Digital payments are the default for millions of women of childbearing age. So what will their credit and debit card issuers and financial app providers do when prosecutors seek their transaction data during abortion investigations?
It’s a hypothetical question that’s almost certainly an inevitable one in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade last week. Now that abortion is illegal in several states, criminal investigators will soon begin their hunt for evidence to prosecute those they say violated the law.
Medical records are likely to be the most definitive proof of what now is a crime, but officials who cannot get those may look for evidence elsewhere. The payment trail is likely to be a high priority.
HIPAA — which governs the privacy of a patient’s health records — permits medical and billing records to be released in response to a warrant or subpoena.
“There is a very broad exception to the HIPAA protections for law enforcement,” said Marcy Wilder, a partner and co-head of the global privacy and cybersecurity practice at Hogan Lovells, a law firm. But Ms. Wilder added that the information shared with law enforcement officials could not be overly broad or unrelated to the request. “That is why it matters how companies and health plans are interpreting this.”
Card issuers and networks like Visa and Mastercard generally do not have itemized lists of everything that people pay for when they shop for prescription drugs or other medications online, or when they purchase services at health care providers. But evidence of patronage of, say, a pharmacy that sells only abortion pills could give someone away.
a new state law authorizes residents to file lawsuits against anyone who helped facilitate an abortion.
“With the ruling only coming down late last week, it’s premature to understand the full impact at the state level,” Brad Russell, a USAA spokesman, said via email. “However, USAA will always comply with all applicable laws.”
American Airlines Credit Union, Bank of America, Capital One, Discover, Goldman Sachs, Prosperity Bank USA, Navy Federal Credit Union, US Bank, University of Wisconsin Credit Union, Wells Fargo and Western Union did not return at least two messages seeking comment.
American Express, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Wells Fargo have all announced their intentions to reimburse employees for expenses if they travel to other states for abortions. So far, none have commented about how they would respond to a subpoena seeking the transaction records of the very employees who would be eligible for employer reimbursement.
Amie Stepanovich, vice president of U.S. policy at the Future of Privacy Forum, a nonprofit focused on data privacy and protection, said warrants and subpoenas can be accompanied by gag orders, which can prevent companies from even alerting their customers that they’re being investigated.
“They can choose to battle the use of gag orders in court,” she said. “Sometimes they win, sometimes they don’t.”
In other instances, prosecutors may not say exactly what they’re investigating when they ask for transaction records. In that case, it’s up to the financial institution to request more information or try to figure it out on its own.
Paying for abortion services with cash is one possible way to avoid detection, even if it isn’t possible for people ordering pills online. Many abortion funds pay on behalf of people who need financial help.
But cash and electronic transfers of money are not entirely foolproof.
“Even if you are paying with cash, the amount of residual information that can be used to reveal health status and pregnancy status is fairly significant,” said Ms. Stepanovich, referring to potential bread crumbs such as the use of a retailer’s loyalty program or location tracking on a mobile phone when making a cash purchase.
In some cases, users may inadvertently give up sensitive information themselves through apps that track and share their financial behavior.
“The purchase of a pregnancy test on an app where financial history is public is probably the biggest red flag,” Ms. Stepanovich said.
Other advocates mentioned the possibility of using prepaid cards in fixed amounts, like the kinds that people can buy off a rack in a drugstore. Cryptocurrency, they added, usually does leave enough of a trail that achieving anonymity is challenging.
One thing that every expert emphasized is the lack of certainty. But there is an emerging gut feeling that corporations will be in the spotlight at least as much as judges.
“Now, these payment companies are going to be front and center in the fight,” Ms. Caraballo said.
June 27 (Reuters) – A growing number of large U.S. companies have said they will cover travel costs for employees who must leave their home states to get abortions, but these new policies could expose businesses to lawsuits and even potential criminal liability, legal experts said.
Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O), Apple Inc (AAPL.O), Lyft Inc (LYFT.O), Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O) and JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N) were among companies that announced plans to provide those benefits through their health insurance plans in anticipation of Friday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that had legalized abortion nationwide. read more
Within an hour of the decision being released, Conde Nast Chief Executive Roger Lynch sent a memo to staff announcing a travel reimbursement policy and calling the court’s ruling “a crushing blow to reproductive rights.” Walt Disney Co (DIS.N) unveiled a similar policy on Friday, telling employees that it recognizes the impact of the abortion ruling but remains committed to providing comprehensive access to quality healthcare, according to a spokesman. read more
Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
Health insurer Cigna Corp (CI.N), Paypal Holdings Inc (PYPL.O), Alaska Airlines Inc (DKS.N) also announced reimbursement policies on Friday.
