Mary Chiappa was desperate.
It had been only days since her nanny of two years told her she would no longer be able to care for Chiappa’s two children in Katonah. “She ended up getting a job offer outside of the child care industry that she really couldn’t refuse,” Chiappa recalled.
While the family was pleased for the former nanny’s success, they were also frantic to find a new nanny. In hopes of easing the worries of her former employers, the nanny put Chiappa in touch with the Westchester referral service A Smart Nanny and the company’s owner, Lisa DeRienzo.
“She didn’t want to leave us in a lurch,” Chiappa said.
Chiappa reached out to DeRienzo on Nov. 19, saying she’d like to move forward with using her services. She also let DeRienzo know that they were working on a short time frame and had only a few weeks until her nanny would need to leave her position.
DeRienzo responded by email, telling Chiappa she would provide her with a local, college-educated nanny. She added that there was a $250 retainer fee that, once received, would launch the search process for a nanny.
“The referral fee is usually $1,250 after the $250 retainer is deducted, but I would only charge you $750, since you are a friend” of the former nanny, DeRienzo said in an email.
“I, unthinkingly, went with it, because this was a friend of our nanny and she was ready to do this, and I needed to get the position filled,” Chiappa said. She paid the $250 deposit to DeRienzo through the digital payment app Venmo on Nov. 20.
A week passed and Chiappa had yet to hear from DeRienzo. When she sent an email asking for updates or wondering if nanny prospects were having issues with any aspects of their job requirements, DeRienzo replied that the family’s desired start time was posing a problem.
“We work in construction, so we have to leave our house by 5:30 to get to the city by 7,” Chiappa said. “We knew our needs weren’t typical, but having had our previous nanny already describe the requirements of the job with Lisa and then me reinforcing them, I was confident she knew what she was getting into.”
She and her husband decided that he could leave the house a bit later each morning, allowing a new nanny to start instead at 6:30 a.m.
Again, days passed with no update from DeRienzo. With their nanny’s end date approaching, emails went unanswered.
“I’m getting frantic now,” Chiappa recalled. “She had referred no one to us. Not a single person.”
Chiappa also messaged DeRienzo through Facebook, but those communications too received no response. “I would just Facebook message her, because on Facebook messenger, you can see when someone reads it. I could tell that she was at least seeing what I was saying and ignoring me.”
DeRienzo responded on Dec. 7, saying that finding a nanny for a family, especially one with an “excessive amount of hours,” is not easy. She also reminded Chiappa that she had offered her a “gracious discount” off her standard fee.
Chiappa responded, “Your discount is useless to me unless you give me someone that I can hire.” She never heard from DeRienzo again.
With time running out and no response, Chiappa was forced to look for child care elsewhere, hiring another nanny service “who fulfilled my request for the same hours, the same days and responsibilities within three hours,” she said.
Furious, Chiappa requested a refund for $250 through Venmo, a request that DeRienzo denied before blocking Chiappa on the payment app.
Chiappa said she had hoped to post warnings to other mothers on social media, but her husband dissuaded her, saying that $250 was not a significant enough sum to “make waves” about.
“I said to my husband, ‘Maybe that’s what she does. Maybe she takes $250 from every person, because every person thinks it’s not a big deal,’” Chiappa recalled, her voice rising. “But if there’s 60 people, and you do some math, it’s a big deal.”
A ONE-WOMAN BUSINESS AND A LITANY OF COMPLAINTS
Chiappa is one of 16 mothers who spoke to the Business Journal about their troubles with A Smart Nanny, troubles that range from a lack of response to accusations of fraud and date from 2014 to this January.
In a 2016 interview with the Business Journal, DeRienzo said her business’ launch stemmed from her inability to find a full-time teaching job in Westchester. At the time, DeRienzo said she had placed her 175th nanny.
Her company operates on a referral basis, rather than as a nanny agency. DeRienzo told the Business Journal at that time that nanny-seeking families pay a one-time referral fee — $1,800 for a full-time worker and $1,000 for a part-time nanny working 34 hours or less. She, in turn, provides them with potential candidates that she has vetted, including running background checks and checking references.
