When Samantha Stahl, a Columbia College Chicago graduate student, was offered a $450-a-week nanny job, she didn’t hesitate to take it.
She often babysat for extra cash, finding work through Care.com, a website where families can post jobs and caregivers post their profiles and references.
That’s where she was hired last year by someone posting under the names “Brenda and Cody Davies” — supposedly a couple moving from Ontario to Chicago with their 2-year-old son.
“It really sounded all legit because of all the details she was giving me and the location of where they were moving,” says Stahl, 24, who was living in Wrigleyville and since has moved to New York. “It just sounded real.”
But it wasn’t. And this latest version of a fake-check scam that consumer experts call the nanny scam, usually targeting younger people looking to make a little money, ended up costing Stahl $1,500.
Contacted by text, Stahl says she was asked if she could help with a few errands to set up the house before the couple arrived from Canada. Stahl was sent a check for $2,000. “Brenda” told her to keep $450 for her first week’s pay and use the rest to buy Apple gift cards she said were for family members’ birthdays. Stahl deposited the check in her bank account and bought $1,550 in gift cards.
Then, Stahl’s new employer asked her to scratch off the gift card codes and text photos of the numbers, supposedly just so the family wouldn’t have to wait to receive their gifts.
That made Stahl suspicious. She put the woman off, saying she couldn’t do that right away because she was swamped with schoolwork.
The next day, her bank alerted her that the $2,000 check — a fake — had bounced.
Stahl tried to confront “Brenda” about the bad check, but the woman disappeared.
Stahl was glad she hadn’t divulged the codes, but she was still on the hook to her bank for the $1,550 for a lot of gift cards she didn’t need.
“It’s really crazy how people think they can prey on young adults,” she says. “But I can see how easy it is because we want the money.”
The nanny scam is one of a burgeoning series of cons that involve getting people to send money to scammers via gift cards or reloadable debit cards.
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These things are big business. According to the Federal Trade Commission, reported losses from gift card and reloadable debit card scams have amounted to $53 million this year just by September. That’s up from $40 million in 2017 and $27 million in 2016.
Young people lose money to these scams at a much higher rate than older consumers do, according to the FTC. Of those who reported losing money to fake check scams, 36 percent were under 30.
Con artists like to use gift cards because, once they have the codes to them, they can grab the value in a transaction that’s fast, anonymous and irreversible.
In the nanny scam version of the scam, fraudsters look for victims on websites like the aforementioned Care.com and Sittercity.com. They say they’re moving to the nanny’s area, need someone to care for a child, a parent or even a pet, and they give a story about why they need to send the nanny a check in advance.
Or, in another version of the ruse, the scammer “accidentally” sends a check for more than needed to buy supplies and asks the nanny to wire back the overpayment. The counterfeit check bounces, and the nanny is stuck.
“If someone sends you a check and asks you to deposit it and then to send money to some third party for whatever reason, that’s always going to be a scam. Every time,” says Todd Kossow, the FTC’s Midwest regional director.
“The fact that the money appears in your account does not mean the check is cleared. By law, the bank has to make the funds available. And it can take as much as a week or longer for the bank actually to determine that the check is phony.”
Care.com urges job-seekers to communicate through its monitored messaging system, not by text or email. Sittercity has a similar warning on its website.
“Unfortunately, scams of this nature are prevalent across the Internet,” says Care.com spokeswoman Natasha Gavilanez. “Care.com takes this issue seriously, and we take a variety of steps to educate the caregivers on our site so they can spot and avoid scams.”
More tips for nannies
• Research any information a supposed client provides.
• Google names, phone numbers and email addresses and search for complaints.
• Never give personal information until meeting the client for an interview and receiving an offer.