Restaurants statewide receive fraudulent claims for damages

Industry association says schemes used for years

August 13, 1999|By Zerline A. Hughes | Zerline A. Hughes,SUN STAFF

Con artists have been trying to take Maryland restaurants to the cleaners.

More than 50 restaurants statewide have fallen victim to schemes seeking money for purportedly damaged clothing within the past three weeks, according to the Restaurant Association of Maryland.

Mass mailings with postmarks from Bronx, N.Y., and Tucker, Ga., were delivered to restaurants claiming damage to clothing from spilled wine or salad dressing. Each request for compensation was accompanied by a dry-cleaning bill for up to $35.

Business owners including Seymour Attman, owner of Attman's Delicatessen on Lombard Street, gave copies of the fraudulent claim to the restaurant trade group -- which has collected 36 of them to give to the postal inspector's office yesterday.

"The most unusual thing about the letter was that [the sender] said he had on an Armani suit and he said I emptied a glass of wine on the suit," Attman said. "We don't sell wine, so that made it clear. I knew it was a scam."

The restaurant association, in reporting the problem to federal authorities, learned that this type of fraud is not unusual.

"That's an ongoing scam," said Tom Boyle, a spokesman in the postal inspector's Baltimore office. "It's been going on for the last four to five years. We have prosecuted cases in the past, at times working with the state or U.S. attorney's office. We'll get numerous complaints. It's important for people to know that they can call us."

Restaurants from Ocean City to Cumberland received letters, some signed Hugo Chukukeri of Georgia and the others by a supposed Eric Washington of New York. Baltimore establishments included the Bay Cafe, Amicci's and Bandaloops.

A Hugo Chukukeri, reached in the Atlanta area by The Sun, said in a telephone interview that he did not send any of the letters and had filed a complaint last week with the Atlanta Police Department about his name being used in the fraud attempts.

Chukukeri said someone is using his home and office telephone number -- and a post office box that is not his -- in the attempt to clean up at restaurants' expense.

"People should not respond to this thing," Chukukeri said of the letters. "I don't even know what's going on. I've never visited these places. I work at a law firm. They're using my ID for their own benefit."

"Our priority right now is to put a stop to it," said restaurant association spokesman Brendan Flanagan. "We don't want any more restaurants responding to the fraudulent letter. Scams happen every so often, but this is kind of a big deal. I think it's because we're so customer service-oriented. It's easy for people to take advantage of us."

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