Thursday, December 18, 2008

Scams, cons and short-changings

‘Tis the season to be scamming, or so the industry grapevine suggests. The holidays have generated considerable online buzz about restaurants, employees or customers being preyed upon by the unscrupulous, including some in the business themselves.

Included is something known as “tip-jacking,” where servers sweeten the tips patrons put on credit cards. A “1” may be doctored into a “4” or “7,” for instance. Or a charged tip is added to the house copy of a charge receipt for a patron who left a cash gratuity on the table. In other instances, a larger amount is merely written over what’s been listed on the tips line, as if the customer changed his or her mind.

Because the amounts are so small, the patron seldom notices before they sign. Or, if an amount is added to a tip line that’s left empty, the charged person doesn’t think to reconcile the customer copy of the receipt with what’s on their monthly charge-card bill.

In some locals, authorities are advising restaurant guests to avoid being tip-jacked by always paying in cash and either drawing a line or writing “CASH” on the tip line of a charge slip.

Meanwhile, even restaurant owners and chefs are apparently trying to pull off a bait-and-switch con. The Feedbag, for instance, reported last week that New York City is rife with bogus menu come-ons for a whole chicken. Order the bird, says the online “gastronomic gazette,” and you might not get the legs, wings and thighs. “Whole,” apparently, implies an asterisk in the minds of some chefs.

Similarly, San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer recently responded on his blog to a reader’s complaint about wine pours in the city. The reader had noticed that many places appeared to be skimping on the portions but argued that the glasses merely made the amount seem smaller. Bauer’s response:

Maybe I'll start taking a six-ounce container of water with me to various restaurants. I'll note the pour line on the glass and then when I've finished the wine, I'll pour in the water to see how much wine I actually drank. It might make for a good story down the road.

Yesterday, Bauer cited an undeniable scam in which he had unwittingly played a part. He had recently reported that Mark Denham, the chef at a local Spanish restaurant named Laiola, had left the job. Apparently someone saw the report and cooked up a way to exploit the situation. The conman called Laiola, pretended to be Denham, and concocted a story about needing $713 as a short-term loan to get himself out of a pickle relating to his car. The con artist did the same with other places where Denham had worked, taking the list from Bauer’s report.

At one of the places, an acquaintance of Denham’s had suspicions and called the chef before any money was wired. Denham blew the caller’s sting, and Bauer reported it all in his blog, apparently for the protection of other restaurateurs.

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