A Queens woman is under arrest, accused of defrauding city and federal agencies, private insurers and charities out of Hurricane Sandy aid. NY1's Ruschell Boone filed the following report.
Caterina Curatolo's neighbors now know why they haven't seen her in months. She had been living at a hotel in a room meant for Hurricane Sandy victims after claiming that the storm left her homeless, but investigators say it was all a lie. They say it turns out that Curatolo owns two properties on 159th Street in Fresh Meadows.
Curatolo was arrested Monday after State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said she stole more than $87,000 in Hurricane Sandy benefits, most of it money spent on lodging that was meant for people with nowhere to go after the storm.
He said she also made phony car insurance claims that her car was damaged in the storm, and spent thousands of dollars she received for food at local retail stores.
Schneiderman said it's the worst case of sandy fraud he has seen so far. But how could it happen?
"In the initial days right when Sandy hit, our emergency service people were really letting anyone in who was in need of help," he said. "The idea was not to have a heavy screening process, 'cause anyone who came in, people didn't have their ID, they didn't have anything. They were being washed out."
There is a gaping hole in the roof of the house Curatolo claimed was damaged in the storm, and both of her properties are in disrepair, but investigators say that all happened before the storm. They also uncovered Federal Emergency Management Agency records showing that Curatolo made a similar claim for damage to the roof after Hurricane Irene. She's now facing felony fraud and grand larceny charges.
After hearing the news of her arrest, some of Curatolo's neighbors became sympathetic, saying she's been through a lot in recent years. They believe she got a divorce two years ago and lost both her parents within the last year.
"I feel badly because I know she's been through a really difficult time and maybe she did need help, but maybe she took it overboard," said one person.
Some neighbors were a lot tougher on Curatolo.
"I think it's appalling because that deprives those who really need the assistance from getting it, and I think she should be penalized accordingly," said another.
If convicted, Curatolo faces up to seven years in prison.