with these writers.
• One of the truisms of the forgery racket is that if you stay small, you may get away with it. But once you start getting bigger and your criminal activity increases, you risk attracting the attention of the law. “As I monitored [Smith] on an ongoing basis,” Herzog said, “what did interest me was that there was an endless supply of many of the same authors. This is not necessarily an indicator of fraud without a lot more proof, but it kept my attention.”
• Despite selling a cool $300,000 worth of fake-signed books, Smith received very few if any complaints from his hundreds of customers on eBay. One reason for this, said Herzog, may have been the relatively small sums involved in each transaction-hundreds of dollars, rather than thousands or tens of thousands. “People who lose lesser amounts of money are less likely to complain,” he said, sometimes because they are embarrassed over being the victim of a crime. By reporting the incident they reveal their gullibility to others, and so they remain quiet about it.
The painful cost of forgery—to its victims as well as its perpetrators—became evident again last week when a Pennsylvania judge sentenced forger Forrest Smith to 33 months in prison and ordered him to pay $120,000 to the people he ripped off in his scam.
Smith, 48, of Reading, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia, had been free on bail. But after sentencing, guards took him immediately into custody.
For about six years, from 2002 to late 2008, Smith had run a forgery business on eBay, buying unsigned first editions of books by Truman Capote, Michael Crichton, Anne Rice, and other big-name authors. Then he stamped their signatures into the books as if the authors themselves had signed them, and sold these fake-signed firsts for nifty sums on the Internet auction site.
Authorities estimate that he ripped off hundreds of eBay customers for up to $300,000 until a federal investigation, conducted by United States Postal Inspector Al Herzog, brought him down. Smith pled guilty to wire and mail fraud last year.
Michael Hinkelman of the Philadelphia Daily News reports that U.S. District Judge Mitchell Goldberg expressed “grave concern” over Smith’s mental and emotional state at the sentencing. Smith has evidently tried to commit suicide twice in the past year.
“Show me mercy not because I deserve it, but because I don’t,” he told the judge, “but because my family will not survive.”
Both his daughter and wife testified on his behalf in court. One of the reasons that Smith engaged in the scam was to provide financial support for his family, particularly to pay for his children’s college education.
One unsolved mystery about the case is: Who tipped off the authorities about Smith in the first place? An undisclosed bookseller in eastern Pennsylvania spotted the unusual book-buying activity on those two eBay accounts, and provided the tip that jump-started Herzog’s investigation.
To read the full story on the case, read my article “The Curious Case of the Literary Forger,” in the December 2009 Autograph.Literar