Need more evidence of consumer distress? Auto insurance fraud is up, with consumers resorting to extreme means -- torching, drowning or dumping SUVs, pickups and cars -- in hopes of getting quick cash from insurance policies.
Once rare, suspect car demolition cases are commandeering investigators, dominating their working hours at state agencies and insurance companies. Nationwide, auto fire insurance claims have jumped by 6% in the past 12 months after years of little change. Indiana, Michigan and New York are hot spots, with burned car claims spiking 13% to 18%, says Dennis Shulkins with State Farm Insurance's special investigations unit.
The fraud spike is a bellwether of consumers' economic woes. "Increasingly, people are turning to insurance fraud as a quick bailout for their financial misery, to get out of auto leases they no longer can afford, and to pay off credit card or mortgage debt," says James Quiggle, a spokesman for the Coalition Against Auto Fraud, a trade group.
High anxiety is driving consumers to rash acts that raise immediate suspicion. Dozens of expensive vehicles were left at water's edge in Gulfport, Miss., just hours before Hurricane Gustav hit. Scores of cars reported stolen are turning up ditched in Lake Erie and in western deserts. Crime rings are making hay, burning cars for hire in California and smashing cars to smithereens outside the Las Vegas city limits. A New Jersey school principal pleaded guilty to charges he torched a leased auto that had $9,000 in excess mileage fees.
States and insurance companies are wising up to paper-thin ploys. The surge in suspicious automobile destruction claims has prompted New York to put additional resources into this sort of crime. Through October, the state had won 110 court decisions requiring consumers to give up insurance money and ownership of vehicles determined to have been intentionally torched, stolen or sent to chop shops for disposal. That's up nearly 50% from a year earlier. A helicopter-borne Nevada police task force now prowls the skies to check out suspicious vehicles that are careered into the desert at night to be burned or smashed. Utah, which typically investigates an average of two questionable auto destruction claims a year, already had 30 cases pending by summer's end.
Bogus car destruction and theft claims eventually sock it to all motorists. "Honest policyholders should be outraged at paying additional premiums as a result of people attempting to commit fraud," says Shulkins. There are no national statistics on the total value of auto insurance fraud. However, the average policyholder shells out up to $300 a year in higher premiums to help pay for all types of property and casualty fraud.