SAN JOSE, Calif. – Anna Ayala: suspected con artist, bane to Wendy’s restaurants, and inspiration to others.

When publicity broke quickly and widely over her claim that she bit into a finger in her bowl of chili, a dim bulb soon glowed over the heads of some of the nation’s potential copycat scammers.

No one accused copycats of being the swiftest con artists in the world. After all, they can’t even come up with their own scams. And this struck some as a good one.

Wendy’s received about 20 complaints in the last month – much more than usual – from diners about foreign objects in their chow.

“I can’t tell you if they’re real or not,” said Wendy’s spokesman Denny Lynch, “but some of them, I guarantee you, are not.”

He said each would be investigated, case by case. Just like Ayala’s, which ultimately ended in her arrest Thursday night – one that Wendy’s and other restaurateurs hope will have would-be copycats thinking twice.

“It does send a signal to potential copycatters,” Lynch said. “We hope that people will think twice before deciding they want to do something like this, against any restaurant, against any retailer.”

Two copycat complaints, Lynch said, were too “grotesque” to describe. But one diner supposedly found a piece of wood in his food. Another found a fingernail, which turned out to be a fake, acrylic nail.

Another found a chicken bone. “We don’t have any chicken bones in our restaurants,” Lynch said.

Not even in the chicken sandwiches? “No, it’s boneless breast of chicken,” Lynch said.

One complainant, he said, was clearly drunk when he called to complain.

So far, none of the complainants have sued. Nor have the police been called in.

Sometimes there’s no need to. A funny thing can happen when investigators working for the fast-food chain’s insurance company show up and start asking questions. In one case, Lynch said, the investigator “discussed the seriousness of the issue, and it kind of went away real fast.”

The chili-finger case certainly follows a long-standing pattern. Copycats surface after the media looses a large wave of publicity.

After the Columbine shootings, copycat threats were phoned to schools. In 1993, everyone seemed to be finding syringes in their cans of Diet Pepsi. The Tylenol poisonings in Chicago in 1982 also spawned a slew of copycats, who would put their toxins in their products of choice.

And it’s certainly not a new phenomenon. Gerald Uelmen, a law professor at Santa Clara University, describes a case that dates back to the 1890s. Carlyle Harris, a young medical student, got his girlfriend pregnant. He botched an abortion and was pressured by her family to marry her. He decided he would rather kill her with an overdose of morphine.

Harris was convicted, Uelmen said, because of the telltale symmetrical constriction of her eyes. Soon thereafter, another doctor killed his wife with an overdose of morphine, but her eyes did not have the trademark constriction.

At the doctor’s trial, it came out that he’d read about the Harris case and said: “Harris was a damn fool,” Uelmen recited. “He didn’t know how to mix his drugs.”

Within the same year, a third doctor killed someone with morphine.

Before the media-saturated Harris case, Uelmen said, there had been no such murders in 30 years, “then they had three in one year.”

Nonetheless, fraudulent civil claims can prove low-risk and lucrative, if the police don’t get involved, and they usually don’t. Ayala had the misfortune of being the exception. Her story was just too damaging.

Joseph McNamara, a former San Jose, Calif., police chief and now a fellow at the Hoover Institution, said a lot of times scammers – copycats or not – get away with product liability claims.

It’s simply easier for companies to hush someone up with a few thousand dollars, avoiding the damaging publicity and not risking a runaway jury awarding millions. And police rarely become involved, he said. It’s usually left to the corporation to figure out how to deal with the claims.

“It’s a very tough situation,” McNamara said. “And a lot of businesses simply settle. Take a look alone at the cost of fighting a lawsuit.”

Wendy’s, however, seemingly didn’t have much choice. The charge was visceral, resonating with diners. And stirring it up were almost daily news reports, radio shows and late night comedians.

The chain now says it feels “vindicated.” And its apparent victory has not gone unnoticed in an industry that’s always on guard against phony claims.

Lynch, Wendy’s spokesman, said Friday afternoon he’d already received about 10 congratulatory e-mails from his peers.

They were saying “”attaboy,”‘ Lynch said. “This sends a clear signal that will help everybody in the restaurant industry.”

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