OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Oklahoma City-County Health Department is warning area restaurants to beware of scammers who are posing as health department food safety inspectors.
Over the past week, callers claiming to be "health inspectors" have contacted several Oklahoma County restaurants requesting personal information including cell phone numbers. The callers claimed to be making the contacts in order to schedule restaurant inspections.
One restaurant owner said she was threatened with a large fine if she did not cooperate.
The calls are similar to others in a country-wide scheme that has targeted restaurants from Baltimore, Maryland to Seattle, Washington. The callers provide a five digit numeric code and instruct restaurateurs to enter the confirmation code when prompted during an automated call.
Authorities in other states believe the calls are part of a larger fraud that involves setting up "verified" accounts on online classified ad and auction websites.
OCCHD Consumer Protection program administrator Michael Bailey said in Oklahoma County the scammers have targeted primarily Asian restaurants.
"Apparently, they're trying to take advantage of restaurant owners who speak English as a second language," Bailey said. "Fortunately, we have inspectors on our staff who are fluent in other languages so we can communicate more effectively."
OCCHD inspector Samittra Gillespie said she's spoken with several Thai restaurant owners who have gotten calls from the phony inspectors. Gillespie, who speaks Thai, said those restaurant owners immediately contacted her when they suspected something wasn't quite right about the calls.
"We never call ahead to schedule inspections and we don't provide any kind of confirmation codes," Gillespie said. "We want everyone to know that these callers are imposters and anyone who gets such a call should refuse to provide information and report the contact to police."
All OCCHD food service inspectors carry photo IDs with the health department emblem.
OCCHD is advising food service businesses that:
"I urge restaurant owners and operators to contact us if there is any doubt about the identity of a person who claims to be a health inspector," said Bailey.
Anyone with questions may contact OCCHD Consumer Protection at (405) 425-4319.