Just when I think nothing surprises me anymore, something comes up that proves me wrong.
Strip-search hoaxes trigger suits against restaurants
By Steven Gray
The Wall Street Journal
March 31, 2004
The restaurant industry is struggling to handle a bizarre hoax in which outlet managers across the country have been duped into strip-searching employees or customers.
Last week, a man claiming to be a police officer called a Taco Bell in Fountain Hills, Ariz., and told the manager to conduct a strip search of a female he said had stolen a pocketbook. He gave a general description of what she was wearing.
Pulling aside a 17-year-old customer who roughly fit the description, the boss complied. As in the other cases, no stolen property was found, though this is the first search involving a customer rather than an employee. It might seem implausible that any manager could be compelled by an unknown caller to order someone to submit to a search for drugs or stolen money. Or that someone would succumb to such an examination.
But investigators say there have been dozens of similar cases since 1999, involving Burger King, Wendy's, Applebee's and others. Similar incidents have been reported in Indiana, Massachusetts, South Dakota, Utah and Ohio.
The managers and the victims of such incidents have been male and female. Investigators say they believe the hoaxes are the work of a single person calling from North Florida public telephones using a phone card. His likely motive, they say: power and perversion.
In the Arizona case, the caller remained on the phone to instruct the manager for each step of the examination, which included a cavity search, says Sheriff Joseph Arpaio of Marciopa County.
The sheriff was surprised the manager believed the phony cop when he insisted that the girl would go to jail if she didn't submit to the search. "For any cop to call a private citizen and ask them to do a search is wrong and beyond my imagination," he said.
These cases raise complex liability issues: Last summer, a Burger King franchise in Odessa, Texas, paid $35,000 to settle a civil suit filed by an employee who alleged she was forced to submit to a strip search by a male manager who received a similar call. The manager was charged with "illegal restraint" and fined $500.
Last week, Wendy's International said it had been hit with four suits by ex-workers of Boston-area company-owned outlets.
Although these cases have been popping up for five years, they are beginning to gain the attention of the National Food Service Security Council, a group of restaurant industry security executives.
Council spokesman Tom Briggs, said the idea of managers falling for the hoax points to a serious training flaw. "Whoever this caller is must be a hell of a good con man," Briggs says. "You'd think nobody would fall for this."
The National Restaurant Association, Wendy's, Taco Bell and Applebee's are telling managers who receive suspicious calls to ask for a name and phone number, then hang up and call authorities.
"We're directing them not to take any action," says Laurie Schalow, a spokeswoman for Taco Bell, a subsidiary of Yum! Brands Inc., based in Louisville, Ky.
Since last month's incidents, Wendy's has sent letters making clear to restaurant managers that "searches of employees must be visual and not physical."
"And physical means under no circumstances will an employee be asked to removed articles of clothing that cover the torso, except for outer coats, shoes or a hat," says Wendy's spokesman Bob Bertini.
Experts in employee rights law and retail loss prevention say that courts have upheld companies' rights to search lockers and e-mail, for instance, so long as employees are told of the company's right to search its property. Still, most experts agree that strip-searching is an invasion of privacy. They say most companies move conservatively on tips about possible thefts, probing for evidence before accusing a worker.
Restaurants are cash-intensive and thus prime targets for theft of items such as food, as well as robberies, burglaries and theft of cash by employees. Still, experts say internal theft is preventable, if only by using more rigorous screening of prospective employees.