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AG: Queens Woman Who Posed As Sandy Victim To Collect Benefits A 'Serial Schemer'

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- A Queens woman who authorities say pretended to be a victim of Hurricane Sandy has been arrested on charges that she scammed $87,000 in benefits.

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on Tuesday announced the arrest of Caterina Curatolo on charges of grand larceny, insurance fraud, scheme to defraud, multiple counts of offering a false instrument for filing, and falsifying business records.

The AG's office said this is not the first time Curatolo has scammed the federal government out of natural disaster relief.

"Ripped off every program she could possibly find. This was almost like a compulsive fraudster," Schneiderman told CBS 2's Janelle Burrell.

As WCBS 880's Alex Silverman reported, officials said her home on 159th Street in Fresh Meadows was badly damaged, but not due to the Oct. 29 storm. She also owned the home next door which investigators say is in good shape.

"There are very few things lower than claiming to be a victim to take relief away from the real victims," Schneiderman told Silverman.

AG: Queens Woman Posed As Sandy Victim To Collect Benefits

Prosecutors allege that Curatolo pretended that the storm left her homeless and took advantage of local and federal aid being offered in the aftermath.

"Once she got in the system, she just kept lying on her forms," Schneiderman said.

She stayed in a hotel on the city's dime for 269 nights at a cost of $83,500, right up until her arrest on Monday, prosecutors said.

"That's kind of shocking," one of Curatolo's neighbor's told Silverman.

Neighbors said Curatolo's property has been run down for some time.

"I don't know why she got caught up in the situation. I know she was disabled, she had a hard time, she was taking care of her mother," Claudia Echeverri told Burrell.

Echeverri and her daughter, Katalina Gomez, live across the street and had water damage of their own from the storm, but they are paying for repairs out of pocket.

"She might have needed help, but I think she definitely took it too far," Gomez told Burrell.

"Honestly, that's really terrible, especially because they have a house. There's a lot of people that can't even afford a house right now," another neighbor told Silverman.

Caterina Curatolo's Fresh Meadows house
Caterina Curatolo's damaged Fresh Meadows house. She was arrested on charges she defrauded the city and federal government out of $87,000 in Sandy benefits. (credit: Alex Silverman/WCBS 880)

Investigators said they saw Curatolo going back to both homes to pick up the mail while she was staying in three different hotels over the past nine months.

"My office will do everything in our power to crack down on anyone who uses a national emergency like Sandy for their own personal gain," said Schneiderman in a statement. "We are holding gas price gougers accountable, taking a hard look at how charities spend Sandy-related donations and are making sure that no one gets away with abusing programs intended to help real victims. Today's arrest shows that scammers who trade on tragedy will be exposed and punished."

The investigation also led to FEMA records indicating that Curatolo made a similar claim for damage to her roof after Hurricane Irene in 2011.

The AG's office learned Tuesday afternoon that FEMA did, in fact, cut her a check in October 2011 for $7,712.42 for her damaged house claims.

"She was a serial schemer," Schneiderman told Silverman. "I mean, this was an extreme case."

The city's Housing Recovery Office, which was established after Sandy, has paid for hotels for more than 3,000 New Yorkers who were left homeless by the storm.

Schneiderman said Curatolo also submitted a phony car insurance claim and got more than $3,500 to pay for food, which she allegedly used to buy clothes and shoes.

If convicted, defendant Curatolo faces up to seven years in prison.

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