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Protecting your restaurant from identity thieves

Would you know it if one of your waiters surreptitiously swiped a guest’s American Express black card before charging the tab? The move was missed at several busy, high-end New York City steakhouses, including Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group and The Capital Grille, as evidenced by the arrest last week of 28 current and former servers. The servers allegedly were part of a ring of identity thieves who charged as much as $35,000 worth of high-end merchandise on each stolen account, according to The Associated Press.

The story grew more dramatic during the weekend when the Daily News reported that police were still searching for a convicted killer who allegedly is the ring’s second-in-command.

But it’s not only upscale eateries that fall prey to such employee theft. The same week news broke about the New York City ring, authorities in Olympia, Wash., arrested a 17-year-old accused of using a skimming device to steal more than $15,000 from McDonald’s customers. According to a report in the Mason County Daily News, the worker used the money to buy high-priced electronics that he then sold on Craigslist.

Other restaurants might not have a theft problem, but their practices can leave them wide open to one. A Burger King in Walworth, Wis., faces a lawsuit by a customer who said the eatery and its owner, Southern Wisconsin Foods, violate federal law with how they print receipts, The Janesville Gazette reported.

Other than making sure your receipts comply with federal law, what can you do to protect your restaurant’s guests and your reputation? While technology has led to greater concerns about protecting personal information, it might also be the solution when it comes to identity theft.

  • One key step to preventing similar incidents is making transactions more transparent. Ruby Tuesday announced two years ago that it would outfit servers at all 900 restaurants with portable credit card scanners so they can swipe the card and complete the transaction in front of the guest.
  • Restaurants increasingly are using Apple’s iPad and other tablets for table-side ordering and speedier service. Such technology also can let consumers pay for meals without handing over a credit card.
  • Another technology with potential to prevent identity theft is mobile payment, using a near-field communication system such as Google Wallet to let people pay without pulling out a credit card.

Has your restaurant had a problem with identity theft? Tell us how you handled it or, better yet, what steps you’ve taken to make sure it doesn’t happen.