Berkeley restaurant falls victim to credit card scam

May 12, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Anyone can get scammed from thousands of miles away and not even know it. An international credit card fraud ring has been targeting restaurants across the nation and a busy East Bay restaurant got caught up in it.

Lots of people use credit cards every day on the Internet, over the phone, and swipe them, taking the system for granted.

In Berkeley, Jim Maser of Picante Restaurant has spent a lot of good will and time in building a good reputation for over 16 years.

His customers come for the food and they return for the consistency even though they serve roughly 2,000 meals a day. And now it appears that all his success made this restaurant a target.

"It's like somebody broke into my house, and stole everything out of it," says Maser.

What they took, essentially, were credit cards. Maser has had to explain to his customers that last month an international group of hackers broke into his system, took encrypted credit card numbers and used them to duplicate about 50 cards around the world.

"Typically, there are mistakes with credit cards regularly, but not this volume, this fast, and then to have the Secret Service show up, we knew there was something much bigger going on," said Maser.

Mark Congero, a wine merchant a few blocks away, was one of the first victims. Hackers tried to charge two of his cards a total of $1,300, but they gave themselves away.

"The bank declined the charge. They held off because they smelled something a little fishy in the fact that I had used my card in Marin at 8 o'clock in the morning and then someone tried to use my card in Spain like two hours later. They figured that out that, that was a little weird," said Mark Congero, a credit card fraud victim.

Meantime, Picante has spent $20,000 on an investigation and made its credit card system secure again. But Maser now knows a lot more about worldwide scams than he ever wanted -- apparently, it's knowledge we all need.

"I'm just a guy who makes tacos, so this is a little over my head," said Maser.

Maser is still not sure how the hackers managed to get that encrypted information and send it out.

It's worth noting that the Secret Service arrested a woman with one of the fake cards in Arlington, Virginia. In fact, she had 15 credit cards in her possession. They're hoping she has information that might help pinpoint the weak link in this credit information chain.


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