SUV owners who are faced with rising gas prices have found a new way to get out from under their high car payments — arson.
This trend was spotted by a Southern California arson task force in the summer of 2005 when gas prices spiked. At one point, firefighters responding to a report of a vehicle fire arrived at the Los Angeles River Bed to find two SUVs burning at the same time.
Investigators found the arson-for-hire ring involved a new-car dealership in Cerritos, California. Debt-weary SUV owners contacted the finance manager, hoping to trade in their gas-guzzler for something cheaper. They were then put in touch with an arsonist who told them to leave the keys in the ignition and $300 cash in the glovebox. An arsonist would then take the car to a remote location and set it afire. After the car was torched, the owners would then contact their insurance company and report their vehicle stolen, expecting their debt to be cancelled. Instead, they were investigated for insurance fraud.
A sting operation was arranged and an undercover officer posed as an "upside-down" SUV owner who wanted his vehicle burned. "Upside-down" refers to a loan where more money is owed than the car is worth. The vehicle was left at a predetermined location with cash in the glovebox. However, the would-be arsonist didn't know there was a "dash cam" installed in the car to videotape his actions. When the arsonist removed the money and started to drive away, investigators hit a kill switch and triggered the door locks, trapping him inside. Simultaneously, warrants were served on seven other people involved in the arson ring.