By KEVIN NELSON
February 24, 2010
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 week, 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.
Kevin Nelson is the author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History. Contact him at www.operationbullpen.com.