More Auto and Car Insurance Fraud Cases In Bad Economy

But the uptick in the number of cases is undeniable: The National Insurance Crime Bureau released a study in 2008 reporting that owner give-ups -- the term used to describe cars that are abandoned by owners who are oftentimes looking to gain financially from the act -- skyrocketed in five major cities, including Houston, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Chicago.

The same report indicated that these fraud cases were on the rise, according to reports from various states. New York State's Fraud Bureau reported a one-third increase in the number of fraud cases in 2008. Florida and Wisconsin reported similar trends.

In 2007, the latest year for which statistics on arsons nationwide are available, the U.S. Fire Administration estimated that approximately 20,500 cars were intentionally set on fire.

Quiggle said he's seen cases of car owners getting rid of their vehicles in a variety of ways, from sinking them in lakes and ponds where evidence can "lie submerged for decades," to the most popular disposal method: arson.

"It's most common to torch vehicles because the hope is that they can destroy the evidence or make it appear [to their insurance companies] that the car was stolen by a fire-minded vandal," said Quiggle.

Detectives Nationwide Report Increased Auto Fraud Cases

Det. Tom Reilly of the Dallas County Sheriff's Department is all too familiar with car owners who are willing to break the law to get out of paying for their cars.

"This is a problem that has gotten way worse because of the economy," said Reilly, who heads the North Texas Auto Theft Task Force. "We're seeing people destroying their vehicles, getting rid of them in Mexico and later reporting them stolen and constantly giving false statements to the insurance companies."

Reilly and his department often take videotaped statements from individuals who have been found to have illegally unloaded their vehicles, in an attempt to better understand what drives otherwise law-abiding citizens to partake in criminal acts.

"We see people who are just mad at the insurance companies and feel like they owe them because of previous claims that they've filed and were never paid for or they're simply just frustrated [with the economy]," said Reilly.

A former chiropractor said, "I made the wrong decision. You know, I shouldn't have done it," during one of the videotaped interviews. "Trying to save $1,100 … it's just not worth it. It's not. There [are] other means of taking care of your payments, or hell, let them repo the car. Let them take the car back. But don't go to great details of calling the police department or calling the insurance company because that's what got me here today."

"Some people in leased vehicles are afraid of the penalties they'll have to pay for high mileage or damage, and see no other choice [but to get rid of their vehicle]," said Reilly. "A lot of these people think the insurance company is just a money pit and a faceless entity that will send them a check."

Det. Gary Smith of the San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office said all too often vehicles "mysteriously go up in flames" as their owners struggle to make ends meet.

"People have admitted it's because they have no money," said Smith. "It varies from not being able to make their mortgage payment to losing their jobs and just trying to downsize their budgets."

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