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Health department warning restaurants about bogus inspector calls

SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake Valley Health Department is warning restaurant owners about a scam that involves food safety inspections.

Several local restaurants have reported someone posing as a health inspector. In some cases, the person tried to collect fees or fines. It's a scam that is affecting restaurants nationwide.

Steve Louie, owner of Yamasaki, a Japanese restaurant at 6055 S. 900 East, got a strange call around 7 p.m. one day last month.

"A gentleman said, 'I'm from the Utah Health Department. We have a complaint against you,'" Louie recalled. "He says, 'A customer complained, and we're going to come in and inspect you.'"

The restaurant owner told him to come in. But as the call continued, several things struck Louie as odd.

"The health department doesn't work at 7 at night, and they don't call. They just come in," Louie said.

Louie pressed the caller for credentials and asked why he was calling from a California number. That's when the caller got frustrated and swore at the restaurant owner.

"Finally, he just told me where to go and hung up on me," Louie said.

Surprise inspections are a way of life for restaurants, and Louie knows that. In Salt Lake County, inspectors show up unannounced anywhere from one to three times a year. So a phone call from the health department to schedule an inspection should raise red flags.

An assistant manager at a Japanese restaurant in Sugar House received a similar call.

"He said he was the health department," Alicia Sawyer said. "It was a weird time of night for the health department to be calling. It was around 7."

The man on the phone called back later and asked for an employee's cell phone number. When she wouldn't give that out, Sawyer said, "He got kind of upset and he started swearing."

Bryce Larsen, with the Food Protection Bureau of the Salt Lake Valley Health Department, said his organization never works that way.

"We typically don't schedule our inspections," Larsen said. "We come unannounced because we want to see the conditions as they are at the time."

The Salt Lake Valley Health Department said every few months over the past year and a half, restaurant operators alert them about these scam calls. Restaurants across the country are getting the same calls. Health departments have put out alerts from Maryland to California and Michigan to Tennessee. Even Canada has seen similar incidents.

In many cases, restaurant owners are contacted by phone by someone claiming to be a health inspector who wants to talk about new inspection procedures. Owners are given a special code and then asked to enter that code later during an automated call to set up a meeting.

Once the code is entered, the person behind the scam sets up a fraudulent account with an online auction service. It is unclear if any purchases have been made, or if any financial information has been compromised.

Owners should be wary of anyone who calls to make an appointment for a health inspection.

It is unknown if anyone has been victimized yet, but restaurant owners and others who receive similar calls should contact local law enforcement and the Federal Trade Commission. The Federal Trade Commission has more information on this scam and similar phone scams on its website, www.ftc.gov/phonefraud.

E-mail: jboal@desnews.com