Car arson on rise with gas prices

As gas prices go up, more cars go up in flames.

The spike in fuel prices over the last few years has resulted in an increase in attempted car insurance fraud by fire. Car fires, according to Jeff Broughton, are a "big, big problem."

Broughton, one of two automobile investigators for the Columbus Division of Fire Arson Investigation Unit, admits, "A good way to get rid of a vehicle is to say it’s stolen and set it on fire," an increasingly popular trend in recent years among those that can no longer afford automobile expenses.

"It’s been steadily increasing for two to three years," said Broughton.

Before gas prices climbed several years ago, most car fires proved gang related for quite a while. Now fires seem mainly to be related to insurance fraud, according to Broughton.

In times of sudden peaks in gas prices, most notably the recent climb to nearly $4 per gallon, the fire department sees a correlating jump in the number of bigger vehicles – the "gas guzzlers" – that are set on fire.

Broughton estimates that around 90 percent of all car fires are caused by arsonists.

For this reason, arson investigators, at least those of the Columbus Division of Fire, attempt to maintain an amicable relationship with insurance companies.

"They’re in it for the same reason we are," said Broughton.

Investigators from both sides sometimes exchange tips, looking for tell-tale signs of fraud.

A common point of interest lies in whether the owner fell behind on loan payments, or more conspicuously, missed several loan payments but kept current on insurance payments.

While the punishment for fraudulent insurance claims  and charges of arson can amount to incarceration, it withers in comparison to the dangers facing firefighters and civilians exposed to car fires.

"The biggest risk that we see is that people call in to report a fire, and we don’t know if it’s a fire or not," said Broughton.

"There’s always a possibility of an accident or injury when traveling at high speeds to reach a fire. People’s lives are at stake."

Broughton explained that firefighters also must take caution at the scene for exploding airbags, as well as the shocks on a car which are made to eject sideways.

Broughton says, "Car fires are not the kind of fires that firefighters want to fight."

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