Crackdown on flood recovery grant fraud slows cash flow for those in desperate need

People trying to navigate their way to recovery from this year’s floods say they applied for government grants only to find fraudsters beat them to death.

Andrea Bonotto’s burger restaurant in the Lismore CBD was left in ruins after floodwaters receded, so he decided to open a new business on higher ground.

But when he applied for the second part of an approved small business recovery grant, he was told someone else had already claimed it.

“It was a huge thing for us because without it we wouldn’t have had the financial capacity to reopen,” he said.

Although Mr Bonotto’s situation has since been resolved by Service NSW, it is not an isolated case.

South Lismore resident Eli Roth said there were several false claims made using his home address.

Eli Roth says his visually striking home has received a lot of attention, leaving him vulnerable to fraud.(ABC North Shore: Emma Rennie)

Her house was badly damaged by the floods and most of her possessions were lost.

His visually striking home has attracted considerable attention, which he says has made him vulnerable to fraudsters.

“It’s disgusting that people can get away with it,” he said.

Service NSW rejects more grants than it approves

Four different flood recovery grants for individuals and businesses were rolled out by Service NSW following this year’s flood disaster.

In these four programs, over 43,300 grant applications have been received.

To date, 27% have been approved and 50% have been denied.

However, of those still being assessed, 2,705 claims with a combined total value of nearly $30 million are being reviewed for possible fraud.

Service NSW also said it had referred more than 530 suspicious requests to NSW Police for investigation.

Meanwhile, Resilience NSW, which oversees the disaster relief grant, said it had approved around 330 grants out of more than 2,440 applications.

More than 230 applicants were screened out for not meeting the criteria, and the department said it was awaiting more information for nearly 1,000 applications.

The Rural Assistance Authority (RAA), which helps primary producers, had processed just under half of the 3,200 grant applications it received and had approved around 1,100.

He said he identified 128 cases of fraud across all RAA programs this year.

Fraud prevention “cannot be an obstacle”

There are fears that those affected by the floods could be caught up in the battle to filter out fraudulent grant applications because they were unable to file enough evidence of damage to their homes or property.

In a statement, Service NSW said most grants were turned down simply because there was not enough information from applicants.

A team of assessors will be dispatched to Lismore this week to help residents and businesses whose claims are “stuck” in compiling paperwork for their claims.

Lismore Labor MP Janelle Saffin said her office was regularly contacted by flood-affected residents who had been denied grants without explanation.

“People need to have reasons and they need to be given the opportunity to make their case better,” she said.

Ms Saffin, she had raised concerns that fraud prevention measures in the grant review process were slowing the flow of money to people who desperately need it.

“This cannot be a barrier for those who are legitimately entitled to a subsidy and it needs to be further explored,” she said.

Roth said there needed to be better communication between governments and ministries to assess grant applications.

“We had rate bills, electric bills, utility bills, all that stuff sent home for years,” he said.

“It should be so easy to find my name, to find the history of the mail that arrived at this address.”

A man wearing a hat and scarf stands in front of a wall decorated with black and red artwork.
Roth says grant evaluators should be able to access records showing who lives at an address.(ABC North Shore: Emma Rennie)

The state government said more than 200 people were working to process a record number of grant applications.

“To put this into perspective for people, this is more than four times the number of grant applications we received following the Black Summer fires,” Flood Recovery Minister Steph Cooke said.

But more than three months after the floods, Mr Bonotto said the wait for relief seemed to drag on forever.

“While natural disasters are happening more and more often, we still don’t have a system to deal with them and immediately help people on the ground,” he said.

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