iStock.com/Rawpixel.com"Judy* is a fake mother recommending her fake nanny!" a local mom warned me in the comments section of my Facebook post. Adrenaline shot through my body. Judy's "nanny," Monique, was downstairs right now, in my living room, playing Zingo with my 3-year-old son.
She had been in our home for a little over an hour. It felt like a scene from a horror movie: THE CALL IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE!
Our babysitter had canceled that morning. We were relatively new to town, having moved from Queens to South Orange, New Jersey, a year earlier, and didn't have any backup. So I'd reached out to a local "Sitters and Tutors" Facebook group, looking for last-minute help. I needed someone to come over and play with my toddler while my baby slept and I worked for a few hours. I was on deadline and desperate.
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"Please tell me you are a real mother and Monique is your real nanny," I wrote to Judy in terror. I didn't understand what was happening. In person, Monique was lovely and looked unassuming in her too-tight jeans, pink hoodie, and matching All Star sneakers. My son had immediately gravitated toward her. I could hear them laughing downstairs right now.
I clicked back over to Judy's profile and wanted to throw up. She had only nine friends. Her cover photo looked like a stock image of a fireplace with no fire. It was obvious to me now: Monique had made up Judy. She'd created a fake profile, pretending to be a local mom, recommending … herself. Who wouldn't trust another mom who had already vetted a nanny? I'd found our regular, beloved babysitter through a similar online parenting group.
Oh my God. If Judy was really Monique, she could be reading my panicked message right now. All the crime shows I had ever binge-watched flooded through my mind. I had to confront her, but I also had to stay calm and make her trust me.
I walked downstairs, casually, as if coming down for a snack, and showed her my phone. "Hey, did you see what someone wrote about you?"
"I'm a good person," she said. "Judy is my employer. I look after her four children. Two of them go to Mickey Fried Pre-K. That's really messed up someone would say that."
"People are crazy. Well, I'm almost done with my work. Be down in a few."
I ran upstairs, grateful for the way sound travels in our small house, listening to my son sing "Let It Go." Then I rushed back down with a check in hand to get rid of Monique without a scene.
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"Are you available on weekends?" I asked, pretending everything was cool. She said "yes" and "thank you" and told me she was going to report that mother for bad-mouthing her. I told her that sounded like a good idea.
As she drove away, I almost burst into tears.
I locked the door, grabbed my computer, and Googled her. The first result was a MUG SHOT. She had been arrested for credit card theft. Luckily my wallet had been with me the whole time, and our living room was filled with toys, books, and stuffed animals, but little else. She picked the wrong family to steal from, unless she wanted an Elmo doll.
I hugged my son tight, grateful we were alive and safe, and called the director of the preschool Judy's kids supposedly attended.
"There is no Judy," she said. "But I know Monique. She worked for a family whose son goes here and Monique stole their credit cards and identity."
I wanted to warn as many people in town as possible, so I posted about my experience in another local Facebook group after making sure neither Judy nor Monique were members. I included the mug shot I had found. I didn't care if someone thought I was the worst mom on the planet for letting a woman I had never met play with my son. I hoped someone else could learn from my mistake.
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My inbox filled up with messages from moms in the area who had been scammed by her. Apparently, she had been doing this for years, using different fake "local mom" profiles. One mother was scared for her life, claiming that Monique was texting her with gun emoticons, threatening to burn down her house.
Even though she hadn't stolen from me, at least that I knew of, I decided to file a report with the South Orange police. Sitting in a dingy office, across from the officer on duty, I told him what happened.
He looked at me and said, "It's not illegal to lie about your identity."
"Oh," I said. "But it's illegal to steal, right?"
"It's hard to prove theft if no one was there to witness it. Did she steal from you?" he asked. It felt like he was saying, "Come on, lady. Don't waste my time."
"She wasn't in my house long. Thankfully, someone warned me in time. I don't think she took anything, but I'm not sure."
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I rattled off two police case numbers women had provided me, other fake-mother names the scam-sitter had used, a mailing address I had found on whitepages.com, and the fact that there was a cached profile on care.com where she'd claimed to be a graduate student with early childhood education experience.
"For someone as smart as you are for gathering all this information," the officer said, shaking his head, "you sure are stupid for getting a babysitter online."
I wanted to yell back, "You try being a 44-year-old working mom in a new area with no friends and lots of debt." Instead, I thanked him for his time, asking for a copy of my report.
Two weeks later, I received a private message: "I have a nanny coming to interview in 1/2hr. Is this the woman who has been scamming people?" She attached her picture and phone number.
"Yes! CANCEL!" I wrote back.
The police officer was right in that you never really know who someone is online and should be as cautious as possible. Do a background check. Call references. Scrutinize profiles. Just because someone says she has a master's in early education doesn't mean she actually does. Lesson learned. I'll be more vigilant next time. But I won't stop trusting the mothers in my community. The real ones are protective and something fierce, even if they are exhausted and in desperate need of a shower.
*Names have been changed.