Car Arsons For Insurance Cash On The Rise

Arson investigators say every time the economy flames out, they get busy. Now, amid the worsening recession, new figures show police are facing a rising number of auto arsonists - specifically, people torching their cars for insurance money, as CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann reports.

Outside Las Vegas, the desert's a dumping ground for the red-hot recession insurance scam. In fact, it's detective Mark Menzie's full-time beat.

"This wasn't your typical auto thief who did this," Menzie said as he examined a charred sedan.

So many cars are dumped every day over such a vast area that the Las Vegas Police patrol by daily by helicopter to find them.

In this worsening economy, suspicious car fires have spiked from coast to coast. Car arsons are up in New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, California, South Carolina, Utah, Arkansas and Nevada.

In California, suspected car arsons jumped from 258 in 2005 to 452 in 2008. And in New York, the number of people arrested for setting their own vehicles on fire went from 96 in 2007 to 130 last year.

One weekend alone, Las Vegas police found 10 charred cars.

"It's just gone completely crazy. There's probably not a night where there's not a vehicle burning somewhere in the desert around Las Vegas," Menzie said.

And it's not just junkers. Many are late model cars, some just months off the dealer's lot, all of them lit up by people trying to cash in bogus insurance claims.

Most of these car fires are not set by professional arsonists, but by amateurs: everyday people, caught in a financial bind, suddenly desperate.

John Thompson, an insurance investigator, says real thieves would never leave valuable parts on cars they torch.

But on a recently torched new Chrysler, "The airbag system is still intact, the electronics is still in the vehicle and all the seats," Thompson points out.

To him, that says amateur job.

And surveillance videos show amateurs at work. One guy caught on tape struggles to light his Toyota Tacoma, instead, spotlighting himself for the police to arrest.

Another amateur arsonist fares even worse. Frustrated with the dim flames inside his Cadillac Escalade, he opens a door. A surge of oxygen sparks a fireball - setting him on fire.

Menzie says these are usually people who have never been arrested for anything but are in deep in debt.

In other words, this isn't your career criminal. It's your neighbor. Neighbors desperate enough to roll the dice in a city famous for bad gambles.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.