Saffron Thai restaurants hit by internet scammers

Su-Mei Yu stands firm

Late last October, a man claiming to represent a deaf woman began calling the Saffron Thai restaurants on India Street near Washington. The lady wanted large amounts of food for her upcoming wedding. But Saffron employees could never get the caller to be clear about what the order was. On November 4, manager Hector Carrillo received another call. The next day he emailed Saffron owner Su-Mei Yu, who was attending a cooking conference. Carrillo wrote, “I need your help with this please. Yesterday I got a phone call from this company or system that helps deaf people communicate.” Carrillo explained that the caller identified herself as Jude Moore and that in eight days she wanted a large order of “pad Thai and 200 regular skewers of chicken sate.”

Carrillo’s message betrayed frustration over being unable to impress on Moore the importance of several details. It’s not recommended, for instance, that large quantities of noodles be purchased “because they tend to stick all together.” Also, “I asked her at what time she’s going to serve the food and how she’s going to keep it.” But Moore seemed unconcerned and “insisted on placing the order.” So Carrillo had taken Moore’s email address for his boss.

By November 11, Yu and Moore had negotiated the order and its cost. Moore then wrote to Yu, “I am ok with the total cost of the order, which is $1749.38. Meanwhile, I would like you to add an additional $1250.… The $1250 will be sent to the private shipper who will be coming for the pick up of the food.” Moore indicated more specifically that she wanted Saffron to pay the shipper “in cash via Money Gram transfer, as it is the safest and fastest to receive money.” She told Yu to include on the bill $100 for Money Gram transfer charges and “let me have the price inclusive of the tax so that I can give you my credit card for you to have the grand total cost charged on it.” Finally, Moore promised to send “the shipper’s information” so Yu could pay “them the cash via the Money Gram transfer.”

But Yu wasn’t having it. “I am afraid I cannot charge anything more than what you plan to purchase using the restaurant’s credit card machine. You will have to settle how to pay the private shipper some other way.”

“That was the last I heard from Jude Moore,” Yu tells me in the office above her two restaurants, Saffron Noodles and Saté and Saffron Thai Grilled Chicken, a take-out shop. “But the whole thing was so strange. Moore wouldn’t tell me the time or the place the wedding was to take place. On the phone with her, I was concerned about how the food would be kept fresh, since I didn’t want to be responsible for someone getting sick.” But Moore said the truck she was sending would be a “warmer truck.” “When I told her some of the food is cold,” Yu tells me, “[Moore] right away said she’d send a second truck for the cold food.”

Yu came to the United States from Thailand when she was 15. She opened her take-out shop in 1985. She has since published several award-winning cookbooks and is interviewed regularly on KPBS-FM.

Yu’s warmth makes it hard to imagine that she ever becomes anxious. Yet anxiety is what began to overtake her in the wake of the Moore wedding episode, for a series of scams followed almost every week until recently. One of the first began on November 27. A man identifying himself as Herb Williams, an engineer working for Weatherford International Oil Services, with an address in Aberdeen, Scotland, emailed Saffron to “book” dinners on three nights for 15 of his employees who would be visiting San Diego.

“My restaurant is very casual,” Yu replied, “and generally one does not need a reservation. However, since yours is a fairly good size group, I will be glad to put aside a table for you and your workers.” She asked if Williams were looking for “something special” and informed him that, for the nights in question, the restaurant’s specials were beef panang and chicken cooked in green curry, followed by red curry with chicken and pumpkin, and “mostly vegetarian dishes” on the final night. But Williams said he wanted Saffron to create a “3 course menu” for his group and would take advice. “I suggest that you order out of our regular menu,” Yu replied. “However, if you really want something special which I or my cook prepare just for you and your guests, we can do that but it will cost more.” Williams did ask for a special menu and eventually said that since his workers would be in town for a convention, they would eat both lunch and dinner at Saffron every day for a week. “It then made no sense,” Yu tells me. “In the first place, nobody’s going to want to eat Thai food twice a day for five days in a row.”

