Heavily regulated restaurant industry fertile ground for scam artists - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Valley And State

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Heavily regulated restaurant industry fertile ground for scam artists

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Posted: Saturday, April 30, 2011 7:00 am

The first red flag was the man’s name: Ricky Martin.

The manager of The Feed Bag restaurant in Apache Junction received a suspicious call on April 6 from someone posing as a national health inspector, saying that a serious complaint had been filed against his restaurant.

The manager, Allen Arnold, said he threatened to report the call to authorities — even naming the FBI — and the caller went silent for a moment before telling him, “It’s a scam.” Arnold suspects the man was trying to cover up an illegal wire transfer by having the confirmation number sent to his restaurant’s phone line instead of the culprit’s.

Arnold’s experience was not unique, county government officials said. Arizona’s restaurant industry has seen a rise in hucksters posing as inspectors, sometimes to coerce money or to make the restaurant an intermediary for money transfers.

The scam aims to use the power of health inspectors, who have considerable sway in an industry that the National Restaurant Association estimates will generate statewide sales of $9.6 billion this year.

“We are pretty intimidated by heath inspectors,” Arnold said.

Maricopa County inspectors received word of the imposters as well, said Johnny Dilone, public information officer for the county’s Environmental Services Department. It prompted the department to set up a hotline to report suspicious calls and place a warning in its newsletter to licensed restaurants.

The county does not keep a record of complaints.

“We have heard and learned about the situation around the county and around the state,” Dilone said. “We are trying to be proactive.”

While there have been only a handful of reported scams in Pinal County, where The Feed Bag is located, there are likely more that haven’t been reported, county spokeswoman Heather Murphy said.

“There’s no measuring the negative on this,” she said.

In Arnold’s case, the caller identified himself as an agent of the U.S. Health Inspector, another red flag. Had the bogus title even existed, Arizona restaurants would not be contacted by the federal government because inspections are the responsibility of counties.

The caller asked Arnold to hang up to receive a confirmation number for scheduling an inspection — another inaccuracy, as inspections are not scheduled. Arnold hung up, and the phone rang shortly afterward. This time, there was an automated voice that gave him a confirmation number.

But then the voice asked Arnold to please disregard the message if he was not expecting a call from Craigslist, a website that hosts free classified advertising.

All the inconsistencies made Arnold certain that he wasn’t dealing with a legitimate inspector.

In Arizona, counties police restaurant food safety practices, and every inspection report must be easily accessible to the public. Maricopa and Pinal counties have databases of restaurant inspections on their websites that include a business’ history, details of any infractions and an explanation of what each inspection grade means. Restaurants in Arizona are not required to post their inspection scores, only their licenses.

Each county has a different grading scale. Maricopa gives out gold and silver awards, or no award, based on the number and severity of violations. Pinal rates establishments as excellent, satisfactory, needs improvement and unacceptable.

Depending on its services, a food establishment is inspected at least between one and three times per year. A bar that only serves drinks, for example, might be inspected just once in a year, while a catering business is required to undergo at least three. The Arizona Department of Health Services reported more than 72,000 inspections were performed on roughly 34,000 establishments in the past fiscal year, which ended on June 30.

Arnold said that any restaurant owners or employees should question suspicious calls with vigor.

“In the end, you’re protecting your business,” he said.

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