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The Dollar-Wise Gourmet: The Perils of Plastic


Posted on January 3

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I don’t dine in style much—can’t afford it. But recently I wanted to treat my favorite college professor to a lovely lunch. She happens to live in Roseville, so the first place that came to mind was Paul Martin’s American Bistro, whose top-notch food and service had knocked me out on previous visits.
     Paul Martin’s delivered. We indulged in one of those long, leisurely lunches that linger in the memory. It was worth every penny of the $70 I charged on my debit card. But I will not be using a debit or credit card at a restaurant again—not at Paul Martin’s, not anywhere.
     In case you haven’t heard, some cyber-thieves hacked into the restaurant’s computer system, stealing the credit card numbers of hundreds of customers and reportedly selling the information to other criminals who used them for purchases. Mine was used at a Walmart in North Carolina to the tune of $600. Thankfully, my bank alerted me right away, froze my account and reimbursed the money in about a week. Yet it came as a sobering reminder that this can happen to any one of us, any time, anywhere.
     Why Paul Martin’s? Brian Bennett, founding partner of the restaurant, is still wondering. “I don’t know why they hacked Paul Martin’s,” he says. “Unfortunately, it’s happening to everyone. These guys (hackers) are very smart.”
Bennett was quick to add that no one at the restaurant was involved in the data breach—the thieves were operating overseas, he says—and that Paul Martin’s worked swiftly to lock down its systems to prevent future violations. The problem is, no matter how vigilant a restaurant’s response, and regardless of their innocence, business is bound to be hurt, if only temporarily. “Of course it hurts business,” says Bennett. “It’s a big mess, and it takes the focus of our business away.”
     It’s no fun for consumers, either—who wants to be worrying about being scammed when you’re out on the town for a good time? But it’s an apt reminder to exercise a little caution. To wit: Monitor your credit and debit statements closely. Immediately report suspicious activity to the card issuer. If fraud occurs, cancel the card, get a new one with a new number and file a police report. And reduce your risk of being the next victim. At scambusters.org, you’ll find a list of 21 ways to protect yourself against credit card fraud.
     Personally, I’ve decided the best policy is to avoid using plastic except for the biggies, such as a recent $400 car repair. For dining out, it’s all cash, all the time—at least until I recover from my paranoia. And maybe next time, I’ll let the professor pick up the tab.