Driven to desperation, a growing number of financially strapped car owners are torching, sinking or ditching their vehicles and then reporting them stolen to cash in on the insurance.
SUVs have been found ablaze in the Nevada desert, cars have been dumped in a Miami canal and a BMW was discovered buried in a field in Texas. Some vehicles have been parked in the path of a hurricane.
Known as owner give-ups, the scams have increased even as auto thefts dropped nationally — a sign that the deepening recession is pushing the trend.
Authorities say most of the false claims are filed by first-time offenders looking for a quick financial fix with little regard for the consequences.
"We see people doing this kind of crime who ordinarily wouldn't steal candy from a store," said Tom Reilly, a sheriff's investigator in Dallas County, Texas.
James Quiggle, a spokesman for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, blames the problem on people who think "insurance companies are rich and fat and won't miss a few dollars."
Experts say the billions of dollars in insurance losses are actually recouped from honest consumers as premium increases.
When gas prices shot up to $4 a gallon last summer, investigators reported a number of suspicious auto theft claims involving SUVs and other gas guzzlers.
But as gas prices dipped and the economy sputtered, the trend extended to all kinds of models, with losses concentrated in regions hit hard by layoffs, foreclosures and other signs of economic distress.
Two years ago, Las Vegas detectives were looking into two or three cases of suspicious auto theft a week. But in the past 2 1/2 months, they have investigated 83 such cases and made 11 arrests — more than a three-fold increase, said Lt. Bob Duvall, head of the city's Metropolitan Police Department's auto theft unit.
Police helicopters now patrol the desert around Las Vegas in search of smoldering vehicles or others pushed off cliffs.
In one case, investigators came across a man suffering from burns at the home of a woman whose vehicle had been found ablaze. He was arrested and quickly confessed, Duvall said.
The New York Alliance Against Insurance Fraud says the number of people arrested statewide on suspicion of making false auto theft reports jumped from 96 in 2007 to 130 in 2008.
In Dallas County, Reilly estimates suspicious auto theft reports have increased 12 percent this year.
Investigators in border states are finding an increasing number of charred cars with American license plates in Mexico.
Felony charges possible
"It's one thing to find a stolen car in Mexico, it's another to find it stolen and burned in Mexico. It doesn't make a lot of sense for a thief to take your car and burn it," said Tom Downey, an investigator with the National Insurance Crime Bureau based in San Diego.
Such cases can result in felony charges of insurance fraud, making false statements to police and insurance providers, and arson, if the car is burned.
Along with serving prison time, defendants can also be ordered to pay restitution.
Reilly says most of his cases don't make it to trial because suspects strike plea deals. Some even agree to discuss their crimes in videotaped interviews that Reilly uses for educational seminars.
"Some said my back was against the wall, or this looked like a good idea at the time, who can I hurt?" Reilly said.
Brian Moody, senior editor of the Web site Edmunds.com that offers information to car shoppers, says owners trying to lower their debt can attempt to renegotiate payments, sell their car or trade it in for a less expensive model.
"You're not going make money that's for sure, but the big selling point is that it's legal," he said.