<i>The Police Blotter:</i> eBay Buyers Beware; Book Thief Sentenced to 2 Years
By Michael Stillman
Ebay is an outstanding source for great bargains, but an indictment handed down by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on January 22 warns that dangers lurk here as well. Items that are inexpensive or easy to understand are fairly safe purchases. There is little risk in a reading copy of a book. Those which are more expensive, or require some expertise to identify, are riskier. Here is a case where buying cheaply on eBay without the necessary expertise has apparently proved costly for many book collectors.
According to the indictment, 47-year-old Forrest R. Smith III of Reading, Pennsylvania, forged the signatures of numerous authors on unsigned books he purchased on eBay, through library sales, bookstores and other venues. He then resold them on eBay as signed copies. The indictment claims that over 400 different eBay users purchased books they believed to be signed editions from Smith between December 2006 and December 15, 2008 (however, the frauds were believed to have started as early as 2002). For those concerned they may be victims, the account under which they were sold was "bev103162smith." Bev Smith is his wife. Smith purchased his books through a separate eBay account, "bigdaddy_books."
Smith's modus operandi, according to the indictment, was to obtain actual signatures of the authors involved. He used these to have ink stamps made of the signatures, which he would use to place forged signatures on the unsigned books. He would then advertise them on eBay as signed copies. Among the authors whose signatures he was said to have forged were Truman Capote, James Michener, Norman Mailer, Leon Uris, Kurt Vonnegut, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, John Irving, Toni Morrison, Annie Proulx, Anne Rice, Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe. The indictment, however, is based on three specific instances of wire fraud: listings of Rice's Interview with the Vampire and Capote's A Tree of Life, both on November 16, 2008, and approximately 20 books from authors including Crichton, Vonnegut, Proulx and Grisham listed on December 8, 2008. A fourth count alleges mail fraud on November 24, 2008, for shipping forged books.
The indictment states that Smith received more than $300,000 in revenue from books misrepresented as signed since March of 2002. Acting U.S. Attorney Laurie Magid stated, "Hundreds of collectors thought they were purchasing valuable books bearing the signatures of renowned authors. In reality, their appreciation for the book or author was being exploited to satisfy one man's greed."
Evidently Smith was very successful at fooling people. He had a 99% positive feedback rating on eBay, filled with comments like "honest seller." Among the very few negatives were a couple of recent complaints for failing to ship books that had been won. One suspects his failure to ship items recently won at auction is related to the just handed down indictment.
If convicted on all charges Smith faces a maximum punishment of 80 years in prison, a $1 million fine, 12 years of supervised release (which could theoretically begin when he is 127 years old), a $400 assessment, and restitution to his victims.
There is much to be said for buying bargains on eBay, but as U.S. Attorney Magid noted, "buying and selling over the internet depends on trust." As Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, "trust, but verify." The internet has seemingly reduced the need for expert sellers, but it has not decreased the need for expertise. If anything, it has increased it. There must be more than a few book and autograph dealers saying, "I could have told you so." Those who lack the requisite expertise are taking a gamble when they avoid the service of an expert. You win some, or as in the alleged case of these 400 buyers, you lose some.