All too often on our private forums and our Facebook pages, we hear from chefs about sketchy and downright fraudulent communications they receive that seemingly inquire about personal chef services. In reality, these missives are almost always phishing scams.

Here’s a typical one that several chefs around the country received about five years ago:

Hello,
I’m in need of a professional chef to handle surprise birthday party i’m planning for my Husband upon our return from Quito, Ecuador. We’re here right now on vacation and my husband will be turning 45 on 28th of this month while our return is slated for 27th but we’re looking at planning the party between 28th Nov and 8th Dec. As you would see, there’s hardly any time for me to make all the plans myself so i want to hire a professional chef on standy for that day who would cater for at least 20 friends/family members for a sit down dinner party style. Kindly respond back to let me know how much you charge and if you’re able to accept payment in form of check so we can finalize plans long before our return.
Thanks.
(Tee Marcy)

As member April Lee of Tastefully Yours explained, these phishing scams have many things in common, “most noticeably is poor English, poor grammar or improper use of capital letters and punctuation (although I’ve noticed that the scam emails have gotten a little better about this over the years).”

She added that the context of scams also follow certain themes:

  • Vacationing in “fill-in-the-blank” area with family and needing meals for everyone for one to two weeks (or more)
  • Need to throw a surprise party/dinner with little advance notice, but inquirer is impossible to contact directly via telephone (because s/he is in the military and overseas, or s/he is deaf and doesn’t communicate by telephone) and they cannot give a physical address of the venue
  • Wanting to hire you for the event without even talking to you
  • Requesting a bizarre menu, ranging from 100 wrapped chicken salad sandwiches to everything that’s listed on a deli menu somewhere
  • Offering to send a driver to pick up the food and/or deliver a check. Many times they offer to send you a big check and will ask you to pay the driver when they get there.

Seasoned email recipients who have endured their fair share of banking requests from Nigerian princes will immediately see that these emails that are too good to be true are. But all too often personal chef newbies, eager for new gigs, are vulnerable to these scams. And, as Lee pointed out, they can stand to lose thousands of dollars to rip-off artists.

How do they do it? APPCA Executive Director Candy Wallace explained that once they lure you with the full service for an extended time, ask you to submit menu plans, and basically befriend you, they then go for the close.

“What they want is the chef’s banking information so they can clean out the chef’s account,” Candy said. And, she added, while that letter above is typical, they are growing more sophisticated.

“You could at one time spot these right off the bat because the scammers use of the English language was so bad, or their lack of knowledge of food was also a tip,” she said, “but they have done their homework and present a much more believable scenario.”

So, how do you protect yourself?

Christine Robinson, who with partner Dennis Nosko, owns A Fresh Endeavor Personal Chef Service, suggests several tactics: “Google the person contacting you; ask questions, pointed questions; use common sense; and, if you doubt what is sent, use the APPCA Forums, ask, run it past people you know.”

Candy has offered some tips of her own on our forums:

  • Watch out for “phishy” emails. The most common form of phishing is emails pretending to be from a legitimate retailer, bank, organization, or government agency. The sender asks to “confirm” your personal information for some made-up reason: your account is about to be closed, an order for something has been placed in your name, or your information has been lost because of a computer problem. Another tactic phishers use is to say they’re from the fraud departments of well-known companies and ask to verify your information because they suspect you may be a victim of identity theft! In one case, a phisher claimed to be from a state lottery commission and requested people’s banking information to deposit their “winnings” in their accounts.
  • Don’t click on links within emails that ask for your personal information. Fraudsters use these links to lure people to phony Web sites that looks just like the real sites of the company, organization, or agency they’re impersonating. If you follow the instructions and enter your personal information on the Web site, you’ll deliver it directly into the hands of identity thieves. To check whether the message is really from the company or agency, call it directly or go to its Web site (use a search engine to find it).
  • Beware of “pharming.” In this latest version of online ID theft, a virus or malicious program is secretly planted in your computer and hijacks your Web browser. When you type in the address of a legitimate Web site, you’re taken to a fake copy of the site without realizing it. Any personal information you provide at the phony site, such as your password or account number, can be stolen and fraudulently used.
  • Never enter your personal information in a pop-up screen. Sometimes a phisher will direct you to a real company’s, organization’s, or agency’s Web site, but then an unauthorized pop-up screen created by the scammer will appear, with blanks in which to provide your personal information. If you fill it in, your information will go to the phisher. Legitimate companies, agencies and organizations don’t ask for personal information via pop-up screens. Install pop-up blocking software to help prevent this type of phishing attack.
  • Protect your computer with spam filters, anti-virus and anti-spyware software, and a firewall, and keep them up to date. A spam filter can help reduce the number of phishing emails you get. Anti-virus software, which scans incoming messages for troublesome files, and anti-spyware software, which looks for programs that have been installed on your computer and track your online activities without your knowledge, can protect you against pharming and other techniques that phishers use. Firewalls prevent hackers and unauthorized communications from entering your computer – which is especially important if you have a broadband connection because your computer is open to the Internet whenever it’s turned on. Look for programs that offer automatic updates and take advantage of free patches that manufacturers offer to fix newly discovered problems. Go to www.onguardonline.gov and www.staysafeonline.org to learn more about how to keep your computer secure.Also check out Microsoft Phishing Info page: http://www.microsoft.com/secur…ishing-symptoms.aspx
  • Only open email attachments if you’re expecting them and know what they contain. Even if the messages look like they came from people you know, they could be from scammers and contain programs that will steal your personal information.

You can report internet scams to the FBI via their Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) and to Consumer Fraud Reporting:

FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center
Consumer Fraud Reporting

Oh, and are you tempted to reply with a scathing little letter of your own? Yeah, it’s almost irresistible to give them a taste of their own medicine and some of our chefs have responded with rather brilliant responses. But a word of warning. Often these scammers will send emails to test if the email address is live (not unlike those annoying telemarketing calls you also get). Don’t respond, just trash the email and move on in your life.

But not before checking in on our Forum. Yes, we have one specifically dealing with Internet frauds issues. If you’re an APPCA member, this is a benefit you should take advantage of.

Have you gotten fraudulent, phishing emails? How did you handle it?

Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.

And if you are a member and have a special talent to share on this blog, let us know so we can feature you!