Abortion restrictions that were already on the books in 13 states went into effect as a result of Friday’s ruling and at least a dozen other Republican-led states are expected to ban abortion.
The court’s decision, driven by its conservative majority, upheld a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks. Meanwhile, some Democratic-led states are moving to bolster access to abortion.
Companies will have to navigate that patchwork of state laws and are likely to draw the ire of anti-abortion groups and Republican-led states if they adopt policies supportive of employees having abortions.
State lawmakers in Texas have already threatened Citigroup Inc (C.N) and Lyft, which had earlier announced travel reimbursement policies, with legal repercussions. A group of Republican lawmakers in a letter last month to Lyft Chief Executive Logan Green said Texas “will take swift and decisive action” if the ride-hailing company implements the policy.
The legislators also outlined a series of abortion-related proposals, including a bill that would bar companies from doing business in Texas if they pay for residents of the state to receive abortions elsewhere.
It is likely only a matter of time before companies face lawsuits from states or anti-abortion campaigners claiming that abortion-related payments violate state bans on facilitating or aiding and abetting abortions, according to Robin Fretwell Wilson, a law professor at the University of Illinois and expert on healthcare law.
“If you can sue me as a person for carrying your daughter across state lines, you can sue Amazon for paying for it,” Wilson said.
Amazon, Citigroup and other companies that have announced reimbursement policies did not respond to requests for comment. A Lyft spokesperson said: “We believe access to healthcare is essential and transportation should never be a barrier to that access.”
For many large companies that fund their own health plans, the federal law regulating employee benefits will provide crucial cover in civil lawsuits over their reimbursement policies, several lawyers and other legal experts said.
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) prohibits states from adopting requirements that “relate to” employer-sponsored health plans. Courts have for decades interpreted that language to bar state laws that dictate what health plans can and cannot cover.
ERISA regulates benefit plans that are funded directly by employers, known as self-insured plans. In 2021, 64% of U.S. workers with employer-sponsored health insurance were covered by self-insured plans, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Any company sued over an abortion travel reimbursement requirement will likely cite ERISA as a defense, according to Katy Johnson, senior counsel for health policy at the American Benefits Council trade group. And that will be a strong argument, she said, particularly for businesses with general reimbursement policies for necessary medical-related travel rather than those that single out abortion.
Johnson said reimbursements for other kinds of medical-related travel, such as visits to hospitals designated “centers of excellence,” are already common even though policies related to abortion are still relatively rare.
“While this may seem new, it’s not in the general sense and the law already tells us how to handle it,” Johnson said.
The argument has its limits. Fully-insured health plans, in which employers purchase coverage through a commercial insurer, cover about one-third of workers with insurance and are regulated by state law and not ERISA.
Most small and medium-sized U.S. businesses have fully-insured plans and could not argue that ERISA prevents states from limiting abortion coverage.
And, ERISA cannot prevent states from enforcing criminal laws, such as those in several states that make it a crime to aid and abet abortion. So employers who adopt reimbursement policies are vulnerable to criminal charges from state and local prosecutors.
But since most criminal abortion laws have not been enforced in decades, since Roe was decided, it is unclear whether officials would attempt to prosecute companies, according to Danita Merlau, a Chicago-based lawyer who advises companies on benefits issues.
Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi, Grant McCool and Bill Berkrot
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
SAN FRANCISCO — No one wanted to miss out on the cryptocurrency mania.
Over the last two years, as the prices of Bitcoin and other virtual currencies surged, crypto start-ups proliferated. Companies that market digital coins to investors flooded the airwaves with TV commercials, newfangled lending operations offered sky-high interest rates on crypto deposits and exchanges like Coinbase that allow investors to trade digital assets went on hiring sprees.
A global industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars rose up practically overnight. Now it is crashing down.
After weeks of plummeting cryptocurrency prices, Coinbase said on Tuesday that it was cutting 18 percent of its employees, after layoffs at other crypto companies like Gemini, BlockFi and Crypto.com. High-profile start-ups like Terraform Labs have imploded, wiping away years of investments. On Sunday, an experimental crypto bank, Celsius, abruptly halted withdrawals.
dropped by about 65 percent since autumn, and analysts predict the sell-off will continue. Stock prices of crypto companies have cratered, retail traders are fleeing and industry executives are predicting a prolonged slump that could put more companies in jeopardy.
stocks crashing, interest rates soaring and inflation high, cryptocurrency prices are also collapsing, showing they have become tied to the overall market. And as people pull back from crypto investments, the outflow is exposing the unstable foundations of many of the industry’s most popular companies.
