TOMS RIVER – What should you do if an agent from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development comes knocking on your door?
“Don’t be afraid of someone knocking on your door,” Heather Yannello, Assistant Special-Agent-in-Charge at HUD, said Thursday. “They’re there to make sure your tax dollars are working the way they should.”
Yannello said property owners should ask HUD agents an important question: “Am I the target of this investigation?” Agents are obligated to tell the homeowner if he or she is being investigated.
Agents will often ask homeowners for receipts from rebuilding work or other documents. Yannello said homeowners can ask the agents to return on another day, so they will have time to gather the necessary paperwork.
Yannello spoke at the monthly meeting of the Ocean County Long-Term Recovery Group, an umbrella organization of more than 80 nonprofits that has worked to provide money and volunteer labor that helps fill gaps between a homeowners’ resources and the actual cost of rebuilding.
Group members had requested that someone from HUD attend this month’s meeting after questions arose last month about agents from the agency approaching Sandy victims and demanding to see receipts for rebuilding work.
Yannello said that HUD has three Newark-based agents and two in Philadelphia who have been investigating potential fraud cases. The main focus of their work has been finding people who received Sandy grant funds but were not primary homeowners.
The state’s largest rebuilding effort, the Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program, gives grants of up to $150,000 to primary homeowners to help them rebuild and elevate their homes. Those who own vacation homes are not eligible for RREM grants.
The RREM program is funded through federal Disaster Recovery monies distributed by HUD.
Yannello said her agents have uncovered fraud, including one property owner who worked for the state’s Sandy recovery division and falsified records to indicate that her storm-damaged home was a primary residence, when it was actually a vacation house.
“These people were not living in that property,” Yannello said.
Agents are mostly focused on finding people who have fraudently claimed to live full-time in a Shore home, but actually reside elsewhere, she said.
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