Saddled With Debt, Some Decide to Torch Vehicles

By Dan Morse and Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 13, 2008

Burdened by debt and driving home from a night of gambling in West Virginia, Sergio Lopez launched a scheme that at the time must have seemed like a good idea.

He pulled his Volkswagen Jetta up to a random corner in Silver Spring, doused the interior with gasoline, set it on fire and walked away. He later made a claim to Nationwide Insurance. The car was missing, he said -- someone must have stolen it.

Add Lopez, who pleaded guilty in the case this year, to the band of Washington area residents who have torched their cars hoping for a quick insurance check. A Baltimore police officer did it. So did a Baltimore firefighter. A Prince William County resident burned a minivan for a friend.

Investigators estimate that hundreds of such crimes occurred in the Washington area in the past two years, although the exact number is unclear, and experts predict the number will increase because of the worsening economy. Many offenders have fallen behind on payments to car dealerships. This year, more people are behind on such loans than in nearly two decades.

"With what's just happened to the economy in the last week," said Donald Galbreath, a longtime fraud investigator for the insurance industry, "I see the trend will get worse."

Last year, Alexandria residents Yesenia Gomez and her husband, Jose Reyes, fell behind on payments on their 2007 Dodge Caravan. According to prosecutors, a middle school pal of Gomez's, Daybin Rodriguez, told Gomez that he'd burned a car in the past and could do so again.

Gomez decreased the minivan policy's deductible, and a week later the vehicle was found torched in Mason Neck State Park in Lorton, prosecutors said. She and Rodriguez have since entered pleas to destruction of property charges. Charges against Reyes were dropped.

As Gomez described it to detectives, she had to choose "between the house and the car," Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Marc Birnbaum said.

Gomez's attorney, Kimberly Phillips, said Gomez and her husband had tried to return the minivan to the dealership and were desperate. "She just didn't know where to turn," Phillips said.

Data from a limited number of insurance companies show that "potential owner give-ups," most of which involve burned cars, increased from 511 in 2004 to 986 in 2007, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. The sample represents a "small percentage of the reality out there," said Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for the anti-fraud group.

Some investigators and law enforcement officials said they have seen no change in the numbers this year, but others said they suspect that the crime is already increasing.

Duane Svites, a Maryland deputy chief state fire marshal, said "the market is right" for insurance fraud. "A lot of people trying to dig themselves out of a jam," he said.

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