Cleaners for this online maid service may have sticky fingers

Home-cleaning service Handy bills its cleaners as “trusted” and “background checked.” Yet the would-be Uber of household chores didn’t prevent a string of alleged thefts in cities including New York and the District of Columbia by cleaners booked through its online service.

The startup, which has raised some $60 million in funding since its mid-2012 launch by Harvard Business School students and has most recently been valued at $342 million, connect cleaners with consumers. It offers prearranged cleaning services using a website, Handy.com, and a smartphone application, the “Handy App.” 

Handy says customers in 35 locations including most most major cities in the U.S., U.K. and Canada, used its platform to book more than a million services last year.

The company, however, is misleading consumers about both the safety of its services and how it bills, contends a lawsuit filed in September against Handy Technologies by Washington, D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine. 

Despite presenting its cleaners as carefully vetted, Handy “does not adequately check the background of its cleaning professionals, and individuals with prior criminal convictions or that are likely to steal from consumers have been accepted by Handy,” the suit contends. “As a result, numerous Handy cleaners have stolen property from the homes of D.C. consumers.”

In one instance, a Handy professional who was arrested and charged with cleaning out a residence of credit cards in October 2015 had an extensive record, including convictions for identity theft and possession of stolen property, claims the AG’s suit. In addition, the suit cites 24 police reports filed by consumers in the D.C. metro area alleging cleaners booked through Handy swiped property from homes from March 25, 2015, through June 3, 2016.

The problems persist in the wake of Racine’s legal action. The AG’s office continues to receive fresh batches of property-theft complaints related to Handy cleaners, with a number coming in each month, according to a law enforcement official with first-hand knowledge of the case. The background checks of Handy cleaners aren’t very accurate, the official, who spoke on background, added.

Additionally, the suit contends that Handy deceptively enrolls consumers into cleaning plans that bill them on a recurring basis, and while offering a “100 percent money-back guarantee” to those skipping, canceling or rescheduling appointments, the offer in fact referred to a credit applied to future cleanings. The company’s site has since removed the “money-back” wording. 

Handy declined comment on pending litigation, said Jennifer Hanley, a managing director at Tusk Ventures, who answered a request to Handy for comment. Tusk Ventures is a strategic adviser and holds an undisclosed equity stake in Handy and 20 other startups, including Uber. Handy’s co-founders, Chief Operating Officer Umang Dua and CEO Oisin Hanrahan, were not available for comment, she added.

In New York, a woman reported to police in late February that a $26,000 ring had been stolen from her apartment while a worker from Handy was inside. The alleged theft came on the heels of a warning about Handy from the city’s police department.

On Feb. 2, a tweet from the department’s Community Affairs Bureau said in 2016, more than 50 property-theft crimes were reported to the NYPD after Handy.com was contracted by NYC residents. In the preceding month, one Handy pro was arrested for such an incident.

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Given Handy has had more than 3 million bookings since its inception, the alleged thefts related to its cleaners could be viewed as “isolated incidents,” Hanley at Tusk Ventures told CBS MoneyWatch. “Pros who use the platform performed more than 300,000 home-cleaning jobs in New York City, the vast majority of which meet the highest standards of quality and professionalism,” Hanley stated in an email.

The first time Handy became aware of the roughly 50 alleged complaints was through the NYPD’s tweet, said Hanley, who called it “not consistent with the information that Handy has received from the NYPD and/or police reports.”

Isolated incidents or not, the Better Business Bureau in New York said it detected a pattern of customer-service gripes in the 412 complaints consumers filed against Handy. Many cited the difficulty of reaching a customer service representative and having trouble finding the company’s contact information, along with “being placed on hold for 30 minutes or more or disconnected, and the company is no longer responding to emails sent to the address of team@handy.com.”

Like Uber, Handy is no stranger to legal trouble. It has faced lawsuits filed on behalf of its housecleaners claiming they should be considered employees, not independent contractors.