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.
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.