OpenSea, the largest marketplace for the unique digital images known as nonfungible tokens, reached a staggering $13 billion valuation. And Wall Street banks such as JPMorgan Chase, which previously shunned crypto assets, and Fortune 500 companies like PayPal rolled out crypto offerings.
confidence evaporated in the early 2000s, many of the dot-coms went bust, leaving just the biggest — such as eBay, Amazon and Yahoo — standing.
Read More on the World of Cryptocurrencies
This time, investors predict there will be more survivors. “You certainly have some overhyped companies that don’t have the fundamentals,” said Mike Jones, an investor at the venture firm Science Inc. “But you also have some really strong companies that are trading way below where they should.”
There have been warning signs that some crypto companies were not sustainable. Skeptics have pointed out that many of the most popular firms offered products underpinned by risky financial engineering.
Terraform Labs, for example, offered TerraUSD, a so-called stablecoin with a fixed value linked to the U.S. dollar. The coin was hyped by its founder, Do Kwon, who raised more than $200 million from major investment firms such as Lightspeed Venture Partners and Galaxy Digital, even as critics warned that the project was unstable.
The coin’s price was algorithmically linked to a sister cryptocurrency, Luna. When the price of Luna plummeted in May, TerraUSD fell in tandem — a “death spiral” that destabilized the broader market and plunged some investors into financial ruin.
drew scrutiny from several state regulators. In the end, a drop in crypto prices appeared to put the company under more pressure than it could withstand.
With the price of Bitcoin tumbling, Celsius announced on Sunday that it was freezing withdrawals “due to extreme market conditions.” The company did not respond to a request for comment.
The market instability has also triggered a crisis at Coinbase, the largest U.S. crypto exchange. Between the end of 2021 and late March, Coinbase lost 2.2 million active customers, or 19 percent of its total, as crypto prices dropped. The company’s net revenue in the first three months of the year shrank 27 percent from a year earlier, to $1.2 billion. Its stock price has plunged 84 percent since it went public last year.
This month, Coinbase said it would rescind job offers and extend a hiring freeze to battle the economic downturn. On Tuesday, it said it would cut about 1,100 workers.
Brian Armstrong, Coinbase’s chief executive, informed employees of the layoffs in a note on Tuesday morning, saying the company “grew too quickly” as crypto products became popular.
Expand Your Cryptocurrency Vocabulary
Card 1 of 9
Bitcoin. A Bitcoin is a digital token that can be sent electronically from one user to another, anywhere in the world. Bitcoin is also the name of the payment network on which this form of digital currency is stored and moved.
Blockchain. A blockchain is a database maintained communally and that reliably stores digital information. The original blockchain was the database on which all Bitcoin transactions were stored, but non-currency-based companies and governments are also trying to use blockchain technology to store their data.
Coinbase. The first major cryptocurrency company to list its shares on a U.S. stock exchange, Coinbase is a platform that allows people and companies to buy and sell various digital currencies, including Bitcoin, for a transaction fee.
Web3. The name “web3” is what some technologists call the idea of a new kind of internet service that is built using blockchain-based tokens, replacing centralized, corporate platforms with open protocols and decentralized, community-run networks.
DAOs. A decentralized autonomous organization, or DAO, is an organizational structure built with blockchain technology that is often described as a crypto co-op. DAOs form for a common purpose, like investing in start-ups, managing a stablecoin or buying NFTs.
“It is now clear to me that we over-hired,” he wrote. A Coinbase spokesman declined to comment.
“It had been growth at all costs over the last several years,” said Ryan Coyne, who covers crypto companies and financial technology at the Mizuho Group. “It’s now turned to profitable growth.”
memo to staff, the Winklevoss twins said the industry had entered a “crypto winter.”
commercial starring the actor Matt Damon, who declared that “fortune favors the brave” as he encouraged investors to put their money in the crypto market. Last week, Crypto.com’s chief executive announced that he was laying off 5 percent of the staff, or 260 people. On Monday, BlockFi, a crypto lending operation, said it was reducing its staff by roughly 20 percent.
