Why police haven’t arrested the woman scamming Philly restaurants

And what business owners can do about it

poidog-scammer
via Poi Dog security camera
danya

According to multiple reports, the scammer who tries to trick people into refunding her cash for a non-existent to-go order — the same woman Billy Penn wrote about on Oct. 30 — is still out there trying to cop cash for meals she didn’t have.

In the past week, the woman has been sighted near Logan Circle, in Reading Terminal Market and around Washington Square.

Knead Bagels co-owner Cheri Willner recognized her almost right away. Standing in line with dozens of other customers during the lunchtime rush at her Walnut Street shop on Thursday was the culprit she’d read about a couple weeks earlier.

“She said she’d ordered three turkey sandwiches,” Willner recounted, “and they all had hairs in them so she needed her money back — she’d paid cash, she said.”

Willner went back to her office, purportedly to look into the refund. Instead, she called the police. When officers arrived, Willner said, she showed them the article and they confirmed it looked like the same woman. But when confronted by police and asked for her name, ID and cell phone, the scam artist said she was from out of town and didn’t have any of those on her.

“I watched her walk out,” Willner said, “and walk right into El Fuego [burrito shop] next door.”

Luckily for El Fuego, Willner had the owner’s number and texted him a warning, so the woman was likely turned away from there empty handed, too. But as for the next restaurant she hit, or the one after that? They may not have been so lucky.

The police have no recourse in a case like this, PPD representative Officer Tanya Little confirmed to Billy Penn.

“If restaurant owners are handing over cash, they’re voluntarily doing it, so it’s a tough one,” Little said. “The whole world is full of people like that, unfortunately. At least she’s just getting a few dollars. Some people get millions of dollars in fraudulent claims.”

Sure, there are more costly scams out there. But the idea that someone can continue to perpetrate this stunt even after her photo — pulled directly from the security camera at Poi Dog, one of the woman’s Oct. 30 marks — is circulating on the internet is dismaying.

So if calling the cops doesn’t solve the problem, what’s a restaurant owner to do? Here are six tips.

1) Do file a police report

Per Officer Little, it is worth taking the time to notify the police and ask for a report to be filed even if no action can be taken.

“I would have them at least start a paper trail,” she said, noting it could help if the perpetrator is taken into custody for some reason at some point in the future.

For example, if an alleged scammer was asked to leave the premises and refused, then the police would be able to take action, Little said.

2) Implement protective policies

After the scammer took Poi Dog for $20 last month, co-owner Kiki Aranita implemented some new policies at her 8-month-old Hawaiian-inspired fast casual:

  • all refunds must be approved by a manager or owner
  • proof of purchase is required for a refund
  • refunds are only available for same-day sales

A policy of “no refund without a receipt” is what kept the same woman from scoring cash off of Marshall Tolins, who owns Marshall’s Market in Berwyn. (Yeah, this scammer gets around — she also recently shook down Drexel Hill restaurant Station Tap.)

Tolins remembered her visit in late October. “She came in and said the thing about getting food with a hair in it the day before,” he said. He apologized to her, then asked if she had a receipt, at which point she said no and began to backpedal.

“When I said I couldn’t do a refund without a receipt she immediately said ok, and left the store in a hurry.”

3) Stand your ground

Having those kinds of policies in place is crucial to avoid getting into a devolving debate that drags out, said Spot Burgers owner Josh Kim, whose Brewerytown restaurant was also targeted by the same woman at the end of October.

Even more importantly, he noted, once you have the policy, you have to be willing to enforce it.

“You have to stand your ground,” Kim said. “On Girard Avenue we have all kinds of scams,” he noted, estimating he or his staff are approached by people approximately once a week.

“But,” he added, “scammers go to neighborhoods like Rittenhouse because they know people don’t want a scene.”

In his recent run-in with the woman in question, Kim recalled, she entered the shop, said there was something wrong with a burger she’d ordered, but couldn’t say what kind of burger it was or when exactly she ordered it. What really tipped him off was when she claimed she’d had it delivered earlier that day — and Kim knew there had been no deliveries.

Even after he confronted the woman with that fact, he said, she continued to argue, at which point he walked around from behind the counter and physically led her out of the store as she shouted and yelled about being treated badly.

“The rest of the customers who were there at the time, they know me,” Kim said, “so they were on my side.”

4) Balance customer service with awareness

A scene caused by a purportedly mistreated customer is a valid threat, especially for smaller daytime shops that count on repeat business from nearby workers and residents. In the restaurant business, reputation is everything.

Last Tuesday, the woman tried to pull a fast one at the Logan Square outpost of local sandwich mini-chain Matt & Marie’s. She was unsuccessful because co-owner Marie Capp had seen the Billy Penn article with the woman’s photo.

“It’s a balance,” Capp said about dealing with customer requests, “because you want to train your employees to literally do anything for the customer.”

If a customer asks for a different kind of lettuce, for example, Capp will send someone to the store to snag some real quick.

“But that’s at odds with telling employees to watch out for someone claiming they found a hair in their food because it might be a scammer,” she said.

5) Trust your cleanliness

When this same woman tried to pull her trick on Mac Mart recently, owner Marti Lieberman was suspicious from the start.

“We’re psycho about hairnets and gloves,” Liberman said about the staff at her Rittenhouse mac ‘n’ cheese joint, “since most of us are girls with hair like a VH1 Divas Live special. We have lint rollers hidden everywhere!”

In total, Mac Mart is hit with around five to eight scams a year, Lieberman said. The procedure she follows for what she calls a “bad food” or “object in food” situation starts with pulling the customer aside and kindly asking “a hundred” detailed questions, “so they basically give themselves up.”

In this particular case, the woman was unable to provide information about exactly what she ordered, when she had ordered it and how much she had paid. The last straw, Lieberman said, was when the scammer claimed to have called “a bunch of times” and been promised money back by a manager.

“I walked her inside, grabbed our work phone and asked her to look through our call list until she found her number. She didn’t.”

6) Continue to spread the word

Both Willner at Knead and Capp at Matt & Maries credited social media with alerting them to the hustle. Poi Dog co-owner Chris Vacca also pointed to social media as a good way to prevent proliferation.

“The more this story is spread by the media and through social media,” Vacca said, “the better restaurants may be able to anticipate this type of scam and prevent it.”

However, not everyone is on social media. “What about people who aren’t connected?” Capp pointed out. “Many restaurant owners hardly have time to place their food orders, much less browse Instagram.”

She joked about the potential for a blog called “phillyscams.com” that would keep track of such things. But offline connections can be just as effective.

After Knead was targeted, Willner said, she personally walked to other nearby restaurnats and explained what had happened. “I went to Talula’s and Fat Salmon and El Fuego,” she said, “and showed them the photo. That’s about all we can do.”