Today, there are no prices listed on the company’s website.
DeRienzo said she guaranteed two nanny prospects for each family. She also told the Business Journal that if neither seemed a good match to the clients, she would refund their deposit.
That wasn’t the case for one Larchmont mother, who works for a Westchester college and asked not to be named in an effort to keep her personal life from affecting her professional life.
When her former nanny decided to take a new job, the mother reached out to DeRienzo in October after reading various articles and profile stories featuring the nanny referral business.
“I was desperate. I don’t have time to look for a nanny. I have a busy full-time job and I don’t have time to do a lot of that legwork,” she said. “I was willing to pay for the service if it got us what was promised: a great, college-educated babysitter.”
In an email exchange, DeRienzo offered the mother a special discount she gave to new families.
The referral fee is usually $750 after the $250 deposit, DeRienzo said in an email. However, the company was offering all new families 25 percent off, so it would be $750 total if the mother hired someone. The standard referral fee she cited was $500 less than the one she quoted Chiappa when offering her a discount, though the two mothers were requesting services within one month of each other.
The Larchmont mother paid the $250 deposit and within a week, DeRienzo sent along the name and information on a possible candidate.
“(The nanny) came to my house and we met with her,” the mother recalled. “She seemed great.”
According to email exchanges, the Larchmont client asked to move forward with the process of hiring the nanny, who was scheduled to begin working for the family the following month. Invoices show that the mother paid the remaining $500 fee to DeRienzo the same day.
Then, nothing happened.
Two weeks before the nanny was scheduled to begin, the mother reached out to finalize details, but the nanny never responded. Text messages also went unanswered. Frantic, the mother sent an email to DeRienzo.
“I understand that people get busy, but it concerns me,” an Oct. 31 email reads. “As a working mom, I can’t spend a lot of time chasing down a babysitter. I need someone to be responsive. At this point, I’m worried that a) she doesn’t want to work for us or b) even if she did, she may not be the right person as I find the lack of response unprofessional.”
DeRienzo responded that A Smart Nanny was closed for Halloween, but she would look into the matter the next day. That was the last time the mother heard from A Smart Nanny’s owner.
“That’s when I started to find the really negative comments online and I said, ‘I think I’ve been scammed,’” she recalled. “I consider myself a pretty savvy person, but I started getting very nervous, because that’s a lot of money.”
In multiple follow-up emails, the client continued to ask for updates before requesting a refund of her $750. “Lisa never got me another person to interview or responded to me after I asked her for a partial, and then full, refund,” she said.
She has since reported the company to both the Better Business Bureau and the state attorney general’s office. She ended up hiring a “really wonderful” sitter through another service, she said.
“I feel really awful that I didn’t do more of my homework. I trusted the positive press.”
A PATTERN OF SILENCE
“The first red flag was that she never gave me her phone number,” said one White Plains mother, who last March paid DeRienzo a $250 deposit to find a temporary nanny. Email exchanges show that DeRienzo told the mother that deposit would be refunded if no “appropriate candidates” were found.
DeRienzo did refer one nanny to the mother, but soon after their initial interview, both the prospect and DeRienzo stopped responding to the mother’s messages. “I had no way to contact her other than email,” the mother said.
Chiappa said she repeatedly asked DeRienzo to speak on the phone so they could discuss her family’s needs, and “so I could understand what she was struggling with,” but DeRienzo never gave Chiappa her phone number.
No phone numbers are listed on A Smart Nanny website.
Other mothers had similar issues when they tried to contact DeRienzo. “She never gave me her number and she wouldn’t respond to my emails,” one mother said.
Many of the mothers who spoke with the Business Journal said that at various points in the nanny hiring process, DeRienzo would seemingly disappear. Many would be told by DeRienzo that she had either not received emails they had sent or that she had sent follow-up emails they had never received.
“My story is that I paid her $250 and she stopped responding to my emails, changed her email address, and I can’t get my money back from Venmo,” said one Bedford mother.