Gemini and BlockFi declined to comment. A Crypto.com spokesman said the company remains focused on “investing resources into product and engineering capabilities to develop world-class products.”
Cryptocurrencies have long been volatile and prone to boom-and-bust cycles. In 2013, a Chinese ban on Bitcoin sent its price tumbling. In 2017, a proliferation of companies creating and selling their own tokens led to a run-up in crypto prices, which crashed after regulators cracked down on so-called initial coin offerings.
These bubbles are built into the ecosystem, crypto enthusiasts said. They attract talented people to the industry, who go on to build valuable projects. Many of the most vocal cheerleaders encourage investors to “buy the dip,” or invest more when prices are low.
“We have been in these downward spirals before and recovered,” Mr. Jones, the Science Inc. investor, said. “We all believe in the fundamentals.”
Some of the companies have also remained defiant. During Game 5 of the N.B.A. finals on Monday night, Coinbase aired a commercial that alluded to past boom-and-bust cycles.
“Crypto is dead,” it declared. “Long live crypto.”
After war began last month, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine turned to Mykhailo Fedorov, a vice prime minister, for a key role.
Mr. Fedorov, 31, the youngest member of Mr. Zelensky’s cabinet, immediately took charge of a parallel prong of Ukraine’s defense against Russia. He began a campaign to rally support from multinational businesses to sunder Russia from the world economy and to cut off the country from the global internet, taking aim at everything from access to new iPhones and PlayStations to Western Union money transfers and PayPal.
To achieve Russia’s isolation, Mr. Fedorov, a former tech entrepreneur, used a mix of social media, cryptocurrencies and other digital tools. On Twitter and other social media, he pressured Apple, Google, Netflix, Intel, PayPal and others to stop doing business in Russia. He helped form a group of volunteer hackers to wreak havoc on Russian websites and online services. His ministry also set up a cryptocurrency fund that has raised more than $60 million for the Ukrainian military.
The work has made Mr. Fedorov one of Mr. Zelensky’s most visible lieutenants, deploying technology and finance as modern weapons of war. In effect, Mr. Fedorov is creating a new playbook for military conflicts that shows how an outgunned country can use the internet, crypto, digital activism and frequent posts on Twitter to help undercut a foreign aggressor.
McDonald’s have withdrawn from Russia, with the war’s human toll provoking horror and outrage. Economic sanctions by the United States, European Union and others have played a central role in isolating Russia.
Mr. Zelensky was elected in 2019, he appointed Mr. Fedorov, then 28, to be minister of digital transformation, putting him in charge of digitizing Ukrainian social services. Through a government app, people could pay speeding tickets or manage their taxes. Last year, Mr. Fedorov visited Silicon Valley to meet with leaders including Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple.
Russia invaded Ukraine, Mr. Fedorov immediately pressured tech companies to pull out of Russia. He made the decision with Mr. Zelensky’s backing, he said, and the two men speak every day.
“I think this choice is as black and white as it ever gets,” Mr. Fedorov said. “It is time to take a side, either to take the side of peace or to take the side of terror and murder.”
On Feb. 25, he sent letters to Apple, Google and Netflix, asking them to restrict access to their services in Russia. Less than a week later, Apple stopped selling new iPhones and other products in Russia.
Russia damaged the country’s main telecommunications infrastructure. Two days after contacting Mr. Musk, a shipment of Starlink equipment arrived in Ukraine.
Since then, Mr. Fedorov said he has periodically exchanged text messages with Mr. Musk.
were put on pause following the invasion. Russia, a signatory to the accord, has tried to use final approval of the deal as leverage to soften sanctions imposed because of the war.
But while many companies have halted business in Russia, more could be done, he said. Apple and Google should pull their app stores from Russia and software made by companies like SAP was also being used by scores of Russian businesses, he has noted.
In many instances, the Russian government is cutting itself off from the world, including blocking access to Twitter and Facebook. On Friday, Russian regulators said they would also restrict access to Instagram and called Meta an “extremist” organization.
Some civil society groups have questioned whether Mr. Fedorov’s tactics could have unintended consequences. “Shutdowns can be used in tyranny, not in democracy,” the Internet Protection Society, an internet freedom group in Russia, said in a statement earlier this week. “Any sanctions that disrupt access of Russian people to information only strengthen Putin’s regime.”
Mr. Fedorov said it was the only way to jolt the Russian people into action. He praised the work of Ukraine-supporting hackers who have been coordinating loosely with Ukrainian government to hit Russian targets.
