Stephanie Lee Fox was a notorious thief. She was convicted of dozens of larceny and fraud charges in Greater Boston, spent time in jail, and was still on probation when she registered as a nanny on Care.com.
Yet, the Waltham-based company that calls itself the world's largest Internet site for finding family care failed to detect Fox's lengthy, public criminal record during a background check — a service it explicitly promised to provide to a Boston couple seeking a caregiver for their two children, according to lawyers for Fox and the couple.
Grace and C. Grover Heintz, who hired Fox in February 2013, learned of her prior crimes after discovering last summer that she had stolen more than $280,000 from their checking account, according to court records. Fox pleaded guilty to federal bank fraud charges last month, but her case and others around the country have prompted questions about whether Care.com's vetting process is substandard and imperils families.
"I'm pursuing an investigation regarding the failure of Care to conduct the background check that the Heintzes paid them to conduct," Wellesley attorney Keith Halpern, who represents the couple, said during a brief telephone interview.
The company is currently fending off separate lawsuits in Nebraska and Wisconsin brought by parents whose babies were killed, allegedly by nannies who were hired through Care.com after passing background checks that failed to uncover their criminal histories.
A spokeswoman for Care.com declined to comment on Fox's case, the pending lawsuits, or the accuracy of background checks arranged through its site.
"The safety of our community is of paramount importance to us which is why we evaluate, on an ongoing basis, the safety tools and resources we utilize and provide," Nancy Bushkin, a spokeswoman for Care.com, said in an e-mail. "As a matter of company policy and out of respect to our members, we do not publicly discuss information concerning any individual on our site."
Care.com, which helps members find caregivers for children, seniors, and pets, offers four levels of background checks: a $9 preliminary screening; more comprehensive checks for $59 and $79; and $300 for the most extensive check. The company hires various vendors to conduct the checks, but the spokeswoman declined to identify the contractor that ran the one on Fox.
In Omaha, 4-month-old Cash Bell died in March 2013 from head injuries inflicted by his nanny, Sarah Cullen, who was sentenced last year to 70 years in prison for the death. The negligence suit alleges that the infant's parents paid Care.com for its most comprehensive background check, which found no criminal cases against Cullen, despite her drunken driving conviction in 2012. The Bells said they wouldn't have hired Cullen if they had known of her prior conviction. Their suit is also against two child-care centers and alleges they failed to report that Cullen physically abused children while working for them.
The Wisconsin wrongful death lawsuit alleges that the parents of Rylan Aislee Koopmeiners paid Care.com for its "premier background check" on Sarah Gumm, but the company failed to detect that she had a history of alcohol abuse and violence, including two drunken driving charges. That check was supposed to include a search of federal, state, and county criminal records and driving records. The sitter is scheduled to stand trial in February in the July 2012 death of the 3-month old girl. She is accused of leaving the baby home alone twice to buy wine earlier in the day, then slamming the baby's head on a table while she was under the influence of alcohol.
In 2011, Care.com reached an out-of-court settlement with a New Jersey couple who accused the company of negligence and breach of contract for failing to conduct an accurate background check on a nanny they hired to help care for their newborn triplets.
Kristen Auriema, of Scotch Plains, N.J., said in a telephone interview that the nanny stole her daughters' baptism gifts and other valuables from her family, and later she learned that the woman had a lengthy criminal record and altered her name when registering on Care.com.
"It was like here you have Mary Poppins at your door and then she had this alias," said Auriema, citing a police report that noted the nanny's nickname was "Wicked."
"I think they definitely should have caught the fact that she was a criminal," Auriema said. "She violated us by going through our things and stealing things, but thank God my children were never harmed."
Grace Heintz, a partner in Bain & Co.'s Boston office, and her husband paid for a "preferred plus" background check, according to their lawyer. Care.com's website says the $79 background check is more comprehensive than two other checks that it offers and includes a search of criminal records in the states and/or counties the candidate has resided over the last seven years.
The company cautions that "background checks are not always 100 percent accurate or complete" and are run based on information provided by the caregiver.
