Foodie Frauded: Nationally Touring Crab and Craft Beer Festival Scammed Us Out of $400

UPDATE! 10/17/2013.

"Hey, did you know the venue changed?" she yelled to him in the bathroom. She noticed the venue on the PDF tickets listed the Zhou Brothers Gallery in Bridgeport.

In the beginning, Sebastian and Trista (names changed to protect the innocent) thought that McCormick Place was an odd choice for a foodie festival.

"It's not going to be like all of Maryland showing up with their crab buckets, you know?" asked Sebastian.

"But also in a way," Trista interjected, "it was kinda cool that the festival was big enough to be at this convention center. But then they switched to this small venue."

The festival's Red Eye advertisements also noted that numerous screens would be showing the Floyd Mayweather vs. Canelo Alvarez fight that evening, too. It didn't make sense to Trista that they'd bring in TVs and pay-per-view HBO access to show the fight at this artists' studio, the Zhou Brothers Gallery. "Kinda weird," she said.

"I thought, well those two venues don't really relate [the Gallery and McCormick Place], so that seems strange, but maybe they didn't get as many people signing up, so they decided to downsize or something to make it more intimate. That was really my original thought," Sebastian said.

After noticing the venue on the printed PDF ticket differed from what was on the email itself, Trista started poking around online suspiciously. "When you went to search for anything -- the original website was down," Trista said.

Chicago has a thriving foodie scene and numerous festivals have popped up to meet the feverish demand for fun culinary events: annual stand-bys like the Green City Market Chef's BBQ and Baconfest (a multi-city franchise here, in DC and San Francisco). Then there's the Lakeview Taco FestHamburger Hop and the Chicago Food Social -- and those last three were just this weekend! (Pictures below of the Chicago Food (Truck) Social at Kendall College.) Tickets can range from a $5 entrance fee to much more expensive, all-inclusive packages. With new festivals popping up all the time, how can an enthusiast tell the scams from the (many) legit festivals?

A few weeks ago, Trista was searching online for the best crab restaurant in Chicago. At the top of the search results, she found that a new, nationally touring foodie festival paired crabs (and other seafood) with craft beers was coming soon to Chicago. All-you-can-eat crabs, all-you-can-drink craft beers? Sold!

Trista was a very motivated buyer. She lived out east for a short time in her twenties and remembers falling in love with crabs back then. She'd just planned a roadtrip to DC (with yours truly) and was excited about eating crabs again close to the source. Just to illustrate how much this lady loves crabs: After we'd brought back two sackfulls of the delicious critters and their legs from The Wharf in DC, she re-steamed a big cauldron of her king crab legs AT WORK, leaving her entire department seafood satiated but distinctively perfumed.

Though she was bummed to have missed the Groupon deal for 2-for-1 VIP tickets, Trista was determined to get her crab on again, and planned to buy a general admission ticket to the crab and beer festival for $50 no matter what.

All the while, Sebastian noted that his loving fiancee was very kindly putting in a lot (READ: ALL) of her free weekend time at his various friends' weddings, engagement parties and showers, and he decided to splurge for two VIP tickets to the crab and beer festival. Sensitive man and caring partner that he is.

Crab and Beer Festival Scam

The $99 VIP tickets included no-waiting-in-line privileges with dedicated waitstaff service, guaranteed seating, plus cocktails to chase the craft beer and the unlimited king crab legs and dungeness goodness. Happy wife, happy life, right? All told, just shy of $200 is not shabby. Sebastian congratulated himself. Nailed it.

He completed the third-party ticket transaction. A few days later, he got an email from the festival organizers, who just needed to confirm some of his credit card details by phone. He thought maybe he'd mis-entered a digit or two, called the festival organizers to quickly clear it up, and an email confirmation with attached PDF tickets arrived shortly. Sebastian and Trista happily awaited CRAB DAY.

Crab Day Saturday morning, Trista printed out the tickets while Sebastian got ready. They were attending a close friend's graduation ceremony in the far northern suburbs in the early afternoon, then driving back to McCormick Place for the beer and crab festival. With regrets, they let their friend know they'd already bought these festival tickets ahead of time, and that they could only stay for the ceremony but not for the party. Until they realized it was a scam.

"I was Googling what had come up in his email, and they had a lot of different names -- they kept changing its name [in the various emails] -- Beerfest 30... there was a lot of different 'Beer and Whatever'. Between the changes of the names and the venues, I went to their Facebook site," she said, only to find a page full of posts from others with the word "Scam."

The practical and fun-loving people they are, Sebastian and Trista decided to push on with the friend's ceremony and stay for her party, and leave cleaning up the mess with the credit card to Monday.

"We're too laid back to really care about that stuff... If I was an uptight person, I would probably be really upset about my weekend being ruined," Trista smiled.

Sebastian called up Chase to cancel his credit card and stop payment. He said the scamsters nearly got away with charging them for four VIP tickets ($400 total). Since there was already a history of business, Chase said, the fake festival organizers were able to put through a second charge.

He's less worried about the money since he had a positive experience before with Chase tracking down an earlier incident of fraudulent charges he had when traveling in Japan.

"They've been able to recover receipts to show that it wasn't my signature, so Chase gets pretty granular with that stuff," Sebastian added. "Now I'm more curious to see what they find."

"But I know that Chase might only take off one of the charges, not the whole thing. It's not guaranteed, I'm still waiting to hear back."

They're more worried about the fraudsters stealing his identity.

"If they went through all this, to set up fake [web] sites, fake flyers, and have some random "Erin" email me -- I talked to her on the phone -- they can steal, take my card and my name and go do crazy stuff with it. If they went through lengths like that for a couple hundred bucks..." said Sebastian.

"They must want to do more with it," added Trista, "It can't just be about this money."

When asked if the two food enthusiasts would still go to ticketed food festivals, they said yes, but they'd be much more mindful about researching ahead of time. Some of their suggestions, and mine too, to avoid being foodie frauded:

  1. Double-check the festival's website and social media pages. Ditto for the venues mentioned.
  2. Ask around to see if friends know about the festival, too... but don't trust advertisements, either!
  3. Read the fine print for refund policies of the vendor, Groupon and any other third-party ticket broker sites.
  4. Watch the little details. Is the event consistently named? Are they corresponding via a business-owned email address, or a via a free email service like Yahoo or Gmail? Keep an eye on your bank account.
  5. Use a credit card with a good consumer protective fraud policy.
  6. See which chefs or restaurants or other food brands or sponsors are participating.

Though, if it sounds too good to be true, it just might be.

At the end of our interview, I asked them if they had anything else to add about the experience.

"Assholes. Fuckers." They laughed. "Trista wants crab!"