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St. Pete Beach police say man's gift card scam cost bars, restaurants thousands

ST. PETE BEACH — Bartenders remembered him as polite and generous. He'd buy a beer and leave a big tip. He paid using a card, and asked the bar to give him some of the cash from the $15 to $20 gratuity he charged. And he always paid with an American Express gift card.

That was how Christopher Edwin Hefner was able to use $25 gift cards to scam numerous south Pinellas bars and restaurants out of more than $20,000, according to St. Pete Beach Police.

"I have victims who don't even know they're victims yet," said St. Pete Beach Detective Dennis Curtin.

It's a complicated scheme that lasted seven months and took Curtin weeks to unravel. Here's how the detective said it worked:

Anyone who pays for food or drink at bars and restaurants with a card of some type usually gets a receipt with a blank line for them to jot down a tip.

But if someone using an American Express gift card tips more than 20 percent, according to Curtin, then the establishment must swipe it a second time to authorize such a big tip.

Hefner scoped out which places followed that procedure and which didn't, the detective said, and frequented those that didn't swipe the card twice.

He would spend $2 on a beer, the detective said, then ask the bartender if he could charge a tip of $15 to $20 and get some of that back in cash, saying he needed it for the jukebox or to play video games.

That's how police said Hefner could bilk establishments out of hundreds of dollars using $25 gift cards. The employees never questioned his generous tip of a couple of bucks for a $2 beer. And it took months before American Express told the establishments that those big tips were never properly authorized.

Hefner worked fast, the detective said. In two days in August he's accused of hitting Hooters, Lee Roy Selmon's, Paddy O'Sullivan's, Ruby Tuesday, the Sloppy Pelican and the Twisted Tarpon. He's also accused of bilking establishments in Madeira Beach, St. Pete Beach, St. Petersburg and Treasure Island.

Bar owners complained to police in October but didn't know what happened. The American Express fraud department told the detective that they'd never heard of such a scheme.

"They were very impressed," Curtin said. "Somehow he gained the knowledge of how this works. He just hasn't admitted it to me."

Police were already familiar with Hefner after Treasure Island police arrested him in August on four counts of forgery.

He was arrested Thursday at a Treasure Island bar, and police said he had a stolen checkbook on him.

Hefner was booked into the Pinellas County jail on two counts of scheme to defraud and one count of petty theft. He was being held Friday in lieu of $40,500 bail and will likely face more charges.

The detective spoke to Hefner at the county jail after his arrest on Thursday. "How do you know how to do that?" Curtin said he asked him.

Hefner laughed, according to the detective, then said:

"I want to talk to my lawyer."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8472.

Who to call

Anyone with information about Christopher Hefner should contact the St. Pete Beach Police Department at (727) 363-9200. Anyone who believes they may have been scammed should contact their local police department.

St. Pete Beach police say man's gift card scam cost bars, restaurants thousands 12/02/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 2, 2011 10:24pm]
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