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Friday is payroll day at BlackSalt, Jeff Black’s Palisades fish market and restaurant. It’s the day when Black’s accounting team hands out employee checks totaling more than $20,000, but last Friday morning when the owner checked the restaurant’s bank balance on his way out of town, he was shocked to find that the SunTrust account was practically empty. An electronic scam artist had somehow convinced BlackSalt’s credit card processing company to divert BlackSalt’s receipts since Aug. 31—more than $67,000 worth—to a new account at Citibank. Black has no account at Citibank. He’s never even stepped foot in a Citibank.
Investigators are apparently still trying to get to the bottom of the scam. At first, Black says, both banks thought an employee inside Citibank had helped set up the rerouting ruse, but by Wednesday, the story had changed. Jon Linck, director of operations for the Black Restaurant Group, which includes BlackSalt, believes that someone with SunTrust sent a notice to Citibank to change the routing of the restaurant’s Visa and MasterCard receipts to an account at Citibank. “How that can happen without signatures or verification,” Linck says, then pauses. “I’m just baffled.”
For the record, a spokesman said on Wednesday said that Citibank still has no official record of the bogus BlackSalt account. BlackSalt’s merchant-services account rep with SunTrust did not return a pair of phone calls on Wednesday.
Because an estimated 98 percent of BlackSalt’s customers pay with credit cards, the restaurant didn’t have enough cash to cover payroll on Friday. So Black wired money from his personal account—a transfer that cost him $300—to cover payroll, but that cash was gone by the beginning of the week and there were “still a lot of checks written last week that are starting to hit the account,” Black said on Monday. SunTrust, Black said, has agreed to waive all overdraft charges, but the two banks are apparently still arguing over who will cover the $300 transfer fee.
The good news—and given that Black and his wife, Barbara, have had a rash of hard luck recently, they could use some—is that the stolen money was still sitting in the Citibank account. The cash had not been transferred offshore, as Black had feared. Citibank returned the cash on Wednesday, Linck says. But, unfortunately for BlackSalt, the damage has already been done.
“The bottom line is it’s still gonna show up on my record that a lot of checks [are] being cashed with insufficient funds,” Black says. “I’ll have to get letters written. It’s just a mess. It’s just a huge mess.”