Scammers are using fake photos to try and get access to thousands of dollars of flood relief funds in NSW, it has been revealed.
NSW authorities say they have blocked thousands of applications totalling more than $38million dollars so far, describing the scale of fraud as ‘next level’.
One scammer submitted a computer-generated image of a flooded office with a floating rubber duck, while another sent in a photo that was actually a flooded room in a US air base.
Another claimant used the same photo on 30 applications, while one fraudster asked for thousands of dollars in accommodation costs from a hotel, including wine bar expenses, before authorities found the room number did not exist.
Service NSW said it has had to deal with more than 3,600 fraudulent applications, leaving genuine claimants waiting to get their money.
One scammer submitted a computer-generated image of a flooded office with a floating rubber duck
Another scammer sent in a photo that was actually a flooded room in a US air base
Police will now investigate the fake claims with warnings that those providing false or misleading information could be required to repay the grants, or face prosecution. The maximum penalty for fraud is imprisonment for 10 years.
The fraudulent claims were submitted as part of the 2022 flood grants program.
As of July 19, 3,600 cases of suspected fraud across the February-March 2022 flood grant programs had been blocked.
The $50,000 Small Business Grant scheme attracted 668 applications, of which 47 were identified as potentially fraudulent.
The $10,000 Small Business Northern Rivers Grant attracted 1,498 applications worth a total of $15 million, of which 787 claims totalling $7.9m were approved.
In total, 341 applications to the Northern Rivers Grants scheme, adding up to $3.4 million, have been declined, mostly due to fraudulent or insufficient evidence.
Around 74 per cent of those had photos or other evidence that was missing or had been from online channels or replicated in other applications.
There was also evidence that some applicants were changing addresses to reflect flood-affected LGAs in an attempt to take advantage of the grant programs.
The fraudster who lodged the fake hotel bill had claimed an alleged stay for a family of six, with the amount totalling more than $15,000.
Authorities found the submitted room number ‘417’ did not exist.
Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello said Service NSW had prevented payment of 98 per cent of suspected fraudulent applications.
Police will now investigate the fake claims with warnings that those providing false or misleading information could be required to repay the grants
The $10,000 Small Business Northern Rivers Grant attracted 1,498 applications worth a total of $15 million, of which 787 claims totalling $7.9m were approved
‘This is wretched fraud that slows down getting these grants to those who truly need them,’ Mr Dominello told the Daily Telegraph.
‘It’s nothing less than a form of digital looting, with criminals seeking to take advantage of genuine hardship and heartbreak.
‘Make no mistake, digital crime leaves a digital footprint and they will be brought to justice.’
Service NSW acting chief executive Laura Christie added that fraudulent applications were taking valuable time away from assessors trying to help genuine victims.
She also warned that those submitting applications might be audited in the future.
‘Service NSW has multiple checks and balances in place to ensure grant applications are properly reviewed, including the cross-matching of data which will flag suspicious claims for investigation,’ she said.
‘Customers submitting grant applications may be audited in future, and are required to keep all documentary evidence related to their application for two years.
‘Customers found to have submitted ineligible applications are required to repay the funds.’