March 1, 2011
A handful of restaurants in Monterey County have received phone calls to schedule routine health inspections over the past two years from unidentified impostors. “We’re looking at the health department being implicated in some kind of a scam," says John Ramirez, director of the environmental health division.
The phony inspectors call to schedule appointments and set up a special code unique to each business. The purpose of the code request is unknown, but may be to get business owners to provide false verification to on-line auction services.
In at least one case, a phony inspector actually showed up and conducted a mock investigation of a Seaside restaurant. "Somebody impersonating a health inspector could potentially contaminate the food," Ramirez says.
Ramirez worries the scam artists could also be collecting personal or financial information through phone calls or walking through kitchens and offices.
The health department first identified the scam when a business owner called to reschedule an appointment. The department does not schedule inspections, instead showing up unannounced. There have been four documented phone calls of this sort in the past year, but "even one instance is too many," Ramirez says. Earlier today, he learned that similar scams have recently been occurring in Chico.
Ramirez's 10-person team conducts about 4300 food facility inspections each year in the county's 1800 restaurants, food trucks and commercial kitchens. "It’s a concern to all of the health departments doing inspections statewide. We don’t know what the potential threat may be," Ramirez says.
The health department wants all food business operators in the region to be on the look-out for scam health inspectors and to report any suspicious activity or scheduling phone calls.