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Woman promotes internet safety after assault from app-hired handyman

Woman promotes internet safety after assault from app-hired handyman
Woman promotes internet safety after assault from app-hired handyman 03:23

CHANHASSEN—A Carver County woman was assaulted in her home by hired help she found online.

"Looking back, of course there's always those red flags that we notice afterwards that maybe we should have questioned more in the moment," Sheri Melander-Smith said.

Melander-Smith's attacker reached out to her on the Nextdoor Neighbor app, offering his painting services. While she hadn't advertised for it, she was looking for someone to paint her living room. She took him up on his offer.

"Right before he left, he said, 'Can I give you a hug goodbye?'" Melander-Smith said. "I said no. I'm not comfortable with that. I don't know you.' And so he said, 'Oh come on. One little hug.'"

Adding to the terrifying experience, Melander-Smith was out of her wheelchair.

"I was literally planted," she said.

Melander-Smith didn't report anything to the police until the next day.

"They were able to collect a whole bunch of DNA evidence," she said.

Her handyman was charged with first-degree burglary and fourth-degree sexual assault.

"People who target you are not going to appear like a big monster in the alley," Melander-Smith said.

But sometimes -- those people do target you online. It's something the Better Business Bureau (BBB) works to warn consumers about.

"There are so many ways that a consumer can go out and find a handyperson for help around the house," said Bao Vang, vice president of communication for the BBB of Minnesota and North Dakota. "It is only natural to start within social media."  

Sheri Melander-Smith CBS

It might be natural, but according to the BBB, it's also potentially dangerous. Vang says if you're not careful, you could fall victim to a scammer posing as a business with the intent to steal your money, your identity or in Melander-Smith's case, something even more valuable.

"That's a big risk to just hire someone in the internet landscape without doing more homework on them," Vang said.

The Better Business Bureau urges people to read customer reviews and check to see if they're accredited. Ask for references and get multiple quotes to make sure it's the right fit. Take the extra step to verify their license and insurance -- and if you're uncomfortable, invite a friend or family member to join you during the job.

"There's a lot of honest people out there, and a lot of honest business people with integrity and do a job well done. But not always. And I think that's the great lesson here," Melander-Smith said. "I don't feel safe in my home. I've had it completely wired with cameras. And to be honest with you, I haven't been able to sleep upstairs in my bed, in my own bed in my home because I'm a wheelchair user, so to get up there, I have to take the stair glide to get up there. And then once I'm in bed, I am stuck there."

Melander-Smith is determined to take back her power. One way she's doing that is learning self-defense through boxing. It's something she's done in the past, but now, it holds even more meaning. Her trainer feels the same way.

"As soon as she shared that with me, it made it that much more important and impactful to me," fitness trainer Jesse Godzala said.

"It may happen once, but it's not happening again," Melander-Smith said.

She hopes her story can help someone else.

"Even if you're not certain, call the police and report it," Melander-Smith said. "And just remember that no matter what you wore or what you said or what you did, it's not your fault. And no means no."

Melander-Smith is a passionate advocate for people with disabilities. 

In 2018 she was deemed Miss Wheelchair America. Two years later, she wrote a book called "A Model of Courage: A Memoir of Overcoming Disability" where she shares her own journey of being born with a disability and later becoming an international model and actress. She also shares how she overcame adversity again after her disability advanced. 

At age 38, she learned how to live a happy, fulfilled life in a wheelchair. 

Melander-Smith plans to continue to share her story and hopes it can impact people in positive ways through her nonprofit Living Forward.

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