Then came the clincher. “I will make a deposit of $1500,” wrote Williams on December 5, “which will cover your guests’ meals and drinks in advance because we are not sure of what they might like to drink or how much they are likely to consume. Moreover, we were able to make an arrangement with a pre-paid car hiring agent who will supply the guests with vehicles that will be used by the guests to and from your place. So in order not to share my credit card information with a third party, I have decided that only you will have to handle my credit card information. The prepaid agent is not yet a credit card merchant and therefore cannot charge credit cards. I would have sent him his money directly, but am on the high seas working on an OIL RIG. There are no banks or western union outlets here where I can make payment directly to the agent.

“So once you are in receipt of my credit card details, you are required to charge the total amount of $5100 plus processing fees on my card, then deduct $1500 as initial deposit for the meals and drinks and $100 as a tip for your own kindness and send the balance of $3500 to the agent in order to prepay their expenses for coming. The agent’s information will be forwarded to you once this is confirmed. You can assist me in making payment to them through a certified bank check.”

The response? “Dear Sirs, Please do not write me again. I am not interested. Su-Mei Yu.”

Yu wonders how her restaurant was picked by scammers. Do they count on Asians being unable to detect the deceit? A check on the web suggests otherwise, as this type of scam has turned up at a variety of restaurants and in multiple cities. On August 2 last year, the local newspaper in Billings, Montana, reported that a restaurant called Bruno’s A Taste of Italy had in the previous several months fielded over 40 calls from scammers using the deaf-caller tactic and others that Yu’s Saffron restaurant has experienced. The Billings owner said that in one case he came close to losing $500 worth of lasagna. When he contacted the FBI, they said they could do nothing.

The biggest problem for Saffron has been the uncertain feelings that now plague Yu and her staff about large called-in orders. She says she got so leery of the scams that not long ago she almost lost a legitimate large order. “I went home and told my husband how upset I started to get about a woman’s phone order because I was sure it was a scam. He said, ‘Su-Mei, you have to check further into these orders or you’ll lose some business.’ ” And sure enough, when she got back to the woman and they planned a wedding, everything worked out well.

In recent emails dealing with large orders, Yu has come straight to the point about her worries. She tells me that someone going by the name of Philip David has approached her with numerous emails. In response to one concerning a wedding on February 11, Yu wrote, “I need more information before I can help you. I must say that your order is exactly the same as several others I received this past month, all of which were a scam! Therefore I am very cautious before I proceed. If this is in fact a true order, then I apologize and would be very happy to help you.” Yu closed her message with a warning. “Just for your information, I have passed all previous names, email addresses, and fax numbers to the police for investigation.”

The name Philip David turns up on the internet in connection with various scams nationwide. Yu says she’s had several phone conversations with a man going by that name. Finally, she told him, “I know this is a scam. Please stop doing this. Shame on you.”

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Wow-these scams sound very sophisticated....

Sophisticated? Actually they are pretty crude efforts when you think about them unemotionally. But, with a huge order at stake, it is easy to see how a business would be lulled into thinking that it makes sense.

I wonder why it is that the FBI cannot take some action. These scams look tailor-made for a sting. The bad guys set it up with a business, and the FBI is waiting when the miscreants show up for the cash. By my figuring, there was no way these could be pulled off without a real, live person showing up to pick up the order and the "payment." That could be some innocent gofer, but the cops could quickly identify the person(s) behind it all.

Oh man, I have stories like this from the last place I worked. I'm with you, Visduh, I saw right through them, but the company got burned anyway. I mostly kept my mouth shut, I was the Production Manager, it was out of my realm of responsibility. But holy cow, what some businesses are winning to do on the chance they'll make some cash...

What if these restaurants started a policy that any large order has to be places in person, or at least discussed once in person? It'll cut down on the issues, I think, especially when billing and costs gets brought up.

There's some real humor in this story. The owner commented that nobody would want to eat Thai food twice a day every day for five days. How true! That is, unless it were Thai people, and then they might prefer some variety while visiting the US.

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