FOOD- THE DISH- $199 sign scam: Local innkeeper sleuths it out


"I'm glad my irritation about yet another bill led me to sleuth it out," says Kathy Versluys, who runs the Acorn Inn with her husband, Martin, about a phone scam she almost fell for.
PHOTO COURTESY KATHY VERSLUYS

Acorn Inn co-owner Kathy Versluys says she's naturally skeptical and not inclined to fall for bogus sales pitches or scams. But the call she received on Monday sounded so official, so legit, that she found herself taking the bait.

"I received a very official sounding call from a person claiming to be a representative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture," says Versluys, "who knew our name, address, income and number of employees."

The caller, a woman, told Versluys they (she runs the Nellysford-area bed & breakfast with her husband, Martin) hadn't responded to an important notification sent out in May concerning new regulations for all businesses involved with food, but especially small ones like theirs that serve baked goods. Due to the current rise in food-born illnesses, the woman said, even kitchens not subject to restaurant regulations were now federally required to post food-borne illness warning signs in their kitchens. She added that the USDA would be conducting stricter inspections as of August 1, 2008, and imposing fines on all businesses without the signs.

"I asked if I could download the warning signs from the USDA website and laminate them," says Versluys, "but she said that federal regulations require that the signs be official. And given the date and the August 1 deadline, they should be sent out rush."

The package they were to receive, Versluys was told, would contain three certified signs that cost $199, which they would be given 30 days to pay.

"When I balked at the cost, she assured me that small businesses would be reimbursed for the full amount when we filed our taxes," says Versluys. "She said the Federal government didn't want to burden small businesses, but that the food-borne illness scares lately had created an emergency regulation."

Versluys was told she would receive a second call to verify the order. Sure enough, she received another call from a woman claiming to work for Federal Medical Supplies, a legit company, as it turns out. But when Versluys started asking questions, she was told that Federal Medical Supplies had simply been contracted to distribute the signs. If she had any questions, the woman said, she would need to contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture again and was given a toll-free number.

Suspicious, Versluys called the Virginia Department of Agriculture in Richmond, only to find out they knew of no new law with an August 1 deadline. Next, she spoke to Nelson County's local health department and found out that they hadn't heard of the new August 1 regulation either. Then she called the Albemarle food safety/health department and heard the same story.

However, no one confirmed it was a scam until she phoned the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Omaha, Nebraska, where an official told her there was no way the USDA would be capable of phoning individual businesses, that the topics covered were more a health department concern, or an FDA issue, and such signs would never cost anything.

The official recommended she call back and cancel the order, then notify the Better Business Bureau and newspapers, which Versluys promptly did.

According to Sandy Soule, a marketing rep with BedandBreakfast.com, an industry advocate, innkeepers across the country have been receiving similar calls, most recently from callers claiming to be with the U.S. Department of Labor informing them that they were required to post Employment/Safety Rules posters on their premises. Cost? You guessed it– $199.

"I'm glad my irritation about yet another bill led me to sleuth it out," says Versluys. "And here I thought it was a really creative way to pay for those tax rebates."

A few days after we spoke, Versluys contacted the Dish to say a staff officer at the USDA called to inform her that her report about the scam was forwarded to the Congressional Public Affairs office, which sent it on to the office of the Inspector General for a full investigation of Federal Medical Supplies.


Buy local for a good cause

Wendy Harrison, who runs The Farm at Red Hill in North Garden, tells us that every time you buy something from them at the first four Charlottesville Saturday City Market dates in August, 10 percent of the proceeds will go to the Women's 4-Miler (to be run August 30 at 8am) in support of the Breast Care Center at UVA. Last year, says Harrison, she and her daughter Rachel ran in the 4-miler, and were so moved by the event that they wanted to try to do as little more this year.

"August is a great month for local produce, and we hope everyone will take the time to come by the City Market and help support this wonderful cause," says Harrison. "Last year, Rachel and I finished in the mid-800s out of 2,800 runners, which we thought was pretty good for a first time. This year, we are aiming to do even better!"


Savour open

Savour, the mystery restaurant on Emmet Street that has been undergoing renovations for nearly two years, finally made its debut last week. The verdict? Well, we haven't sent The Eater yet (see page XX), but local writer Faith Andrews Bedford says the food was "terrific, reasonably priced, and beautifully presented.

"After watching construction for two years, we were fascinated to see what it was like," says Bedford. "We were not disappointed."

Have you gone? What did you think? Visit our blog at readthehook.com/dish and let us know!


  Say ‘Si' to tapas on West Main

Looks like Mas and Bang will have a little competition.Dish has confirmed that Richmond restaurateur Mo Roman, who owns Si, the trendy tapas restaurant and bar in the Fan District, has purchased the former Starr Hill Restaurant & Music Hall building on West Main and plans to bring his Spanish-style tapas and hipster late-night scene to Charlottesville sometime in August (which often means more like September or October). Roman did not immediately return our calls, but we'll keep trying. Be sure to check upcoming editions of the Dish for more!


Que and Cruz 2008

Small Country Campground and the Trevillians Volunteer Fire Company are hosting the first annual "Que and Cruz" on July 18 and 19 in Louisa. According to organizer Bill Small, it counts as a Virginia State Championship, KCBS-style BBQ contest sanctioned by Mid Atlantic BBQ Association, and so far there are over 30 teams signed up. Of course, there will be plenty of barbeque available, as well as live music. Adult tickets are $5; kids under 10 get in free. Contact Small at billthegrillguy@msn.com for more information. 

All this food news was first reported online. Check it out at readthehook.com/food/

#