It advises customers to conduct their own online searches of candidates and check references.
It also represents that in states, including Massachusetts, where criminal court records are not available online, it calls on a network of "court runners" to physically check county records.
"The background check was supposed to include [Fox's] criminal record in Massachusetts or, at a minimum, in the counties where she has lived in Massachusetts," Halpern said.
While it's unclear whether Fox, 30, of Randolph listed her true address while registering on Care.com, it was easily identified through court records and an Internet search.
A Boston Globe review found 28 criminal cases against Fox, which included 111 charges and involved thefts in Charlestown, Boston's South End, Braintree, Randolph, Abington, Avon, and Winchester between 2004 and 2011. A dozen of those cases were filed in Quincy District Court in Norfolk County, which should have been included in Care.com's background check because, according to court records, Fox had lived in that county for at least the past seven years.
Fox was convicted of numerous charges in Norfolk, Suffolk, and Middlesex counties, including larceny, identity fraud, forgery, and receiving stolen property.
Boston attorney Joseph Perullo, who represents Fox, declined to comment, but after her arrest for stealing from the Heintzes said, "She's deeply apologetic about what happened. She has a mental health disorder that causes her to act impulsively."
An executive at PT Research Inc., a Manchester, N.H.-based company that specializes in employment screening and background checks, said it takes more work to conduct background checks in Massachusetts because there is no central, computerized system and most counties have multiple courthouses — none of which offer records online.
"It requires sending a researcher to each individual courthouse to look for information," said Jeremy Pollard, director of business development at PT Research, adding that the failure to check each district court in a county "leaves a big hole in the background check."
"The truth about background checks is there are no perfect checks," said Pollard, advising people to avoid cheap or quick background checks, which often sacrifice quality.
Fox's past criminal exploits are detailed in the dozen cases filed at the Quincy District Court — which includes her hometowns of Weymouth and Randolph in its jurisdiction.
While Fox was a student at Randolph High School, she stole credit cards from customers around Christmas 2004 when she was working at a store at the South Shore Plaza in Braintree. She then splurged on a shopping spree, a three-night hotel stay, and a limo to take her and her friends to a dance, according to court records.
That case remained opened for two years until she paid restitution. Then she got two different jobs and, again, stole credit cards from customers, according to court records.
Fox deliberately failed to return credit cards to customers in 2007 while filling take-out orders at Bertucci's in Braintree. If customers didn't ask for them back, she pocketed them. By the time she was caught, she had charged thousands of dollars for gift cards, merchandise, and tickets to Red Sox games and concert tickets.
"I guess I have a problem," Fox told police after her arrest, according to court records.
In the fall of 2009, Fox enrolled at Bunker Hill Community College, where she completed three semesters, according to the school. However, Boston Municipal Court records show that she also bounced checks totalling more than $4,200 between 2009 and 2011 at a bookstore on the Charlestown campus and another one on Boston University's campus.
She wrote more bad checks at jewelry stores in Winchester, specialty shops in Boston's South End, Costco's in Avon, and Trucchi's Supermarket in Abington.
In the fall of 2011, Fox was the subject of news media coverage when she was arrested on warrants while driving in Boston with a child she was caring for. She was sentenced to six months in jail in January 2012 and ordered to pay restitution to her victims and seek a mental health evaluation.
When Grace Heintz hired Fox in early 2013, she was still on probation and having trouble meeting court-ordered restitution payments for her past crimes, according to court records. She paid her outstanding debt — $1,341 to Costco and $1,696 to Barnes & Noble College Inc. — only after she started stealing personal checks from the Heintzes and cashing them, court records show.
Heintz confronted Fox in August after discovering that she had spent more than a year forging Heintz's signature on 65 checks totalling more than $285,000, according to court records.
Fox confessed to police that she used the money to buy diamond necklaces and high-end watches, to make a down payment on a truck, and to finance trips to the Bahamas, Aruba, Hawaii, and Disney World.
She faces sentencing in February.
"The background screening system exists solely to catch people like her,'' Pollard said, "and it's a real shame in this case it failed."