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Is your waiter a thief?

When you hand your credit card to the server in a fine restaurant, how can you be sure your information is secure?

By Giselle Smith Nov 21, 2011 3:47PM

The news last week that waiters in some of New York's top restaurants were involved in a highly organized credit card scam on customers is enough to make anyone swear off paying with plastic -- or eating out altogether.

Over the past year and a half, about 50 diners at restaurants such as the Capital Grille, JoJo, Smith & Wollensky and Wolfgang’s Steakhouse had their credit card information stolen and used to purchase big-ticket items that were then sold for cash, according to The New York Times.

On Friday, 28 people were indicted in the identity-theft ring. Reports on the scope of the crime range from $600,000 to millions of dollars.

In the scam, which focused on customers with high-limit American Express cards, seven waiters at various Manhattan restaurants used small skimming devices to copy data, then turned it over to high-tech criminal organizers, who created counterfeit cards. Next, the ring's "shoppers" were sent out with fake driver licenses and instructions to behave like big spenders -- while they racked up as much as $35,000 on each card before ditching it, The Washington Post reported. Many of the illegally purchased goods were then sold for cash.

Because the waiters targeted only high- or no-limit cards, the customers were most likely accustomed to high credit card bills and would not have noticed suspicious account activity unless they were alerted by their card companies, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, told The New York Times.

Don't let it happen to you

Outside of making sure your AmEx card doesn't have an exorbitant spending limit, how can you make sure you won't be the victim of a similar scam?

The skimming devices used by waiters in the Manhattan scam were about the size of a tube of lipstick -- 3 inches long and a half-inch wide, and could be easily concealed in the palm of a waiter's hand, according to The Washington Post.

Portable magnetic card readers are readily available on the Internet, for prices ranging from $240 to about $350, through sites such as eBay, Tyner and Hackers Homepage.

One safety measure is for restaurants to use portable credit card-swiping machines, Jonathan Mintz, Consumer Affairs Commissioner told the newspaper. This would allow diners to swipe their own cards, at their tables, instead of allowing a waiter to take the card away for a few minutes.

Some advice on how to protect yourself against credit card fraud, from the Federal Trade Commission:

  • Keep an eye on your card during any transaction, and get it back as quickly as possible.
  • Save your receipts to compare with your bill.
  • Open bills promptly and reconcile your credit card accounts monthly.
  • Report questionable charges promptly -- in writing -- to the card issuer.

Other things you can do, according to

  • Don't wait for your credit card statements to come in the mail; regularly monitor your accounts online.
  • If your financial institution offers them, set up mobile alerts for your phone so you can be aware of unusual activity as quickly as possible.
In any case, it's much better to use a credit card in restaurants than to use your debit card. While you won't be held responsible for debit-card transactions if you report the card as stolen before it is used, you could lose everything if you don't notice it's gone before the thief cleans out your account, SmartMoney warns.

Credit cards issuers, on the other hand, usually protect you against fraudulent charges if your card is stolen.

More on MSN Money:

Nov 21, 2011 10:23PM

Welcome to the new America, where you have to be

afraid of everyone around you.  How pitiful we have become.

