ALBANY -- New York State's property-tax exemption program is potentially fraught with abuse, according to a state audit released Thursday.

Sampling 6,500 parcels statewide, the state comptroller's office found that nearly 20 percent are improperly receiving tax exemptions under the program known as STAR, or School Tax Relief. In most of those cases, homeowners were receiving benefits for houses that were not their primary residence, the audit found. STAR benefits are supposed to be largely limited to primary residencies.

That means as much as $640 million of the $3.2 billion in tax breaks that was paid out to homeowners in the 2010-11 fiscal year might have been sent in error, according to Brian Butry, a spokesman for Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. Often, local assessors don't have the tools to determine whether a parcel is receiving improper benefits, the comptroller said.

"The STAR program has succeeded in delivering millions of dollars in tax relief, but it is difficult to ferret out abuse or even errors because it is hard to police the program," DiNapoli said, adding the state could weed out abuses by empowering local assessors to use Social Security numbers to eliminate double-dippers, creating a searchable database and increasing penalties for STAR abuse. The penalty is $100.

The Cuomo administration has proposed cracking down on STAR abuses.

Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, said: "The governor's budget includes rigorous new oversight of the STAR Program that will root out double dippers."

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STAR was enacted in 1997 under former Gov. George Pataki. Under the program, homeowners may take the STAR benefit only for their primary residence.

DiNapoli's audit looked at more than 700 mailing addresses spread around 46 assessment jurisdictions in the state, including Nassau County and the Suffolk County towns of Riverhead, Babylon and Brookhaven. About 1 in 5 addresses turned up duplicate and improper exemptions.

The report said that about 64 percent of the payments should have been stopped because they were not for the homeowner's primary residence.

Two percent of the STAR benefit -- which averaged $641 -- went to homeowners for seasonal or vacation homes, which also do not qualify. Fifteen percent went to individuals who were deceased.

Of 150 addresses sampled in Nassau, 12, or 8 percent, received improper payments. Details weren't available for the Suffolk communities surveyed.

Based on his sampling, DiNapoli estimated the state paid out at least $13 million too much in fiscal 2010-11, a sum that likely rose to $73 million the following year. In Nassau, that worked out to almost $288,000 in overpayments.