There's a new branch in the evolution of credit card scamming: the food festival scam, which speaks volumes about the culinary-focused zeitgeist that encourages eager foodies to part with their credit card number in exchange for a ticketed smorgasbord. This is a thing we do now; we just trade away our Visa information to randoms on the internet whom we've never even met. I'm guilty of it too, though I've been lucky in the past to have given away my debit card number to legitimate hot sauce festivals and above-board barbecue competitions.
Late last year, the Modesto Bee wrote about about a crab festival that's been scamming its way across the nation. In exchange for your credit card info, you're supposed to get admission to an all-you-can-eat crab bonanza. In reality, the crab festival scammers are just taking your money and heading to the next city like the monorail guy from The Simpsons. There's no event, no festival, no crabs and rarely any explanation, wrote Erin Tracy in the Bee this past December:
The crab scam went south to Los Angeles last month. Groups of people showed up to two downtown L.A. locations promoted to hold a “Super Crab Festival,” only to find locked doors and other confused ticketholders, according to reviews on Yelp. Posted on the door of one location was a note on a white sheet of paper, poorly scrawled in black Sharpie: “Crab Fest was Cancelled.”
The latest victims of the crab fraudsters? Houstonians.
A Facebook invitation for "Hot Garlic Crab Feed Houston" has been making the rounds, with promises of "All You Can Eat Crab, Salad Bar, Pasta, Bread and Desserts" for $49. VIP tickets are $99 and come with the offer of steak on top of all that other junk. What a deal, right? Except that the ticketing website has all the hallmarks of a scam: a redirect to a shady-looking, unrelated site to "purchase" your tickets; a non-working telephone number; and an email address that bounces back immediately.
You even have to struggle to find the location of the Hot Garlic Crab Feed, which I eventually discovered was being "held" at the Water Works in Buffalo Bayou Park—except that there's nothing about a crab festival on the Buffalo Bayou Park's upcoming events calendar or social media sites. Even the address is listed incorrectly, noted Trudi Smith, director of PR and events for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. "I have a call-in with our Visitor Services Supervisor to find out more about this," Smith wrote when reached by email.
Worse, the scammers appear to be marketing similar events in Charlotte, NC and Philadelphia, with entirely different ticketing sites for those two cities. (We're not linking to any of them, just to be on the safe side.) All three cities will likely experience what has already happened in places such as Oakland and Phoenix, where the elusive scammers cancelled the crab festivals at the last minute and disappeared. Refunds? Forget about it.
"KTVK-TV in Phoenix did a story when it happened there," said Erin Tracy of the Bee when I emailed her today. "A producer there spoke with a woman who claimed she was only responsible for the event in Oakland, not any of the others. She said she had to cancel due to low ticket sales." Tracy herself once managed to get another organizer on the phone, but that's as far as anyone's been able to track them down. And as for law enforcement intervention? Don't get your hopes up there.
"The scam is quite profitable," wrote Tracy in her original Bee article:
And it’s low-risk: As I previously reported, the loss to a single victim must be more than $950, the threshold that distinguishes a felony from a misdemeanor, for local law enforcement to investigate. The loss has to make it to six figures for the feds to even raise an eyebrow.
Of course, you can always battle any fraudulent charges with the help of your bank or credit card company, but a better solution is to avoid being suckered in the first place. Do your research; make sure an organization is legit before handing over your AmEx.
And if something sounds too good to be true—such as all-you-can-eat Dungeness crabs during one of the worst Dungeness crab seasons on record—it usually is. As of today, over 8,400 people have registered on Facebook to attend Houston's Hot Garlic Crab Feed; let's hope that a significantly lower number of them have actually purchased tickets...