Nov 21, 2011 7:39PM
I don't mind...  because the thieves always run up less than my wife does.
            Don't even trust your own family with a credit card!!!
Nov 21, 2011 11:36PM
My wife and just returned from 3 weeks in England and France, almost every restaurant we ate at had a portable reader they brought to you at tableside.
Nov 22, 2011 12:04AM
This happen to my 80 year old mother we think at a Ruth Chris Steak House. They first try out the cards on line purchases and dating web site like Christian  and E than try purchasing  large $$$$$ items on line in Europe. This scared her sick because she never even had a credit card until she was in her late 70's.
Nov 22, 2011 12:12AM
It seems that MSN has something against people who work in the hospitality industry! Almost on a monthy basis there is something bad posted about servers or bartenders. Yes there are criminals who work as servers or bartenders but aren't they in all walks of life? Most of us are hardworking honest people who take a lot of crap from customers and make a modest living. MSN, stop jumping on every little story about hospitality workers, dishonest servers and bartenders are in the small minority!!!
Nov 22, 2011 3:05AM
Make no mistake, just about anywhere you use a credit or debt card there are thieves trying to steal your information.  I agree with Chris, servers and bartenders are a very small percentage compared to identity theft as a whole.  Starbucks just got caught charging extra fees from its customers.  Places like Wal-mart, can overcharge a single item by 5 cents and make a fortune cause even if most people catch it you would rather pay it than hassle with trying to get it back.  I can make a long list of thieves who steal your money, illegally and legally.  Towing yards, banks, insurance corps., wal street brokers, wireless phone carriers, and lets not forget our government are all stealing our money with hidden fees and loop hole economics.  And I know these thieves got away with billions.  And did I mention that these thieves were not even accused of a crime.  In most cases, the very same people are still in charge of our finances.  I wouldn't worry about it too much cause we are all in serious trouble from thieves that plan on stealing our right to privacy. Our cell phone, new cars, computers, and just about any mobile device with tracking capabilities.  So, yeah 7 waiters in NY stealing from credit cards should be the least of our worries. Just get some damn identity theft protection on your credit card, problem solved. Now, what to do about people who steal and spy on you using your cell phone. Just about anyone can find out everything you have done with your cell phone, texts, who you have called, who has called you, voice mails, you name it.  Scared yet........ BOO!  
Nov 22, 2011 1:47AM
Good thinking MSN, seven waiters in NYC (big surprise) participated in some credit card ring, so you appropriately title an article "Is Your Waiter a Thief?"...  In that same vein, I know a black guy that has a couple of kids with a couple of different women and he dodges child support...does that mean that black guys have multiple kids with multiple women and don't pay their child support?  I also know a Mexican guy that is here illegally...does that mean that all Mexicans are illegal?  Or this one guy I know that is a chauvinist, or the girl I know that's in a lower income bracket that is an unwed mother... I hope you see the problem with making sweeping generalizations about entire groups of people.  As a restaurant worker for 20+ years I can vouch for the number of idiots that I have had to serve, cook for, field complaints from, clean up after, deal with their hydrocephalic muling little kids, listen to condescension from, deal with attitudes of superiority from.  People of this country do not appreciate us of the service industry very much, nor do they think much of us in general so stories like these really help us out.  So screw all of you that will go out after reading this and accuse your poor servers and bartenders that are working hard to scrape together a living from the meager generosity of the general public (which varies at best).  Funniest part is that most of you same jerks couldn't do my job (managing high volume restaurants) for more than an hour without crying like a little girl. I work six days a week twelve to fourteen hours a day, accuse me (the provider of your lazy ****'s food) of being a thief? Piss on you America...
Mar 13, 2012 12:44AM
I used my Discover card at a chain restaurant. It was the first time in several months that I had used the card. 2 days later, Discover called to see if I had tried to charge a $3000.00 transmission job. No I had not. They launched a fraud investigation, reversed the charges, and I didn't have to do a thing. I really think the person who frauded the card was someone from the restaurant.
Nov 27, 2011 2:05PM
To Christopher (Chefcww), it sounds like this has been a career path for some (the service industry), but I also know a lot of low income workers that complain a lot and make it sound as if they're entitled to more income when they really aren't. After all, even though those in the service industry work hard they aren't skilled workers so they don't get paid well (on average). Age old problem, More money = higher education = more effort. I'm ok with the service industry populous as if everyone had a higher degree than the higher paying jobs probably wouldn't pay as much as they do. But no one can argue the above equation and most people don't want to put out the effort for a litany of reasons, or go into some debt in order to escape the so called service industry's monetary catch 22. Welcome your thoughts.
Nov 22, 2011 3:33AM
Pick-pockets and credit card number theft are common overseas.  When my wife and I got an opportunity to travel Europe and North Africa, we got a credit card and asked for only a $5000 limit, we called it our throw down card meaning it was expendable.  We hoped that would discourage thieves and we had no trouble.  The next new card we got had a $6000 limit, which was strange as all our other cards, except for the one lower limit we requested, had a $25,000 limit.  Seems when you go backward, the system remembers, so be careful of that approach to stop the thieves.
Nov 22, 2011 3:46AM

Really Chris?  This article isnt really generalizing that all servers steal.  Your an idiot if you believe this.  All the title is doing is drawing u into reading this article.  So dont go into this whole dramatic speech about races cause this has nothing to do with race.  There are too many stupid people like you in american who worry about stupid **** like an article title.  Man up Grow up and worry about **** thats worth worrying about.  And your doing the same thing by making it seem like every server is trying to get their life together and just making enough to get by.  YOUR DOING THE SAME DAMN THING! 

Nov 22, 2011 12:33PM
It really doesn't matter what you do, i sell cars for a living, and we get painted as rip-off artists. As long as sheeple pay attention to their drivel, they'll print it. 
Nov 21, 2011 10:35PM
Never use credit or debit cards at a restaurant.  Either use cash...or get one of those prepaid cards and put a modest amount on when you spend that money...they can't drain your account dry.
Easy Come easy go, I know Congressman and Presidents is ripping everyone of at higher rate. For Work they don't for do they have a Job anyone can have a Job. Though can't do the Work it takes to fill, as they all can't roll a Cigarette in the Job they bought
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