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Keeping your Restaurant Scam-Free: 6 common scams and how to deal with them.

If you are reading this article, chances are pretty good that you’ve put in some serious time in the restaurant industry. And anyone who has spent time working in restaurants knows that, as a rule, people can be pretty awful. In our day-to-day transactions as servers, managers, bartenders, and chefs, we tend to get a pretty grim picture of humanity . We get stiffed a tip, a couple dines and dashes, and a drunken moron punches a hole in the new $5000.00 painting in the foyer. And it’s only Monday. To make things worse, restaurants have become increasingly popular targets for scammers. We are busy: we have employees to keep track of, bills to pay, purveyors to take care of, and so many moving parts to wrangle into submission, that it’s really no wonder crooks find our operations so appealing. To keep you sharp, we’ve come up with a list of some of the most common scams and how to tackle them.

1. The mystery item in the food: This actually happened at a friend’s restaurant last month: a gentleman summoned over the manager to complain that he had found a huge hunk of metal in his burger. (??!) Naturally, the entire kitchen and management team hit the roof. How could they have missed a huge piece of metal going out into the dining room in someone’s entrée? After scouring the kitchen and examining every piece of equipment and taking apart the grinder, they re-examined the foreign metal hunk and realized that it didn’t match any of their equipment. This guy actually brought in his own piece of metal in an attempt to launch a frivolous lawsuit. The managers looked him up and found that he had actually made a career of this and had a handful of lawsuits pending. (They asked him to leave and never come back.)
Particularly slimy patrons have also been known to place hairs or other nasty items in their own food in an effort to get a free meal. This is much harder to dispute, but rarely leads to anything as serious as a lawsuit. As members of the service industry, our first impulse must always be to assume that the customer is right. However: do your homework, ask questions, and if you feel like you are being taken for a ride, don’t be afraid to nicely ask the offender to leave.

2. “Health Inspector”: Here’s a tricky one. The “health inspector” will call and inform you that he is preparing to examine your kitchen. (This should be your first cue: genuine health inspections are delightfully unannounced.) This scammer will ask for your credit card number in order to schedule your inspection. The inspector never shows up, and you begin to notice fraudulent charges appearing on your card. No matter how frazzled or busy you are, remember never to give out personal information to anyone over the phone. It’s probably a scam.

3. Dine and Dash: This is one of the most heart-breaking scenarios for people, like me, who really want to see the best in others. The best way to avoid this one is to trust your instincts. If something seems amiss, find a way to keep your eye trained on the suspicious table without being creepy. If they ask to step out for a minute, ask them to settle their bill or leave their credit card with you.

4. Injury: Accidents happen. At some point, someone will fall in your restaurant and actually get hurt. Sometimes, though, con-artists will fake an injury and then attempt to sue the heck out of you. The best way to avoid this is to be painstakingly thorough, every single day. Whenever you mop the floor, put out a “wet floor” sign. Make sure that your bathrooms are 100% handicapped accessible, regularly check your tables and chairs for weak spots, and go out of your way to help patrons get safely in and out of your establishment.

5. Dry Cleaning: It’s common courtesy for restaurants to pay dry cleaning bills when employees accidentally spill food or drinks on guests. Scammers, however, will sometimes send dry-cleaning bills to restaurants without ever having darkened their doors. Make a habit of giving spilled-on guests your card, marked with the time, date, and details of the spill for them to enclose with their bill.

6. Fraudulent Bills: You have stacks of mail coming in on a daily basis. Super-slick scammers will often type up fraudulent utility bills, sometimes threatening to turn off your water or power if the bill is not paid within a week or two. This is one of the most frustrating scams, because sometimes restaurant life gets so busy, you just pay bills left and right all day long, and a false one can easily slip under the radar. Take an extra moment to examine your bills and make sure that they all have the correct seals and stamps from your city or state. If anything looks out of place, call the organization to verify that the bill is authentic.

The best way to protect yourself is to be aware. . . and to have an excellent lawyer on retainer. As wonderful as it is to see the world through rose-colored glasses, we live in an age in which skepticism is not paranoid behavior, but rather good business practice. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you fallen victim to any of these scams recently? How did you handle it? Please leave a comment below!