Published: Mar 01, 2011 1:16 AM EST
Updated: Feb 28, 2011 9:23 PM EST

LEE COUNTY, Fla. - People all over Southwest Florida are letting criminals into their homes without even knowing. A WINK NEWS Call for Action investigation uncovers who you're hiring may not be as trustworthy as you think.

Single mother Karalynn Hatz is a busy woman, so she decided to hire a handyman to take care of her home improvements.

"My neighbors recommended this wonderful man who could do a little bit of everything," Hatz said.

Stephen Buck helped on a weekly basis with anything she needed.

"Little did I know over that five-year period all of my jewelry disappeared," Hatz recalled.

Buck stole close to $10,000 worth of jewels and sold them to nearby pawn shops.

"Irreplaceable, sentimental-- it broke my heart because my mom died 30 years ago and she gave me all her jewelry," lamented Hatz.

Her neighbors recommended Buck for the job but she never checked references or looked into his background. If she had, she may have discovered that he'd been accused of theft before. Now he's in prison.

"When we make that phone call to a company, we need to do some homework on the company, owner, on the contractors and the workers coming to your home," said Stacey Payne with the Lee County Sheriff's office. "Look for the names, has this person ever been arrested?"

You can perform free background checks on people yourself. You can look at a person's rap sheet or even see any complaints made against them. The easiest place to start is your local Sheriff's Office website.

There's also the clerk of courts database where you can see any pending court cases against anyone in the surrounding five counties.

One handyman we found in Southwest Florida was convicted of forcing female clients to french kiss him on the job. Scott Doran is accused of stealing prescription drugs from clients' medicine cabinets to make extra cash. And just last month, contractor Wilbert Tirado Rivera was charged with stealing more than $10,000 worth of electronics from a Bonita Springs home while he fixed a hot water heater.

You may be thinking: this'll never happen to me! So we walked into a local carwash to pick up random business cards from a community bulletin board and did some checking of our own.

We chose about 30 people who do home improvement work, went to the clerk of court website and quickly found three were charged with serious crimes like robbery and theft.

Experts say there are ways to protect yourself once you've let someone into your home. If you've given them your garage door code or keys, change that code or change your locks.