“After cruise missiles started flying over my house and over houses of many other Ukrainians, and also things started exploding, we decided to go into counter attack,” he said.
Mr. Fedorov’s work is an example of Ukraine’s whatever-it-takes attitude against a larger Russian army, said Max Chernikov, a software engineer who is supporting the volunteer group known as the IT Army of Ukraine.
“He acts like every Ukrainian — doing beyond his best,” he said.
Mr. Fedorov, who has a wife and young daughter, said he remained hopeful about the war’s outcome.
“The truth is on our side,” he added. “I’m sure we’re going to win.”
Daisuke Wakabayashi and Mike Isaac contributed reporting.
Mr. Thiel has attracted the most attention for two $10 million donations to the Senate candidates Blake Masters in Arizona and J.D. Vance in Ohio. Like Mr. Thiel, the men are tech investors with pedigrees from elite universities who cast themselves as antagonists to the establishment. They have also worked for the billionaire and been financially dependent on him. Mr. Masters, the chief operating officer of Thiel Capital, the investor’s family office, has promised to leave that job before Arizona’s August primary.
Mr. Thiel, who declined to comment for this article, announced last week that he would leave the board of Meta, the parent company of Facebook, which conservatives have accused of censorship. One reason for the change: He plans to focus more on politics.
A Moneyman’s Evolution
Born in West Germany and raised in South Africa and the San Francisco Bay Area, Mr. Thiel showed his provocative side at Stanford in the late 1980s. Classmates recalled Mr. Thiel, who studied philosophy and law, describing South Africa’s apartheid as a sound economic system. (A spokesman for Mr. Thiel has denied that he supported apartheid.)
Mr. Thiel also helped found The Stanford Review, a conservative campus paper that sought to provide “alternative views” to what he deemed left-wing orthodoxy.
In 1995, he co-wrote a book, “The Diversity Myth,” arguing that “the extreme focus on racism” had caused greater societal tension and acrimony. Rape, he and his co-author, David Sacks, wrote, sometimes included “seductions that are later regretted.” (Mr. Thiel has apologized for the book.)
In 1998, Mr. Thiel helped create what would become the digital payments company PayPal. He became Facebook’s first outside investor in 2004 and established the venture capital firm Founders Fund a year later. Forbes puts his fortune at $2.6 billion.
one 2009 piece, Mr. Thiel, who called himself a libertarian, wrote that he had come to “no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” arguing that American politics would always be hostile to free-market ideals, and that politics was about interfering with other people’s lives without their consent. Since then, he has hosted and attended events with white nationalists and alt-right figures.
His political giving evolved with those views. He donated lavishly to Ron Paul’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns before turning to candidates who were more extreme than the Republican establishment.
In 2013, Curtis Yarvin, an entrepreneur who has voiced racist beliefs and said democracy was a destructive system of government, emailed Mr. Thiel. Mr. Yarvin wrote that Mr. Cruz, then a newly elected senator, “needs to purge every single traitor” from the Republican Party. In the email, which The Times obtained, Mr. Yarvin argued that it didn’t matter if those candidates lost general elections or cost the party control in Congress.
Mr. Thiel, who had donated to Mr. Cruz’s 2012 campaign, replied, “It’s relatively safe to support Cruz (for me) because he threatens the Republican establishment.”
Mr. Thiel used his money to fund other causes. In 2016, he was revealed as the secret funder of a lawsuit that targeted Gawker Media, which had reported he was gay. Gawker declared bankruptcy, partly from the costs of fighting the lawsuit.
proud to be a gay Republican supporting Mr. Trump. He later donated $1.25 million to the candidate.
After Mr. Trump won, Mr. Thiel was named to the president-elect’s executive transition team. At a meeting with tech leaders at Trump Tower in Manhattan in December 2016, Mr. Trump told Mr. Thiel, “You’re a very special guy.”
A month later, Mr. Thiel, a naturalized American, was revealed to have also obtained citizenship in New Zealand. That prompted a furor, especially after Mr. Trump had urged people to pledge “total allegiance to the United States.”
During Mr. Trump’s presidency, Mr. Thiel became frustrated with the administration. “There are all these ways that things have fallen short,” he told The Times in 2018.
In 2020, he stayed on the sidelines. His only notable federal election donation was to Kris Kobach, a Trump ally and former secretary of state of Kansas known for his hard-line views on immigration. (Mr. Kobach lost his primary bid for the Senate.)
