The federal government hasn’t lost interest in the phony autograph trade.
Those who believe they can quietly buy and sell non-genuine merchandise on eBay and get away with it might want to check in with an eastern Pennsylvania man who could be facing a long prison sentence.
The U.S. Attorney’s office has filed an indictment against Forrest R. Smith III of Reading. Smith is charged with three counts of wire fraud and one count of mail fraud. The indictment alleges that Smith forged the signatures of famous authors in copies of their books and then sold those books at inflated prices on eBay.
The government’s charges show Smith accused of selling his items to over 400 different unsuspecting buyers between 2002 and December 15 of last month. Smith took in more than $300,000 from the sales.
“The system of buying and selling over the Internet depends on trust,” said acting U.S. Attorney Laurie Magid. “This defendant abused that trust to enrich himself. Hundreds of collectors thought they were purchasing valuable books bearing the signatures of renowned authors. In reality, their appreciation for the book or the author was being exploited to satisfy one man’s greed.”
Smith created and used two different eBay accounts to carry out his fraudulent scheme: one registered in his name with the user identification of “bigdaddy_books,” and one registered in his wife’s name with the user identification of “bev103162smith.” According to the indictment, Smith used the “bigdaddy_books” account to purchase unsigned books, then forged authors’ signatures in them and re-sold them as “signed” from the “bev103162smith” account. He was able to carry out the scheme, in part, because he had obtained documents containing authentic signatures of each author and had ink-based stamps made for the signatures. The indictment alleges that Smith then used those ink-based stamps to place the false signatures in the books he sold on eBay.
Smith allegedly forged autographs of deceased writers including Michael Crichton, James Michener, Norman Mailer, Leon Uris and Kurt Vonnegut, and living authors John Irving and Tom Wolfe.
Sports collectors have seen the same type of scam take place online with sellers faking not only autographs, but wax packs. A seller will buy large quantities of vintage wax pack wrappers, using them to create ‘packs’ they list as ‘unopened’. The packs, filled with commons or low value cards, often sell to naive buyers for a hefty profit. Sometimes the sellers are brazen enough not to bother creating separate eBay IDs, buying the wrappers and selling vintage packs within weeks of each other.
Shipping fraudulent merchandise through the U.S. Postal Service is a felony.
“The U.S. Postal Inspection Service is committed to protecting the public’s full confidence in the U.S. mail system by actively pursuing individuals seeking to use the U.S. mail in furtherance of any scheme devised to defraud the public,” said U.S. Postal Inspector-in-Charge Teresa Thome of the Philadelphia Division.
If convicted of all charges, Smith faces a maximum possible sentence of 80 years imprisonment, a $1million fine, 12 years of supervised release, a $400 statutory assessment, and restitution.
The case was investigated by the United States Postal Inspection Service and is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Mark B. Dubnoff.