Liz Pulliam Weston

The Basics

Don't hire a criminal to work in your home

In-home workers have been implicated in a good chunk of identity theft, so it pays to vet the people you let through the door. Here's how to do background checks.

By Liz Pulliam Weston

Let's make it clear, right upfront, that I think most nannies, housekeepers, health aides and other home workers are honest and hard-working. They honor the positions of trust that they hold.

But there are enough predators, criminals and just plain messed-up people out there that anyone thinking about hiring household help should be cautious. It's not just your family's physical and emotional well-being that's at stake; household workers are also in the position to steal from you financially, either directly or through identity theft (see "8 signs you may know an identity thief").

Here's a sample of recent cases that should give you pause:

  • Jimena Barreto was employed as a nanny for several Bay Area families despite four drunk-driving convictions and numerous license suspensions. She's currently on trial for second-degree murder, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and driving with a suspended license in the 2003 deaths of two Danville, Calif., children who were walking down a city sidewalk with their mother.

  • Mariana Monticalvo, another Bay Area resident, was charged with burglary, grand theft and check fraud after police said she posed as a nanny to bilk several families out of thousands of dollars. Police said Monticalvo collected resumes and references of legitimate nannies by posing as an expectant mother on the online bulletin board Craigslist, then used the information to assume the nannies' identities.

  • Roxanne Horstman of Chippewa Falls, Wisc., was charged with three counts of felony theft for stealing $87,000 from a disabled woman for whom she worked as a home care aide. Police said some of the victim's Social Security and pension checks had been deposited in Horstman's account, along with proceeds from the sale of the victim's mutual funds. The victim's checking account was also used to pay Horstman's bills, police said.

You may also remember the case of the 10-month-old baby killed by a New York nanny who lied about her criminal past; the parents successfully lobbied for legislation, named "Kiernan's Law" after their child, to make background checks easier in that state.

"You're trusting these people with your father, your mother, your child," said Cliff Woodward, an employment assessment specialist in Annapolis, Md. A lot of times, he said, "you don't know what you're getting."

Fortunately, a little diligence and the growing availability of online databases can help you reduce the odds of hiring a bad person. Here's what you need to know.

Ask the right questions

A good place to start your search is with referrals from friends and family -- but don't assume your work is done once you've got some names. Your friends and family may not have fully vetted the applicant, or problems could have arisen after they did.

Likewise, you shouldn't assume a thorough background check has been done even if you hire through an agency. Not all agencies conduct extensive research, and many don't update their files after an initial check. Ask the agency exactly how it checks its employees' history and try to get a copy of the results.

As an employer, you'll probably need to make sure the applicant is able to work legally in the United States. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services site has information about which employees are covered; you can find the I-9 form, which needs to be filled out for most employees, here.

Ask to see the documents that show the applicants are who they say they are, investigators recommend. While almost any document can be counterfeited, many casual identity thieves won't have gone to the trouble.

"You want to actually see their Social Security card and their driver's license," said Shawn Bovy of Insight Investigations in Temecula, Calif. "You'll want to see the exact name that would be used if they got convicted of anything."

Other questions you might want to ask applicants include:

  • Their past three employers; get contact names and phone numbers.

  • Their addresses for the last 10 years.

  • Any other names they've used (such as maiden names or even aliases).

  • What about their past jobs has most frustrated them, and how they dealt with that frustration.

  • Any run-ins they've had with the law.

  • Their history of alcohol and drug use.

Woodward likes to ask these questions face-to-face so he can judge the response.

"You can judge a person's character by how they answer your questions," Woodward said. "If they avoid answering a question, that can say a lot."

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