Picante photo by macpaulster

Picante, the popular Mexican restaurant on 6th Street, has been the target of an international credit card fraud operation, its owner says today.

Thieves from as far away as Russia managed to penetrate the restaurant’s credit card encryption system and steal the numbers of dozens of customers, says Jim Maser, who has owned Picante for 16 years. The thieves then used the stolen numbers to create phony credit cards, which they turned around and sold, he says.

“People are upset and we are sorry,” says Maser. “We acknowledge how inconvenient and unsettling it was for them.  We are so service-oriented we want to make this right as fast as we can.”

Picante is just one of a number of Berkeley and Bay Area businesses that have seen their customers’ credit cards compromised, according to the Berkeley Police Department.

Picante first became aware of the security breach last Thursday, May 5, and has been working with the U.S. Secret Service since then, says Maser. The restaurant hired a private security company to find the source of the breach, fix it, and make sure it does not happen again. The restaurant is replacing its credit card swiping hardware and software.

The Secret Service arrested a number of people on Tuesday in connection with the theft, says Maser. They were arrested on the East Coast after they tried to make a purchase at an Apple store. But the masterminds of the theft probably came from overseas, perhaps from Russia or Dubai, Secret Service agents told Maser.

Berkeleyside reported Tuesday, May 3 that there had been a rise in credit card fraud in Berkeley. A number of readers commented that they thought their cards had been compromised at Picante, although the restaurant said they only began hearing from customers in large numbers on Thursday last week.

One Berkeleyside reader whose card had been compromised got a call Tuesday from a detective in Arlington, VA. Police there had arrested a woman who had 15 credit cards in her possession and all of them were made from credit card numbers stolen in Berkeley, Oakland, Albany and other parts of the East Bay, she said. One of those cards had this woman’s number on it.

Maser says the Secret Service told him that international thieves are targeting businesses that do more than $500,000 in business a year.

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” Maser says. “There are a bunch of hackers out there targeting businesses.”

It has been unsettling for Maser to find that his business had been so badly compromised and he hopes his customers understand that it was not someone inside Picante who was involved, but very sophisticated thieves.

“We sell tacos. We don’t solve crime. We don’t know what’s going on. This is way over our heads.”

Maser has set up an email account for people to contact him if they think their credit cards were compromised at Picante. It is picantefraud@yahoo.com

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...