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An enterprising con artist from Madison, Wisconsin, recently attempted to rip off Houston restaurants with a variation on the old "victim of spilled coffee" scam.

The trickster mailed out a very polite letter explaining that during his recent business trip to Houston a waiter at the target restaurant spilled coffee on both him and an associate. "Mike Gunderson," as he signed himself, smoothly suggests he'd rather not engage an attorney, because the waiter was so apologetic, but would appreciate reimbursement for his dry-cleaning.

A generic-looking receipt from "Norge Laundry & Dry Cleaning" is attached, itemizing two stain-removal treatments totaling $21.10.

Sounds plausible, doesn't it? And 20 bucks isn't a lot of money, probably not enough to set off the built-in B.S. detectors of most busy restaurant managers or owners. The key to Gunderson's rip-off is undoubtedly volume: The swindler sent this same letter to at least two different area restaurants and probably quite a few more. The computer-generated letter, addressed only "To Whom It May Concern," can be printed and mass-mailed with minimal effort.

Don Chang, owner and chef of Nara Japanese restaurant [11124 Westheimer, (713)266-2255] received one of the letters and was at first surprised rather than suspicious. "I mean, I'm there at the restaurant just about all the time. If we'd spilled coffee on two customers, I'd have seen it or heard about it. I've only got ten servers and they're young, sure, but they're honest, and they would have told me immediately."

Still curious, Chang tried to call Gunderson. But there's no phone listing for "Michael Gunderson" in Madison, and the phone number printed on the laundry receipt is a fake. There is a Norge Laundry & Dry Cleaning in the state of Wisconsin, but it's in Appleton, about a three-hour drive from Gunderson's alleged home address in Madison. That Madison return address exists, of course -- the money has to go somewhere. But the address seems to belong to an apartment building with no Gunderson in residence.

Chang shrugs off the letter. "It's not really a big deal, although it is the first time it's happened to us," he says. He pinned the letter to his office wall. That's where sharp-eyed Houston Press ad salesman Joe Espelage saw it. He'd just seen an exact duplicate at Koto Japanese restaurant [10842 Westheimer, (713)783-4790].

If you received a letter from Mr. Gunderson or someone suspiciously like him, drop me an e-mail at margaret_ briggs@houstonpress.com. I'd like to hear about it. The scam constitutes mail fraud.

-- Margaret L. Briggs

 
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