A burger in a takeout container. OliurRahman/Wikimedia Commons photo
A local chef is warning other restaurants and caterers about a scam targeting their industry in Yellowknife.
Jason Robins, is the executive chef at the Smokehouse and Grill at Gastown, says when talking to others in the restaurant industry he heard of at least a few others who received the same strange request as he did. Robins says as far as he knows, no one has lost money yet – but his company came close.
The scam started out with an email in September requesting 75 handhelds off of the grill’s menu that would be delivered to Covid-19 healthcare workers.
“The nature of the job was such that it was any caterer worth their salt is going to look at the job like this and say it’s easy money,” said Robins, who said in hindsight, getting an email to deliver sandwiches to healthcare workers months after the public health emergency had been lifted should have been a red flag.
It was also suspicious, he said, that the people emailing would only connect over text or email, telling the chef they had health limitations that prevented them from using the phone.
The scammers told Robins they had hired a driver to deliver the sandwiches, and that he needed to facilitate paying the driver. Robins figured he could add the driver’s fee – $3,000 – to the bill. He didn’t question the large sum, thinking perhaps the handhelds would be driven to nearby communities like Dettah or Behchokǫ̀.
Robins was provided with two credit card numbers to ring the order through. One of the credit cards didn’t work, and he was then provided with a third credit card number. While the charges all eventually went through, Robins suspects he was given stolen credit card numbers and the amounts Gastown received will be revoked.
The grill was then given an email address to e-transfer the driver’s payment to, but the payment kept bouncing back. Robins chalked it up to Yellowknife’s occasionally unreliable internet, which may have saved the Smokehouse and Grill $3,000.
Robins and his boss told the client to send the driver down to pick up a cheque instead, but the scammers said that wouldn’t work and started to threaten to find another caterer. The team at the grill looked up the company, called Uptown Driving Services, and found out it didn’t exist and that it had made up an address in Yellowknife.
Realizing it was a scam, Gastown stopped the transaction. The scammers threatened to go to the RCMP, which Robins encouraged them to do.
“If you feel so strongly that we have done something nefarious and we’ve stolen your money, call the RCMP. If the RCMP came in here and proved without a shadow of a doubt that I was wrong, I would eat a ton of humble pie and feel absolutely terrible, and refund the money with no questions. And when I crossed them with that, I’d never heard back,” he said.
If the e-transfer had gone through, Robins would have transferred them cash, which would not have been recoverable in the way credit is.
Gastown decided not to take the scam to the police, saying since the scammers likely weren’t in the jurisdiction – or even in Canada, from what Robins could tell from the phone number they used – they wouldn’t be caught or prosecuted.
“Since I haven’t spoken to anybody directly, I couldn’t give you an accent. I couldn’t give you anything,” Robins said.
But Robins hopes sharing Gastown’s story will help other caterers and restaurants be more aware of potential scams
“This entire situation literally could close your doors,” he said, if a restaurant actually lost $3,000 or more to a scam.
“That’s a lot of money for a small business. Most of these places … they’re paying rent, they’re paying for staff, they’re paying for all of those things. And on top of everything else, they’re trying to carve out a living in competition with other people. It’s not an easy thing to deal with.”