DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Severe storms and crowded freeways are just two of the reasons North Texans pay an average of nearly $1,900 a year in annual auto insurance premiums. That’s $400 more than the national average.
Another culprit is fraud.
THE CBS11 I-Team went behind the scenes with Dallas-Fort Worth arson investigators as they learned the latest trends in car fraud fires.
It’s a costly combination: with gas prices, auto interest rates and the expense of car repairs taking off once again, some police and prosecutors predict the number of suspicious car fires will follow.
“We’ve actually seen an increase in those cases recently,” said Kyson Johnson, who prosecutes fraud cases for the Texas Department of Insurance.
The insurance industry calls them owner give-ups, vehicles torched by their owners looking for a quick fix to their financial problems. It’s a crime that impacts all of us.
“Either they are upside down in payments — they can’t afford the vehicle — and so they think getting rid of the vehicle by reporting it stolen and burning it is a way to get out of it,” said Johnson, adding that higher gas prices and mounting mechanical issues can also be a motivator.
GPS and other technology has made it harder for cars to just disappear.
“And they think the only alternative is to completely destroy the vehicle so they’ll burn the car and then report it stolen,” Johnson told CBS11 News.
The culprits — the I-Team discovered — are often first-time offenders you wouldn’t suspect.
A few examples:
§ A young man with financial woes and a BMW he couldn’t afford. “So he left town and hired someone to burn his car for him,” Johnson said. The man, in his 20s, later accepted a plea deal in lieu of going to prison.
§ A North Texas teacher and three of her friends. After a night out drinking, she got into an accident on Central Express and fled the scene. Fearing her teaching career would be destroyed, she called some friends to burn her car. “Four people ended up getting indicted in that case and at least three lost their careers for sure.”
§ A Dallas chiropractor put his license in jeopardy after plotting to have a patient to burn a Mercedes SUV he couldn’t afford. He served two years’ probation for attempted insurance fraud.
Ginger Allen: “It’s hard to believe people would take their own car and burn it?”
Kelly Johnson: “It’s hard for some people, but we see it all the time.”
Kelly Johnson is a private forensics investigator who also volunteers to train firefighters, law enforcement, and prosecutors how to spot signs of arson. We recently found him at the Garland Fire Academy with nearly 50 arson investigators from across North Texas. Johnson demonstrated on donated cars how simple household supplies can be used as accelerants to perpetrate fraud in a matter of minutes.
“Everybody’s insurance rates go up over time when insurance companies have to repeatedly pay claims because of insurance fraud,” Kelly Johnson told CBS11 News.
According to the FBI, non-health related insurance fraud is estimated to be more than $40 billion a year. That means insurance fraud costs the average U.S. family between $400 and $700 in increased premiums.
Automobile owner give ups were on the agenda last summer during a senate committee hearing on insurance fraud. Dennis Jay, executive director of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, encouraged lawmakers to support public awareness campaigns about the widespread impact of false claims.
“So at a time when the acceptance of unethical behavior seems to be increasing across the country, it is important that we have strategies that help to counter some of these trends,” Jay testified.