Just as personal chefs have carved out a noticeable niche in the small business realm in recent years, schemers are getting better and better as technology empowers the smarter ones with ease of access into tons of citizens’ personal information.

If you’re a personal or private chef like I am, you may be the next victim of email swindlers who have suckered many a culinary professional into unintentionally giving away thousands of dollars.

I was given a referral last week to a man named “Luis Correa” who wanted private chef service for his family while “vacationing for seven weeks in Coral Gables.”  While the email was written in imperfect English, typical of fraudulent emails, Mr. Correa explained he was “an independent Mechanical Engineer by profession,” and that he was born and schooled in Colombia.  He was contacting me from “Stirling in Scotland,” where he was apparently on contract.  Furthermore, Mr. Correa stated that I might have trouble understanding his accent, because “Not quite long [he] started learn English.”  Fair enough.

Mr. Correa continued by stating he wanted to hire someone “good and friendly so we can have a better relationship and understanding.”  To make it sound even more believable, he concluded by posing questions that a legitimate client should ask, such as “Do you have liability insurance?”; “Do you have any references?”; “What is your cooking background?”; and “Are you affiliated with a professional organization?”

These questions didn’t come off as red flags per se.  So I decided to respond to the e-mail, careful about what I disclosed.  I would answer only his relevant queries and mention my areas of expertise, hoping to see where it would lead.  I also made a point to mention that my prices were based on a number of different factors, and I asked him what he was expecting to pay each week.

Mr. Correa began his next reply with, “I went through the menu with my wife, it is okay by us and your charges is [sic] okay by us as well...”  Funny, but I hadn’t included any specific menu items in the previous email, only the various cuisines I am well-versed in.  The skeptic in me was screaming not to take this any further.  The businessman in me rationalized the weirdness to be a product of the language barrier.

In the same email, Mr. Correa said he assumed I would need “some kind of money (deposit) to secure my services,” but mentioned that I would be unable to cash a check from overseas in the US.  He also had “an issue” with his credit card.  Apparently, someone had sent Mr. Correa “spammed email,” he “ignorantly provided [his] credit card information, [his] bank discovered it and [he] had them put on hold [his] credit card.”  Aww, poor guy.  To get around these financial hurdles, Mr. Correa explained that one of his “clients,” who is in the United States, would send me a check for $1,500 for the initial deposit, and he assured me all future payments would be from him in cash, at the beginning of each week.

At this point, Mr. Correa’s credibility should have been slightly diminished, but the $1,500 deposit had such a nice lilt that it was too much for me to resist in this bleak economy.  The master-manipulator he is, Mr. Correa had tapped into something deep within my psyche, and now I was the one ignorantly sending my personal information to some spammer across the globe.  I gave him my home address and told him to have his client cut me the check so I could get started with grocery shopping, even though it seemed ridiculous that a supposedly wealthy engineer would only carry one credit card.

Included with this email, I sent over my standard client questionnaire so I could gauge his family’s food preferences, if, in fact, they turned out to be real.  Instead of filling it out, Mr. Correa started his next email by saying he had his wife list the foods his family typically eats, broken down into different categories.  This included fruits, vegetables, and the the “DIARIES” [sic] category, which included “Low Fat Cottage Cheese, Whipped Cream Cheese, Cream Cheese, Condensed Milk, Fat Free Cream Cheese, Colby, Sour Cream, Cottage Cheese Curd Parmesan, Provolone, Fat Free Yogurt, Soy Milk, Buttermilk, Gruyère, Explorateur.”  I was also informed the Correas do not eat “pork meat,” either, but they enjoy most fish and poultry.

To conclude his email, he warned that he “personally dislike[s] Chinese foods, Mayonnaise, Asparagus, Soft drinks, Beets and Arugula,” and that “[w]e don't eat British cuisines as much, we will enjoy Mexican cuisines (almost the same with Barbados ones), French cuisines, Italian and American Cuisines.”  He instructed me to develop a sample menu for the first week, an exciting prospect for any chef and I started Googling some recipes for Barbados’ cuisine.  Meanwhile, I was already imagining what the scenic drive to his luxury vacation home would be like each morning.

After sending him a sample menu I put some time into constructing, I went to sleep, confident and excited about the possibilities this new, big-shot client would bring me.  But, the following morning, all of that positivity was down the drain:  Mr. Correa’s next message was so sketchy I was finally convinced this had to be a hoax.

He began by asking me for “a cell phone number where [he] could reach [me] anytime (24/7).”  That’s odd -- he should have already had it from the signature lines in my previous emails.  He went on to give me some urgent spiel about how the US client who would be paying my deposit just informed him he was going out of town the next day, and he had asked this client to make a check out to me and also to a chauffeur.  As Mr. Correa emphasized, “Every business requires deposit for commitment.”  Since he had not yet found a suitable chauffeur for the job, he wanted to see if he could have his client cut me one big check for an amount that would cover both my deposit and one for the chauffeur.  Then, “trusting in me,” he wanted me to be responsible for paying the chauffeur-to-be once he found a suitable choice.

Wait a second...what?

Obviously, this message was a major buzzkill,

Up until this point, I had only done minor due diligence on this Correa fellow, with Google, Facebook and LinkedIn yielding little to no results.  But since I just joined a national organization for personal chefs, I decided to peruse the message boards for anything I could find.  As soon as I clicked in the forum for “Email scams and alerts” I found a post entitled “Scam?: Luis Correa.”  My heart sank as I clicked the link. It was now being official that I had been reeled in close to the edge by an Internet “phisherman.”

The way this scam works: the con man makes contact with a chef and gains his or her trust.  Then, he offers to pay by check, but somehow finds a way to overpay (in this case, Mr. Correa’s chauffeur story).  The check, which is counterfeit, would then, ideally, be deposited into the naive chef’s bank account.  When the check eventually bounces a few days later, the chef is left to foot the bill for the difference he withdrew to make the “payback.”

At least six chefs on the message board had been contacted by “Luis Correa,” with others receiving similar emails from fictitious persons such as “Paul Klee” (who is actually a dead Swiss-German painter) and “Clement Mycio.”  Somebody on the forum copied the email they received from Correa, and it was verbatim to the one I got, just with a different city involved for the “family vacation.”

Chefs, be careful out there.

If ever you are contacted by somebody looking for chef service, do as much background checking on them as possible.  If you can’t find any information online about the person in question, request that they send you some, if possible.  And, don’t, under any circumstances, give away any of your personal information to these people -- ever.  You never know what they’re going to attempt to do with it.

* Erik Mathes is a Personal Chef, In-Home Cooking Instructor,  blogger of  “Rantings of a Chef” at  and  founder of . He can be reached at