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When scammers target restaurants

3 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

So, a man walks into a Denny’s in Madison, Wis., in search of a meal. Does he take a table, dine and pay in the regular fashion? No, this guy goes in and tells the staff he’s the new general manager and proceeds to the kitchen to make himself dinner.

I read this story last week and waited for the punch line, which NPR conveniently provided in the form of one of the more creative police reports to make the media in some time. The story closed with the scammer’s parting line, “This is why you don’t dine and dash, kiddies,” he yelled as police were taking him away. The situation gets a bit less amusing, though, when we learn that the 52-year-old man was armed with a stun gun under his coat.

Destined-to-fail scams such as this are made for the media, but other less-outrageous but potentially more damaging attempts happen every day, from customers who send dry-cleaning bills for spills that allegedly happened in the restaurant days or weeks before to the mundane dine and dash.

Last summer, restaurateur TJ Jacobberger detailed three of the most egregious scams he’s seen in a post for the San Francisco Chronicle’s Inside Scoop SF blog, starting with the dry-cleaning scam, which scoundrels have apparently turned into organized crime in some parts of the country. He also details a potentially much more costly scheme in which “customers” call in on TTI lines that use an operator to translate for hearing-impaired people. The callers place significant catering orders, charge them to stolen credit cards and cancel a few days before the event. The criminals request their refunds on different cards or by check, and eateries pay up and only later find they’re out the money when it comes to light that the original card was stolen.

Authorities in several parts of the country periodically warn restaurants about other phone scams, including one in which criminals call posing as health inspectors in an effort to gain access to customers’ sensitive data, as Channel 13 in Las Vegas reported last year. In another, scammers call posing as somebody from corporate who has spoken to an irate customer accusing restaurant staffers of stealing their cash, and instructing restaurant staffers to set aside cash to pay the customer and settle the matter. Criminals took about $2,000 from a Wisconsin McDonald’s using this scam last year, according to a story in Living Lake Country.

Perhaps the creepiest of all hoaxes had nothing do to with money – at least at the beginning. For several years last decade, restaurants across the country reported callers who identified themselves as law-enforcement officers and instructed managers to bring female suspects into the office and have them strip in front of others. While the criminals were looking for twisted kicks instead of cash, a handful of cases wound up costing McDonald’s, including one brought by a 21-year-old victim who was awarded $6.1 million in a civil lawsuit in 2007, according to The Associated Press.

Has your restaurant ever fallen victim to a scam? How did you deal with it?