HOUSTON – Tammy Lawson-Jack was just looking for some extra cash, so she put up a child care profile on the popular website Care.com that connects families with care givers.
Lawson-Jack is one of those people who genuinely loves kids -- so much so, that she doesn’t consider it work.
Soon, Lawson-Jack started communicating with a family that needed her to babysit their daughter. Having one of the highest ratings on Care.com, she is a sought-after provider. Parents contact her frequently to watch their children, who range in age from newborns to teenagers.
But something seemed off.
"With the usual family, they are more concerned about my skills, if I am CPR certified (and) if I know how to handle babies," Lawson-Jack said.
The father who contacted Lawson-Jack wanted to talk cash, not cribs. He also wanted to lure her off the Care.com website and into texting. She reluctantly agreed and things quickly become even more bizarre.
The father wanted to overpay Lawson-Jack before she even babysat his daughter.
At that point, she cut off all communication. This is not the first time she has encountered scammers on the site who made strange requests.
"I’ve been asked for my checking and routing number," Lawson-Jack said.
Care.com is aware of these scams and periodically sends emails to caregivers with tips to avoid being a victim.
What happened to Lawson-Jack is not unusual. In fact, she estimates the majority of her friends who offer child care on Care.com and similar sites have experienced similar scams.
Here’s how the scam works: Scammers send fake checks for way more money than the babysitter requested and then ask the sitter to refund the difference. The check they send back is fake, but the money you could lose is real.
These scammers are bold and they target large numbers of people, said Lt. Chris Lohse of the Houston Police Department.
"It’s a volume business for these scammers," he said. "Nobody’s gonna give you money out of the goodness of their hearts and have you keep some, unless it’s Santa Claus."
As Channel 2 Investigates learned, child care providers aren’t the only ones being targeted. Terri Winnan, a math tutor in the Woodlands, has an online imprint much smaller than Lawson-Jack's. But Winnan's name is listed on a local email list of tutors. And the scammers still found her easily.
"They had my name," Winnan said. "They had my email address. The fact that I tutor math. The fact that I live in the Woodlands."
Once again, it was a fake family with a fake child -- this time, one in need of math tutoring.
Winnan told Channel 2 that the tell-tale signs of a scam were there: Money was promised upfront, parents were not available to talk on the telephone and the dots were not connecting. She played along to see how far the scammers would take it.
A check arrived last week. And the scammers gave Winnan an address of where they were staying.
The check was a fake. The address in the Woodlands does not exist, as we went there with a camera crew.
Winnan wants to spread the word to warn others.
"It was important for me to contact (Channel 2) because of the insidious nature of this scam," she said. "Even someone who is really on the ball about scams could be fooled by this and so I wanted to let everyone know that if you are a service provider in the Houston area, you could be the target of a similar scam."
Channel 2 talked to the Houston Police Department as well as many nannies and service-care providers who were targeted by scams.
Here’s how to spot them and protect yourself:
If you have been the victim of an online scam, contact your local police department to file a report.