In an initial email, DeRienzo told the mother than the company’s referral fee is usually $750 after the $250 deposit is deducted, but there was a special discount of 30 percent during the month of December.
After paying the deposit, the mother said DeRienzo did not refer a single nanny to her and emails to the business owner would even bounce back to her account. “I tried to reach out to her for a week and immediately realized it was a scam because she had blocked me on Venmo.”
A GIFT CERTIFICATE UNFULFILLED
One Chappaqua mother reached out to A Smart Nanny after winning a gift certificate for five hours of babysitting in a raffle in 2014. With a dinner party coming up, the mother thought it would be the perfect time to try out the service for her 3-year-old daughter.
According to emails obtained by the Business Journal, the mother reached out to A Smart Nanny more than a month prior to the dinner party. DeRienzo responded just a few minutes later, asking for additional details about the child.
The mother responded the same morning, describing her daughter’s interests and what she was hoping to find in a babysitter. The following week, DeRienzo responded that she would keep the mother posted with updates in the coming weeks. That was, she said, the last time she ever heard from DeRienzo.
The mother sent a string of emails in the days prior to the dinner party, one asking if a sitter was confirmed and a second asking for any response at all, so she would know whether she needed to make alternative arrangements.
A third email sent two days prior to the party reads, “Am I correct to assume that nobody’s coming on Saturday?”
“I sort of assumed that if she couldn’t find someone, she would have just written me back and said, “I’m so sorry, I can’t find a sitter. Please, hold that gift certificate and use it another time.’ But it was just radio silence.”
The Chappaqua mom said she and her husband attempted to reach out to A Smart Nanny via Facebook, but were blocked by DeRienzo on the social media site.
Other mothers said they were similarly blocked by DeRienzo on the social media platform after they attempted to reach out to her there.
NO RESPONSE TO REPORTER’S REQUEST FOR CLIENT REFERRALS
Despite what DeRienzo told the Business Journal in 2016 and other clients previously, she told this reporter in email messages in December and January that the $250 deposit is nonrefundable for a reason, pointing to the terms of service that are posted as a link on the bottom of her company’s website. Those terms state that the client agrees to pay “a non-refundable $250 retainer.”
“If I spend weeks trying to find a family child care and then they hire an au pair or decide to put their children in day care, then it would only be reasonable that I am paid $250 for my business,” she said.
Still, DeRienzo noted, she had given “many families” their deposit back. And she had serviced “hundreds of wonderful families over the past 5 years,” she added.
Multiple requests by the Business Journal to DeRienzo to provide contact information for any of those satisfied families were not returned.
TERMS OF SERVICE: AN OWNER’S DEFENSE
For one newcomer to Armonk, 2017 was a stressful year. An attorney, mother of a 2-year-old, and eight months pregnant, she and her family were moving to suburban Westchester from New York City. She was left with little time available to search for a caregiver in their new community.
“It was a very stressful time,” she recalled. “I had my hands full.” After seeing a suggestion on a mom-focused Facebook group, she decided to reach out to DeRienzo to find a nanny for both their new baby and 2-year-old.
DeRienzo told her that the company’s referral fee was usually $1,550 — a higher fee than other mothers said they were quoted by DeRienzo — after the $250 deposit was deducted. However, the company was offering a special sale of 25 percent off, DeRienzo said.
The mother thanked DeRienzo for the discount and paid the deposit that same week.
After more than a month went by with no referrals from A Smart Nanny and just weeks away from her due date, the expectant mother was fed up. “She provided me absolutely nothing. I was having this baby in a matter of weeks and I was losing valuable time.”
When she asked for a refund, DeRienzo sent a link to her company’s terms of service, stating that the $250 deposit is nonrefundable, which she had neglected to tell the Armonk mother earlier.
Those terms of service also state that the company “is not required to select more than two nannies” for their client.
“If I would have known she was only going to select two nannies total, I never would have moved forward with her,” one White Plains mother said.
