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Restaurateurs warn of sophisticated wine scam

14 November 2014
Restaurateurs warn of sophisticated wine scam

By Rosalind Mullen and Amanda Afiya

Restaurateurs have warned of a series of scams where seemingly high-spending customers ask for cases of wine, only for payments to turn out to be fraudulent.

This week David Moore (pictured), owner of Michelin-starred restaurant Pied a Terre, reported that his restaurant had been defrauded of £12,000 of Champagne and wine by a group pretending to work for wealthy Arab clients.

Now two-Michelin-starred chef Daniel Clifford of Midsummer House in Cambridge has revealed that his team were taken in by a call from someone posing to be the agent of a premier league footballer.

He said: "The man asked to order £10,000 worth of wine to be opened for lunch the following day. They paid on their credit card and the payment went through having fulfilled all the normal security processes.

"An hour later he rang back and said ‘actually, we're having a party tonight can we buy some wine for the party from you'. We thought it was a bit unusual but we thought that perhaps the footballer had more money than sense."

In total £28,000 worth of wine was sent by taxi to the address that corresponded to the credit card.

But having read David Moore's story, Clifford became concerned. He rang the cab company to find that the wine had been rerouted to a McDonald's.

He explained: "As it stands, I've been paid for it, but the credit card company are now saying that because the delivery address doesn't match the card payment the payment doesn't exist."

Moore added that restaurateurs should be wary of new, high-spending customers who ask to buy a couple of cases of fine wine, especially if they send a taxi and pay by credit card.

"It should be viewed as highly suspicious that they want to pay a 100% or more mark-up to buy cases of our wine," he said.

He added that the experience had exposed that card postal address authorisation is not foolproof. The fraud department of his card-handling supplier advised that the only methods of payment that are 100% safe are cash, or chip and pin.

The entrepreneur, who also operates L'Autre Pied restaurant in Marylebone, smokehouse-style site One Sixty in West Hampstead, said he regularly had to deal with attempted scams. However, he said technology can be used to combat it.

"We can trace real complaints to the booking. We can check our report book and CCTV. We have Epos and can pull out a customer's bill and reference the time and date. The systems are great nowadays," he said.

Moore also uses intuition. Before he installed CCTV, a man claimed the restaurant had lost his valuable Locke & Co hat. Moore became suspicious and bluffed that the CCTV showed he had not arrived with a hat. The man dropped the claim and Moore "quickly installed CCTV".

Drycleaning scams are prevalent, but Moore said his restaurants don't hand out money unless the incident is recorded in a report book.

Another scam he is on watch for is letters from fictitious customers complaining that their meal was below par and claiming recompense. Well-organised scamsters will send blanket letters to several restaurants. Again, Moore will track the booking.

"In one case, a man mentioned dishes on the menu that he'd clearly pulled from the website. They weren't on the menu that day," he explained. "In fact, the three tables of four that day all had the tasting menu."

One of the worst cases was during a busy service when a customer, who claimed to be "a big City lawyer", said he had been cut by glass in his food. There was a lot of blood and despite the fact Moore doesn't allow glass in the kitchen, he waived the couple's bill for the rest of the evening.

The customer started ordering £200 bottles of wine, which triggered alarm bells. But, Moore's suspicions were confirmed when the diner refused to give up his blood-soaked napkin.

"Later, we had it analysed and it turned out to be joke-shop blood. I kept it in the safe for three years. Vacuum packed. We also checked the Law Society lists and he wasn't a lawyer," said Moore.

In 2010, in a high-profile scam, a couple who ran up a £572 bill at L'Autre Pied went out for a cigarette before the dessert and never came back. CCTV photos of the pair were published and they were eventually caught pulling the same stunt at L'Oranger.

Moore said staff were usually on the front line and it was hard for them to assess fraudulent behaviour.

"You would never imagine that anyone would go to such lengths. I would hope my manager would ring me if I wasn't there. I'd tell him to be super-nice to them and wait for me to arrive to assess the damage," said Moore. "They can be very convincing. Don't trust anybody."

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