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HOUSE-SITTING 'FRIEND' STOLE MUCH MORE THAN MONEY

Mary J. Brown felt the sting when a house-sitting friend stole as much as $4,000 from her, and fury still swirls over that friend's taking money from her kids' piggy banks.

Now Ms. Brown just wants the friend who betrayed her arrested and prosecuted.

While the Brown family was on vacation last summer, a person she considered among her closest friends cleaned out her bank account, stealing several thousand dollars by making withdrawals from automatic teller machines in Buffalo.

The money was a big loss for the single mother, who supports her two young children by working as a medical secretary and running a transcription business from her Cheektowaga home.

But what hurts more, she says, was the theft of trust she had put in her friend, who house-sat her Southgate Road home while she and the children went on a week's vacation to North Carolina.

Now, more than three months later, she is stunned at the indifference and run-around she says she has encountered from bank and police officials.

The friend, whose name is being withheld by The Buffalo News, admitted to stealing the money by using a counterfeit bank card, according to Ms. Brown, who confronted her.

Authorities said they are aware of not only the admission, but that a bank surveillance camera recorded one of the illegal withdrawals.

Ms. Brown initially filed crime reports with the Cheektowaga and Amherst police departments. She was later told the case was being forwarded to the Buffalo Police Department's Fraud Unit.

"I called the Buffalo police, and they never heard of my case," she said.

She added that she believes her bank has lost interest in the theft as well.

"The bank was adamant that I file a report with police, and, sure, they reimbursed me $2,000 of the money, but now they don't seem to think it's a big deal."

Key Bank officials declined to comment.

Amherst Detective Ray Nitsche said it would be best if Ms. Brown obtained an arrest warrant in City Court against her former friend. He explained that the actual thefts occurred at automated tellers in Buffalo and not Amherst.

Ms. Brown said she was not told until this week that she had to do the legwork for the prosecution to occur.

The thefts began at the end of June just after her friend had volunteered to watch the home.

House-sitting included caring for the Brown family's dog, "Whitey," watering the plants and taking in the mail.

What it wasn't supposed to include was a search of the house for Ms. Brown's personal identification number for her bank card or the theft of money from her children's piggy banks, the 33-year-old mother said.

"She had complete access to my home and must have searched it. The bank said I must have given her the PIN number, but I don't even share that number with my children and now the bank won't give me a new ATM card because they say I'm a high risk."

Upon returning from vacation, Ms. Brown tried to use her bank card to obtain grocery money. "The ATM ate my card." A day later, she said bank officials informed her there was no cash in her checking account.

In time, Ms. Brown spoke with her friend, who confessed stealing the money under the pretext she was protecting the Brown family and herself.

"She told me she took the money because a man was coming around my house while I was on vacation and threatening to do harm to me and my children and her if he didn't get money.

"A man did start calling my home in the middle of the night after I came back from vacation and asking for my friend and I had to have my phone number changed."

The ex-friend also repeatedly promised to make restitution, Ms. Brown said.

"From the beginning, she kept telling me she would pay me back all of the money, but she hasn't and I'm still out an undetermined amount of cash the bank has not reimbursed."

But what hurts the most, Ms. Brown said, is the abuse of friendship.

"I met this woman two years ago when we were both working at a doctor's office. I was going through a separation from my husband and she was a lot of fun, a lot of laughs. She was there for me."

Not anymore.

The next time Ms. Brown goes away on a vacation, "I'll call the police to keep an eye on the house and put the dog in the kennel," she said.

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