Thursday May 19, 2011

GREAT BARRINGTON -- Town officials warn that an identity theft scam is targeting ethnic restaurants in town.

People are posing as health inspectors to obtain personal information from business owners, and in the past year, the Board of Health has received six complaints from the owners of ethnic restaurants in town.

Mark A. Pruhenski, the town's health agent, said the scheme appears to have started two years ago in Eastern Massachusetts, and he first got word of it happening here last May. Though there have been a handful of complaints from business owners in town, Pruhenski said it's possible there are many more instances that haven't reported to authorities.

"This problem doesn't seem to be going away and it does fool people," said Pruhenski.

The state Department of Health recently released an advisory about the scam having hit lately in Winchester, Greenfield and Boston.

The advisory says health department imposters are calling or visiting ethnic food establishments in an attempt to gain entry or schedule a food inspection or investigation. The calls are possibly coming from commercial call centers.

Pruhenski said the scammers ask to confirm bank account information or federal identification numbers, but none of the complaints in town have involved imposters visiting a business in person.

Other town officials in Berkshire County who were contacted by The Eagle said they were aware of this scheme, but the only other complaint filed was by an establishment in Williamstown in late April.

Williamstown health officials say they also have been proactive in sending out messages alerting business owners.

Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, the executive director of Multicultural BRIDGE, a Housatonic-based immigrants advocacy group, said she was not aware of the scam, but was "amazed" people were targeting ethnic eateries or minorities.

"With the downturn in the economy, a lot of people are reacting out of fear and that leads to all sorts of intolerance, and I think it's just another example of that," said VanSant.

Officials are advising business owners not to give out personal information over the phone or allow anyone to conduct an inspection of their business without proper identification or credentials. Those who feel they have been someone is acting fraudulently are asked to immediately call local police.

To reach Trevor Jones:
tjones@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 528-3660.