Mr. Thiel’s personal priorities also changed. In 2016, he announced that he was moving from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The next year, he married a longtime boyfriend, Matt Danzeisen; they have two children.
Mr. Thiel reduced his business commitments and started pondering leaving Meta’s board, which he had joined in 2005, two of the people with knowledge of his thinking said. At an October event held by a conservative tech group in Miami, he alluded to his frustration with Facebook, which was increasingly removing certain kinds of speech and had barred Mr. Trump.
a $13 million mansion in Washington from Wilbur Ross, Mr. Trump’s commerce secretary. In October, he spoke at the event for the Federalist Society at Stanford and at the National Conservatism Conference.
He also rebuilt his relationship with Mr. Trump. Since the 2020 election, they have met at least three times in New York and at Mar-a-Lago, sometimes with Mr. Masters or Mr. Vance. And Mr. Thiel invested in Mr. McEntee’s company, which is building a dating app for conservatives called the RightStuff.
Mr. McEntee declined to answer questions about his app and said Mr. Thiel was “a great guy.” Mr. Trump’s representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
Giving to Win
Mr. Thiel’s political giving ramped up last spring with his $10 million checks to PACs supporting Mr. Vance and Mr. Masters. The sums were his biggest and the largest ever one-time contributions to a PAC backing a single candidate, according to OpenSecrets.
Like Mr. Trump in 2016, Mr. Vance and Mr. Masters lack experience in politics. Mr. Vance, the venture capitalist who wrote the best-selling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” met Mr. Thiel a decade ago when the billionaire delivered a lecture at Yale Law School, where Mr. Vance was a student.
Zero to One.” In 2020, Mr. Masters reported more than $1.1 million in salary from Thiel Capital and book royalties.
Mr. Vance, Mr. Masters and their campaigns did not respond to requests for comment.
Both candidates have repeated the Trumpian lie of election fraud, with Mr. Masters stating in a November campaign ad, “I think Trump won in 2020.” They have also made Mr. Thiel a selling point in their campaigns.
In November, Mr. Vance wrote on Twitter that anyone who donated $10,800 to his campaign could attend a small group dinner with him and Mr. Thiel. Mr. Masters offered the same opportunity for a meal with Mr. Thiel and raised $550,000 by selling nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, of “Zero to One”digital art that would give holders “access to parties with me and Peter.”
a 20-minute speech at the National Conservatism Conference in October, he said nationalism was “a corrective” to the “brain-dead, one-world state” of globalism. He also blasted the Biden administration.
“We have the zombie retreads just busy rearranging the deck chairs,” he said. “We need dissident voices more than ever.”
The literary prize scammers seem more obviously motivated by money. The fraudster targeting the British awards appears to use the same approach each time, emailing administrators late at night after the winners’ announcement, using addresses featuring the author’s full name followed by the word “writes.” (Emails from The New York Times to those addresses went unanswered.)
As well as the Rathbones Folio and Baillie Gifford prizes, scammers also wrote to the organizers of the Encore Award last June; the Forward Prizes for Poetry, in October; and the Society of Authors Translation Prizes, in February, the organizers of those awards said. Britain’s most prestigious literary award, the Booker Prize, had not been contacted, its director, Gaby Wood, said in an email. “Oddly enough, no attempt has been made,” she added.
Caroline Bird, a winner in last year’s Forward Prizes, said in a telephone interview that Britain’s literary scene was trusting and cozy, and that the scammer was “clever” to exploit that. “It’s not the place you’d ever come across someone on the rob,” Bird said.
But several of the organizers who received the phishing emails said they suspected the fraudster was involved in British publishing, given the person knew who to contact and when to send the messages. Mundy, of the Baillie Gifford Prize, said he wondered whether the scammer might be a disgruntled author “who’d never won a prize and was furious about it, trying to claim what’s rightfully theirs, by fair means or foul.”
Did any authors come to mind? “There’s plenty,” Mundy said with a laugh. “But I’m not naming names.”
Few share that idea, though, for one simple reason: The emails lack a certain literary flair. “The prose was a bit dead, and there was no warmth,” said Patrick McGuinness, the winner of last year’s Encore Award, who had been passed the scammer’s email. “As a literary critic, I would say there was all the right words, but none of the fire.”
Brown, the Baillie Gifford winner, agreed. “I’m not thinking, ‘My God, it’s Salman Rushdie,’” he said. A published author would have put more effort into the grammar, for starters, he added.