As far as the Tacoma health department knows, the scam has been attempted at four local restaurants. The common link is that all are Mexican restaurants.

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The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department has a warning for Tacoma-area restaurant owners: Be cautious of someone posing as a health inspector asking for cash.

So far, the scam has been attempted at four local restaurants that the health department is aware of. The health department said the common link is that all are Mexican restaurants.

The good news is that the restaurants all called the health department and didn’t pay any money to the person posing as a health inspector, said Katie Lott, the department’s food-safety program manager.

In one complaint the health department received, a caller posing as a health inspector contacted a restaurant and demanded payment for a fine — in cash.

“The first complaint was that they (the impersonator) were saying there was a violation and (the restaurant) couldn’t open until they showed up, and that they need to give $300 cash before they can open the doors,” explained Lott.

Tacos Guaymas on 38th Street in Tacoma was one restaurant contacted by the person trying to collect cash. First, the person complained about getting “bad food.”

“A few hours later, I got the call that they said they were from the health department. They said they were going to do an inspection because there was hair in the food,” said Liliana Ramirez, the staffer who took that call. “They said, ‘You have to pay cash, $300, for the inspection, and you cannot open the restaurant until we do the inspection. If we come there and you’re open, it’s going to be a $5,000 fee.’ ”

The call struck Ramirez and the restaurant’s owner as odd because it didn’t follow any of the protocols they expect from the health department.

“It sounds really sketchy. He kept saying three times he wanted cash, no check or money order,” said Ramirez. She called the health department to report it.

Another report was concerning because it appeared the person posing as a health inspector was more sophisticated with the scam.

“Somebody called (the restaurant) and, in Spanish, said they had a complaint and would report them to (the health department),” said Lott.

A short time later, another call came in. This time it was somebody speaking English who said they were a health inspector and were following up on a food complaint, Lott said.

“Then somebody called back in English and said, ‘You’re closed. And you’re closed until you pay me $300.’ Then they ask for the money over the phone or they say they’re coming to collect it,” she said. “Each time is just a little different, the scam.”

Health-department officials said the restaurants did the right thing by not paying the money and by reporting the calls. The department is urging other restaurants to do the same if anyone calls demanding cash for any kind of inspection.

“We don’t ever call and demand cash,” said Lott. “And if we have visited the establishment and there’s a bill, they get sent a bill by mail and they pay online through our portal or at our office. Our staff do not go out to collect money.

“Don’t give anybody money, especially not cash. And please report it. If they have questions, always call us no matter what.”

Tacoma police spokeswoman Loretta Cool said the restaurants did the right thing by calling the health department to verify the call.

“When you’re contacted on the phone by someone saying they need information or they need money or something’s going to happen, say, ‘Thank you, what’s a phone number I call you at?’ And then hang up the phone. Then, call that business, the police, or health department or whoever they say they are calling you from. Verify the information. Check the number out.”