Some desperate Stanislaus County motorists behind on their car payments have turned to torching their Tahoes and burning their Blazers in hopes a payout from their insurer will reap a quick payoff.
Over five years, the number of people suspected of turning to matches and gasoline as a solution to their financial woes has risen 75 percent. Suspected vehicle arson cases in Stanislaus County rose from 12 in 2005 to 21 last year, according to the California Department of Insurance.
Doug Maner, who handles auto insurance fraud for the district attorney's office, said most of the people he prosecutes have no criminal record but find themselves in financial straits. One woman wrote a note of apology to an officer investigating her for setting her car on fire. Some have lost their jobs and can't afford their car payments. Others owe more on a car loan than their vehicle is worth.
"They get in over their heads and they panic," Maner said. "The motive these days is they don't want to make the payments."
It's a trend mirrored statewide.
In September, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner issued a report highlighting a 31 percent increase in suspected vehicle arson fraud from 2007 to 2008. He called the trend "alarming."
The state Department of Insurance receives and examines referrals of suspected fraud cases from insurance companies, law enforcement agencies and consumers.
Statewide, it recorded a 40 percent increase in suspected vehicle arson fraud cases, from 258 in 2005 to 363 last year.
"Many Californians are facing a host of financial challenges in today's economy. But I want to remind everybody that you will only compound your problems if you break the law and commit fraud in search of a quick fix," Poizner warned.
That was the unfortunate lesson for a man besieged by calls from a repossession agency.
Walter Chand claimed to be partying with friends in downtown Modesto when his car was stolen. His Chevy Tahoe turned up aflame in a Ceres orchard that night.
Authorities tracked down cell phone records between Chand and his friends and found incriminating text messages. Also, Chand had his key. It contains a chip without which the car won't start.
Chand was sentenced to four months in county jail.
"It's better to take a $2,000 loss than to have a criminal record," Maner said. "The ramifications ... are very serious."
Those ramifications can range from as little as community service and fines to five years in prison, Maner said.
In addition, those who are convicted often find themselves returning insurance checks or paying restitution to investigating agencies in amounts adding up to tens of thousands of dollars.
Maner said fraud cases are most likely under-reported, because insurance companies and law enforcement don't have the resources to investigate every car fire or disappearance.
"There's a lot of people that get away with it," he said.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.