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Photo courtesy Eric Schneiderman
By Phil Corso

A Fresh Meadows woman is accused of stealing more than $87,000 in benefits by falsely claiming she was a victim of Superstorm Sandy, the state attorney general said.

Caterina Curatolo, 48, lied about deplorable conditions at her home and allegedly enjoyed more than 269 days at various hotels on the city’s dime while blowing through $3,590 in money designated for food at various shops, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said. She was arrested Monday and charged with fraud and grand larceny, which could cost her up to seven years in prison.

The attorney general’s criminal complaint accused the Fresh Meadows native of listing her 59-13 159th St. home as unlivable after Sandy, but later found damages that pre-dated the late October storm.

“My office will do everything in our power to crack down on anyone who uses a national emergency like Sandy for personal gain,” Schneiderman said. “We are holding 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.”

And while she was being put up in city hotels as a supposed storm evacuee, Schneiderman said undercover officers watched Curatolo visit her 159th Street home as well as a second residence she owned next door to pick up mail. Utility records also showed that services continued at the 59-13 159th St. home long after Sandy, the attorney general said.

The city contracted with about 50 hotels after Sandy to provide temporary housing for vulnerable storm evacuees through the New York City Hotel and Interim Placement Program. The criminal complaint alleged that Curatolo used the program to her advantage despite any apparent damages to her home directly traced back to the devastating storm.

“More than 3,000 individuals have been served by New York City’s Hotel Program in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, connecting households with housing and necessary services,” city Homeless Services Commissioner Michele Ovesey said. “We are grateful to our partners — city, state and federal — for ensuring the City Hotel Program and related resources are preserved for those most in need while we work diligently to return all New Yorkers back to their communities.”

Schneiderman said Curatolo also received $3,950 in city and American Red Cross funds to buy food, but instead spent the cash at different stores such as Best Buy, Dressbarn, Marshalls, Fabco Shoes, Eric Shoes, Optical Boutique, Exclusive Eyes and Scoresense.com.

It was not the first time Curatolo blamed new storms on old problems, Schneiderman said. According to the complaint, Federal Emergency Management Agency records showed she made a similar claim for damage to the roof of her home after Hurricane Irene in 2011. She also filed fraudulent insurance claims alleging her car was a total loss after Sandy despite no apparent signs of water damage, the attorney general said.

“Today’s arrest shows that scammers who trade on tragedy will be exposed and punished,” Schneiderman said.

Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at pcorso@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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