One Chappaqua mother reached out to A Smart Nanny shortly after having her first child. “She specifically said in an email that if it didn’t work out, she would refund my $250 deposit,” she recalled.
DeRienzo connected the mother with a nanny who “would have been fine,” the mother recalled. After an initial interview in Chappaqua, however, that nanny prospect took a different job.
“I started to get scared,” said the Chappaqua mom. “I was going to be going back to work soon.”
By that time, weeks had passed since she had reached out to A Smart Nanny, so she posted on a Facebook forum, asking whether anyone had other recommendations for finding a nanny. That led to her finding a new caregiver independent of A Smart Nanny.
“I reached back to Lisa and I said, ‘Thanks for your help, but this didn’t work out for us. Let me know what I can do to get my $250 deposit returned.’ But she said she wouldn’t return it because I had started looking for a nanny myself.”
A section of the terms of service states that the “client acknowledges that the company is the sole provider of nannies.”
“She said she did her job by providing me someone to look at,” the mother said.
She did not pursue the matter further.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to continue a fight with her on it. I was going back to work, I had a baby,” she said. “The best I could do was, anytime people mentioned her on Facebook groups, I would pm (private message) them” about her experience with DeRienzo, she said.
FACEBOOK FORUMS AS MARKETING TOOL
In 2016, DeRienzo told the Business Journal that to reach prospective clients and track their interests, “I belong to all the moms’ Facebook groups.”
DeRienzo also paid to advertise her business on Facebook. “Facebook really has been a tool,” she said.
Many of the mothers who spoke with the Business Journal said they had seen DeRienzo post on various Facebook groups about A Smart Nanny when other mothers had asked for caregiver suggestions.
“She’s marketing like crazy,” said one mother and Facebook user. “She has people defending her on these forums that have no personal experience with her services, and I think you have to be careful with what you read.”
One of the larger Facebook groups in which DeRienzo was a member is Chappaqua Moms, a group with more than 9,200 members.
“I really rely on Chappaqua Moms,” the Armonk attorney said.
“I go on there for everything. It’s such a good resource,” said another mother of two. “We live in a really great community where people are generally trying to help one another, and they’re just there for each other. You can just go into it and ask, ‘What’s a great service for this or that,’ and people give you their personal recommendations.”
According to screenshots of the Facebook group and mothers interviewed, various posts over the years raised issues that families had encountered with A Smart Nanny. Those posts, however, often were deleted by the group’s moderators.
“It’s also become a culture in these mommy groups,’ said one Chappaqua mother, “they say, ‘Don’t bash people, don’t bash businesses,’ which I understand, but at the same time, people are recommending things they haven’t personally used, and then people can’t chime in and say, ‘I had a really bad experience.’”
Responding to the critical comments on various Facebook groups and on articles written about A Smart Nanny, DeRienzo said that negative reviews are a part of doing business in today’s world.
“Every business, whether it’s an online business or a restaurant, is going to face their fair share of dissatisfied customers, especially when you have very wealthy clients,” DeRienzo said in an email to the Business Journal.
Many mothers in interviews questioned how their common complaints about A Smart Nanny had gone without recourse, at times for years. The Armonk attorney offered one answer.
“She preys on this population of people who can survive to lose $250,” she said. “It’s not insignificant, but I moved on.”
Others did as well, including the attorney’s own best friend, another mom living in Armonk who had tried unsuccessfully to collect a refund of her $250 deposit to A Smart Nanny. Neither realized they had both been dissatisfied with DeRienzo’s services until months after the fact.
“I tell her everything,” the attorney said of her friend. “Obviously, I didn’t tell her about this.”
A number of mothers, including those from Bedford and Armonk, have attempted to initiate legal action against DeRienzo by contacting the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office.
“Now, that’s the part that I’m truly praying moves forward,” the second Armonk mother said.
In an email to the Business Journal, Deidra Thomas, a spokesperson in the district attorney’s office, said she was aware of the matter but had no comment.
“I feel like there’s enough anger and collective disappointment,” Chiappa said, “that people won’t let this die.”