NOT a good sign of the times
Signs of Stress, Fraud on Roadside
by Douglas Belkin
More Vehicles Burned, Ditched in Apparent Schemes by Owners to Get Insurance Payout
Police detective Mark Menzie drove 55 miles into the desert Sunday to inspect the charred remains of a formerly silver Ford Expedition.
Later, he sat in a kitchen on the city's south side where a 19-year-old man confessed to torching his girlfriend's Chrysler PT Cruiser
At noon Monday, Mr. Menzie was picking through the smashed windshield of a 2008 Land Rover in a desert canyon. His police radio crackled as he worked; another car was spotted burning southwest of the city.
Years of no-money-down car loans followed by sinking home values and rising unemployment has made many people desperate over car payments they can no longer afford. For some, the answer is to ditch the car, report it stolen and collect the insurance money to pay it off without hurting their credit.
Authorities report a growing number of cars dumped in the Great Lakes, burned along remote New Jersey roadsides and driven into canals in California. The phenomenon is acute in Las Vegas, where sharp declines in tourism and construction have left thousands of workers unemployed and broke.
Mr. Menzie, a burly 38-year-old detective wearing jeans, dusty work boots and a two-day stubble, toted up a day's work. Four cars burned or wrecked in 24 hours: "Insurance fraud," he concluded. "Lots of desperate people out there."
As a member of the Las Vegas department's auto-theft unit, Mr. Menzie is on the front lines of a phenomenon that police departments and insurance companies worry could be burning out of control.
"The economy is stretching people to the breaking point and some of them are willing to risk criminal conviction," said James Quiggle, a spokesman for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, an industry-backed group. "They look at this as their own personal stimulus package."
Tow yards in Las Vegas are filled with the blackened hulls of Mercedes sedans and Cadillac Escalades. The wrecks were pulled from desert hills and city streets by the department's eight-member auto-theft unit, which responds to calls around the clock. Over one weekend this month, Mr. Menzie investigated eight car fires in 36 hours.
"This is a money town," says Lt. Robert Duvall, who reorganized the auto-theft unit to include insurance arson fraud. "Where else can you lose a paycheck in a night?"
The cops hunt suspected arsonists by SUV and helicopter, trying to identify registered owners as quickly as possible. "We see people with singed eyebrows and hands," said Sgt. Will Hutchings, Mr. Menzie's boss. "Some of them still smell like gas."
The trend began to surface in 2007 when gas prices spiked and the number of auto arson claims jumped. In 2008 claims climbed nationally by 6%, said Dick Luedke, a spokesman for State Farm Insurance. In hotspots like Indiana, Michigan and New York the numbers rose 13% to 18%.
Traditionally, such insurance fraud rarely leads to arrests, falling through the cracks between police and fire department jurisdictions. After Las Vegas became the nation's leader in auto theft in 2006, Lt. Duvall decided to tackle the problem more aggressively.
Each year, more then 20,000 cars are stolen in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas; nearly 100 a week are believed to be fraud-related. Detectives say the stolen Hondas and Toyotas are usually sold for parts; some are shipped to Mexico. Other vehicles -- pricey Mercedes and Lexus models, among them -- are driven to the desert and set on fire for insurance claims. If the owner doesn't want to strike a match, the going rate to hire someone else is $500, Mr. Menzie said.
In 2007 police helicopters began scouring the desert looking for plumes of smoke belonging to stolen and abandoned cars. Last year they spotted 398 of them. Pilots call in the location of the wrecks and police rush to the scene in the hopes locating the owners as soon as possible.
"No matter how meticulously you plan something like this, you're going to be unsettled for a little while," Mr. Hutchings said of culprits. "The less time that's gone by, the better for us."
Circling the abandoned Land Rover on Monday, Messrs. Menzie and Hutchings groused about the waste. The windows were shattered and front-end looked wrecked. A piece of paper on the front seat bore the Irish blessing, "May the road rise up to meet you."
The night before, Mr. Menzie had caught up with the teenager who had burned his girlfriend's PT Cruiser -- at her request, he told police. The boy was suffering from second-degree burns on his face and hands.
Mr. Menzie said getting the confession was easy: "I think he was in too much pain to try and make anything up."
"I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend, if you have one
- George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill.
"Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second ... if there is one
- Winston Churchill, in response.